The honorable chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel shook the world of kosher food recently when he announced that the hydroponic lettuce and other greens that are grown to avoid infestation are hazardous to the public’s health and wallet and should be avoided. People should return to the way we used to do things, eating regular greens while checking them for bugs, he instructed. This call for normalcy was a breath of fresh air; it is not often in this day and age that rabbis tell us we can be more lenient.
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To be sure, eating a bug, worm, or caterpillar, whether you know it is there or not, is no less severe than eating pork. While the average person may shrug and mark it down as a bonus dose of protein, those of us who keep kosher should relate to it the way an allergic individual would a peanut. And here is a news flash, bugs are natural, everywhere, and they like to cling to their homes and food. Often they like to hide, and they are very good at it, those crafty critters. We all know what’s worse than finding a worm in an apple.
But my question is when did a serious halakhic concern turn into an obsession? Today there are institutes and laboratories dedicated to investigating this halakhic specialty, and the halakhah section in the bookstore offers encyclopedic tomes with amazing photographs and detailed instructions for checking. Certain fruits and vegetables have been deemed unfit for consumption, hopelessly doomed by infestations, real or imaginary, that are hard to identify and clean. Woe to those of us who love cauliflower or strawberries.
Like all Israeli parents, in our family we have an annual seasonal battle with another type of infestation: lice. Most American olim are horrified to discover the dimensions of this problem here, and lay theories abound whether it is lower hygienic standards or a regional entomological thing that makes the difference between Israel and the United States. Blessedly the pests do not like my scalp, and I have learnt that when my own head starts itching while combing my kids' hair, it is all in my head (so to speak). Weird that the effect never stops, as a matter of fact just writing these lines is bringing it on.
In 2006 a flaky self-help book called "The Secret" taught that there is a thing called the Law of Attraction and that positive thinking will manifest in reality - imagine the diamonds and they will come. Millions of people have read this book, and are convinced that they can show empirical evidence that this is fact. Might the obsession with bugs in the Torah world be a perverse example of this process in reverse? The bugs are there, I have no doubt, but how much of the amplification is in our head?
And let me propose my own flaky theory. I believe in God, and believe in his/her involvement in our lives. We live in a responsive world. In my theory there is no Law of Attraction, there is a God with a sense of poetry, humor and irony. This God partners with us in creating a world, drawing on our vision, sometimes, when he/she feels like it, serving up the world we imagine. If you want bugs so badly you are going to obsessively look for them until you find them, well then here they are, enjoy!
We had Shabbat lunch last week with friends who related the following two stories. The husband told of his work as a waiter in a fine dining establishment in New York. “They would seriously check for bugs, and in this place it had nothing to do with kashrut.” He described the soaking of the lettuce and the leaf by leaf examination under a strong light. Ha, so it’s not just us. Then his wife shared a profound shift in her experience checking for bugs in grains: “It used to be that when I would find a bug I would throw the whole bag out, and not ever buy that product again. I would see how small they are and how hard it is to find them, and assume the worst. But now I make the effort to clean it and hope that my efforts will be supported from above. Recently I finished checking something, but before using it had to deal with the baby waking up. Upon first glance when I returned I saw a missed worm had emerged. In the past I would have said' forget it, there is no way to know it’s clean.' But now I say simply, 'Thank you God, you are taking care of me.'”
So I say there are a few levels here. On the level of science, the bugs are there; look carefully, clean, eat. On the level of psychology I truly believe we are looking at an obsessive compulsive disorder on a societal scale; time for some therapy. On a spiritual level, I am laughing with God, and choosing to live in word of care and trust. Thank you God, you are taking care of me.
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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