We are familiar with the notion of eating for health and nutrition, or eating for comfort and reward, but is it possible to “eat for character”? It could fall under the general umbrella of kashrut, the Jewish tradition of designating certain foods as “fit to eat.” Biblical kashrut gives us lists of animals that are forbidden to be consumed, a few guidelines as to how food should be prepared and an important statement that while we should eat and be satisfied, we must also give thanks for the bounty and all that we enjoy from this world.
There are few explicit reasons given in the Torah for the details of these commandments, but commentators have linked the guidelines of what we put in our mouths to who we become and how humans are meant to strive for an elevated state of mindful, sacred existence (kedushah).
What if we add another interpretation of kashrut as eating ethically? If we extend our mindfulness not just to what we eat, but also to when, where, how and how much we eat, can this exercise add to our humanity, to the character of our being?
Over 25 years ago, Arthur Waskow and the founders of Renewal Judaism coined the term “eco-kashrut,” referring to the emerging movement to extend the kashrut system to address modern environmental, social and ethical issues and promote sustainability. While many looked at this movement as an act of tikkun olam, working to perfect the world, one may also see mindful eating as an act of tikkun atzmi, working to perfect one’s character.
A global event this September 22 may provide a framework for using food as a way to enhance our personal behavior and improve our character. Created in 2014 by Tiffany Shlain, the co-founder of the nonprofit Let it Ripple and the co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, Character Day was a platform to launch a global premier of the short film The Science of Character, which explores the social science and neuroscience behind character development. Shlain and Let it Ripple then invited schools and organizations around the world to premier the film and discuss its ideas about character development all on the same day via a simultaneous online video conversation.
Character Day is now an annual global initiative where groups around the world screen films on the science of character, join an online conversation about the importance of developing character strengths (resilience, grit, empathy, courage, kindness) and use free printed discussion materials to honestly confront the questions of who we are and who we want to be in the world.
The research on the universal building blocks of good character, was developed further to help define how to become a mensch, and to evolve into a caring, responsible citizen of a family and a community, and to be successful in relationships and at work. These values were arranged in categories and in a chart mimicking the periodic chart of the elements.
In the Hebrew month of Elul we traditionally take time to reassess who we are and who we want to be as the High Holidays approach. A large part of holiday celebrations revolve around food, symbolic items and family gatherings. Use any of the Character Day (which kicks off on September 22, but should be used to motivate our refined behavior all year long) or JFE® resources to formulate your eating ethic and add to your kedushat chayim (sacred living).