Parasha Shemini: The bitter taste of forbidden fruit

Sigmund Freud, in his 'Civilization and its Discontents,' maintains that when it comes to rationalization and self-justification, every human being is a genius.

parsha shemini 88 (photo credit: )
parsha shemini 88
(photo credit: )
"Speak to the children of Israel saying, 'These are the creatures which you may eat from all of the animals upon the earth: any animal that has split hoofs with clefts through the hoofs and that chews its cud - such you may eat.'" (Leviticus 11:2,3) The two main subjects dealt with in this week's Torah portion of Shemini appear totally far removed one from the other: we first read of the tragic death of the two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, on the eighth day of the consecration of the Sanctuary and we then read all of the details of the laws of kashrut, with detailed lists of animals, fowl and fish which are forbidden. It seems to me, however, that there is a powerful connection between these two issues as well as a crucial message, especially in this age of post-modernism. Let us begin with kashrut. The Bible itself concludes its food prohibitions by declaring the following rationale: "Because I am the Lord your God and you shall sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy because I am holy" (Leviticus 11:44). Most of our commentaries define holiness as the ability to separate oneself from one's physical instincts and drives, an inner discipline which enables the individual to be above the physical and to come closer to the spiritual. However, the roots of kashrut express an even deeper idea and ideal. The introduction to the Five Books of Moses is the story of the Garden of Eden and the very first sin of Adam and Eve. The transgression of the first two human beings was a kashrut transgression. The Almighty commanded Adam, "From every tree of the garden you are free to eat, but as for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat of it" (Genesis 2:16,17). Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit and were banished from the Garden of Eden. But what made the fruit forbidden? After all, the Bible itself testifies that the fruit was "good for food" which probably meant low in calories and devoid of cholesterol, "a delight to the eyes" which suggests a beautiful color and an appealing texture, and "desirable as a source for wisdom" (Genesis 3:6) which testifies that it activated the brain cells. So if the fruit was so desirable, why was it prohibited? Strangely enough, it is the serpent who explains the reason : "Because God knows that on the day that you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing what is good and what is evil" (Genesis 3:5). The serpent, symbolizing the force of evil within the world, is expressing the fundamental struggle which takes place within the breast of every individual: Who decides what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong? Is it the subjective individual or is it a more objective outside system or Being whom we call God? What God is setting down at the very dawn of creation is the fundamental axiom of a religious lifestyle: the final arbiter in the realm of good and evil must be the Divine Will rather than the individual desire. The forbidden fruit is evil because God calls it evil. The ultimate source of morality must be a system which is higher than any single individual. Many years ago I was told by a woman congregant - whose husband had been considered a pillar of the congregation and whose children were all studying in Jewish day schools - that her husband had established a second residence with another woman several miles away with whom he had even fathered a child. When I confronted the husband, he didn't even bat an eye. He confirmed the facts of the case, but insisted that he was acting out of the highest standards of morality. The only way he could continue his marriage to his wife - who he insisted could not live if she were a divorcee - was if he simultaneously received satisfaction from this other woman. Moreover, he said that he had rescued this "second wife" from committing suicide by establishing a residence with her. Not only did he not consider his act of adultery a transgression, but he also truly believed that he had saved two women's lives by having this extramarital relationship. He didn't convince me, but he had undoubtedly convinced himself. Sigmund Freud, in his Civilization and its Discontents, maintains that when it comes to rationalization and self-justification, every human being is a genius. We can always find perfectly cogent reasons for justifying in ourselves acts that we would readily condemn in others. It is for this reason that the subjective individual can never be the ultimate arbiter as to what is proper and what is improper. The "forbidden fruit" introduction to the rest of the Bible established the axiom that it must be the objective God - and not the subjective human - who determines what is good and what is evil. Kashrut - a system of permissible and forbidden foods and food preparation - is a paradigm for our deference to God in the realm of morality . Hence, despite the fact that post-modernism questions any absolute position, our Ten Commandments are not merely options. "Thou shalt not murder" teaches that there is no possible justification for taking the life of an innocent human being! Religious commitment demands humility. The individual is required to bend his knee before a higher Divine power. This humility is required not only in terms of our ethical and ritual lives, but also in terms of our ability to accept tragedies which can seem to us absurd or illogical. So we return to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu with which the Torah portion begins. Aaron the High Priest stood at the zenith of success with the consecration of the Sanctuary in the desert; his two sons performed a religious act which expressed their profound appreciation of the Divine. But, only because it was unsolicited, the offering was rejected "And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them" (Leviticus 10:3,4 and Rashi ad loc). The Bible records Aaron's response very simply: "And Aaron was silent." From Moses, we learn that when one individual acts unjustly towards another, we must speak out and act. But when a tragedy occurs which is not of human origin - and when a Divine law insists upon human discipline - we must submit to the ultimate will of God . And while at times His actions may be beyond our subjective understanding, our Bible guarantees that He is ultimately "A God of compassion and loving kindness. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.