Noah Lawrence
Noah Lawrence
Knesset and Senate alum, now final-year rabbinical student

How the cicadas give spiritual guidance for Jewish choice through knowledge

A Brood X cicada in New Jersey, during their last emergence in 2004. (Wikipedia)
A Brood X cicada in New Jersey, during their last emergence in 2004. (Wikipedia)

As we bid farewell to the 2021 season of cicadas in eastern America, one might not think these winged, red-eyed bugs would reveal much about the future of Jewish spirituality. But in the words of the Rambam, “Accept the truth from whatever source it comes.” Spiritual replenishment and mindfulness have long been in short supply in our distracted, dyspeptic 21st century, and sometimes a solution can come from the unlikeliest place.

One of the surprises with this year’s emergence of Brood X cicadas — returning on their once-per-17-years cycle, dotting sidewalks with shed skins while ambiently buzzing like an insect construction project — has been the trend of eating them. Restaurants have served them. Cicada recipes abound on the Internet, offering ways to catch cicadas yourself and cook them up. 

In light of this trend, a friend asked me recently: Are cicadas kosher? 

The question has an Israeli cousin: What about the locusts in Israel — active as recently as this past April and May, and particularly memorable from the Israeli locust outbreak of 2013, which saw numerous Israelis eating these unwanted yet edible guests? 

An answer begins with the Torah’s criterion, “All winged swarming things that go upon all fours are a detestable thing unto you” (Vayikra • Leviticus 11:20); “And all winged swarming things are unclean unto you; they shall not be eaten” (Devarim • Deuteronomy 14:19). 

But the Torah makes an exception: “Yet these may you eat of all winged swarming things that go upon all fours: those that have jointed legs above their feet, to leap upon the earth … the locust after its kinds, and the bald locust after its kinds, and the cricket after its kinds, and the grasshopper after its kinds” (Vayikra • Leviticus 11:21-22).

What should we make of these verses in our cases? 

By the methodology of literal law and logic, as in Orthodox halachah, the question would be which animals fit these exceptions. The general position is that cicadas cannot qualify for an exception, but the locusts in Israel can (though some restrict that exception only to communities with a tradition of eating locusts, like Yemenite Jews). 

“There are kosher insects, but they’re all species of grasshoppers and locusts. There are no kosher cicadas,” Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, said recently. “I find it gross, but I let my kids eat locusts.” 

The case is less straightforward by the methodology of choice through knowledge — a celebrated pillar of Reform Judaism, and a way of describing a key approach among the majority of current-day Jews who are either Reform, spiritual but not religious, traditional but not Orthodox, cultural Jews, secular, or simply unaffiliated.

In that sense, the question of cicadas and locusts sheds light not only on ways to keep kosher, but on the specifics of how choice through knowledge works, and what makes it meaningful. 

The case also exemplifies the fact that choice through knowledge is not an outcome, but a methodology, and as such, it can produce outcomes either le-kulah, more leniently, or le-chumrah, more stringently, than the methodology of literal law and logic of Orthodox halachah.

Thousands of locusts seen in Halutza in southern Israel on May 15, 2013 (Times of Israel file photo; Dror Garti/Flash90)

***

We find classic, crystallized descriptions of choice through knowledge in core Reform documents of the second half of the 20th century. The Central Conference of American Rabbis’ 1976 platform, Reform Judaism: A Centenary Perspective, adopted in San Francisco, epitomized the method thus (emphases added): “Within each area of Jewish observance Reform Jews are called upon to confront the claims of Jewish tradition, however differently perceived, and to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge.” 

The next platform, the 1999 Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, adopted in Pittsburgh, furthered this approach: “This ‘Statement of Principles’ … invites all Reform Jews to engage in a dialogue with the sources of our tradition, responding out of our knowledge, our experience and our faith.”

These canonical evocations lay out the fundamentals of choice through knowledge. We engage with “the sources of our tradition.” We respond out of both “commitment and knowledge” of our sources and the “autonomy” and “experience” of who we are. We thus take part in a “dialogue” with our tradition, listening for it to speak to us and responding in turn. And as we do, we “choos[e],” and indeed “creat[e],” the actions and the experiences of our Jewish lives.

Implicit in these platforms is the bedrock idea that each of us is unique, and so the way these sources speak to each of us and call on each of us will be unique. This sense of each person’s unique essence goes back millennia in Judaism — as in the Talmud’s classic principle, “For human beings stamp many coins with one seal, and they are all the same as each other — yet the Sovereign of Sovereigns, the Blessed Holy One, has stamped each human being with the seal of the first human being, but not one of them is the same as any other” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). 

More recently, the celebrated Reform rabbi Eugene Borowitz (1924-2016) of New York gave this idea poetic evocation in a 1999 essay on the first of the Ten Commandments: “[With] the singular ‘thy’ … You ask me, Adonai, by addressing me personally, to fulfill the common duty of all-Israel as just the me I am.”

In choice through knowledge, we thus find a whole conception of what we do in Judaism and why we do it. Judaism teaches that each act we do or don’t do has the potential to craft an entire experience, and to spark a distinctive state of mind within us. These experiences and states of mind can be sublime, elevating, and suffused with holiness. Through these experiences and states of mind, we can encounter God’s spirit. Since we are not all identical, it will not be identical actions that do so for all of us. The methodology of choice through knowledge equips us to listen for which actions speak to each of us, “as just the me I am,” and to choose them accordingly.

***

To apply this methodology to our case of American cicadas and Israeli locusts, let us start with “the sources of our tradition.” Why does the Torah include the call not to eat “winged swarming things”? 

This question reveals an even more fundamental question: Why does the Torah sound the call of keeping kosher?

An answer might begin with kashrut as one part of the holistic Jewish vision of all the ways in life “…to distinguish between the holy and the ordinary, and between the unclean and the clean” (Vayikra • Leviticus 10:10). This mindful distinguishing is an on-ramp to the experiences and states of mind of Jewish spirituality. Through mindful distinguishing, through choosing specific actions and experiences to immerse in and winnowing out others, we can seek God’s presence in this world, according to what that means for each one of us.

For example, Shabbat, as distinct from the regular week, entails mindful distinguishing of time. And indeed, the quotation above, “to distinguish [l’havdil] between the holy and the ordinary,” appears near-verbatim in Havdalah (its name derived from l’havdil, i.e. “distinguishing” or “separating”).

What Shabbat does for time, kashrut does for food. The cases are different in some ways (whereas Shabbat distinguishes sacred time from ordinary time but both are important, kashrut entails food to avoid altogether), but at the heart of kashrut lies Jewish mindful distinguishing, applied to eating as a core part of going through life. 

This approach can speak to a person in more concrete ways, in more metaphorical ways, or in both together. Kashrut offers the idea that even small bodily decisions can bear a divine spiritual purpose. We can orient even how we eat toward entering the realm of the holy. We can dedicate it to the service of and devotion to God, the One beyond us all. And in doing so with kavanah intentionality, or, more loosely translated, mindfulness — we can sense the presence of God’s spirit. 

Then there is the classic Chasidic tale in which, disguised as a pauper, Elijah the Prophet delivers this insight-cum-punchline to a roomful of pious diners: “you make a big to-do about what you put into your mouths being clean, but you don’t worry half as much about the purity of what comes out of your mouths!” (per Martin Buber’s version in Tales of the Hasidim). 

In this sense, kashrut epitomizes the great Jewish project of how to treat each other sacredly, with love, justice, and honesty, and not the profanity of their opposites. Kashrut represents a call to this enterprise each time we eat.

Other kinds of meaning in kashrut include its connections to animal ethics (no less a figure than Rav Kook emphasized this point), and the idea that restrictions on what we eat suggest that we never truly own our food outright, so each person has the same right to it as any other, and we must share it equitably (late in the Torah when Moses sums up kashrut, he emphasizes support for the needy in the same parashah).

Next in the steps of choice through knowledge, having considered “the sources of our tradition,” let us turn to our “experience” and “autonomy.” Here, a key question is whether one finds that the practice speaks to them. If one knows from prior experience that it speaks to them to make concrete distinctions about what one does and does not eat — based on any or all of the meanings discussed above — one can apply that to this case. If one does not yet have a sense either way, there is something to be said for trying out the process of mindfully making these concrete distinctions, to see how it feels, like trying on clothes to really see if they fit.

Ultimately, if one finds that making these concrete distinctions, or at least making them among new and unusual foods, speaks to one less, then one may choose to eat both cicadas and locusts. If, however, one finds that making these concrete distinctions in eating does speak to them — if it ushers one into this spiritual experience of mindful distinguishing, and seeking and sensing God’s presence in this world — then one may choose to eat neither cicadas nor locusts. One may make the choice to abstain from eating all “winged swarming things,” on the grounds that doing so is a way to eat sacredly, and that this decision should be applied to all such bugs.

This latter choice through knowledge comes out more stringently than the Orthodox-halachic position that prohibits eating cicadas but permits eating locusts — as locusts are a specific kind of “winged swarming things” that also have “jointed legs above their feet, to leap upon the earth” (per the Torah verse). One might decide that even though one can make an exception for a certain kind of “winged swarming things,” one should not make an exception, because it drags one back down into the experience of the unholy, the kind of experience that kashrut is supposed to set aside.

This notion is already present in the Torah verses themselves. Their very writing style, with phrases and images like “winged swarming [sheretz] things,” exhibits the primal sense that these bugs may not be the kind of thing one is looking to eat. The verses offer us permission for a subset of such bugs, but that does not mean we are obliged to use it.

This choice through knowledge, of eating neither cicadas nor locusts, was my recommended choice to the person who asked me. By refraining from both, we have the opportunity not only to avoid eating something “gross,” in Rabbi Zivotofsky’s dugri (blunt) description, but to do so mindfully with the purpose “to distinguish between the holy and the ordinary and between the unclean and the clean” — and thus, to seek, to serve, and to celebrate the presence of God among us.

***

In our age, one of distractions, anxieties, and burnout even before the pandemic, this method of spirituality presents a crucial remedy for our afflictions. It has never been more crucial than right now.

COVID-19 has brutally overturned so many of our status quos, and left us in deep need of “the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit,” in Debbie Friedman’s classic words. Now, as we emerge from the pandemic’s darkest, most immediate period, we do so with a strange combination of lingering, profound loss, and, at the same time, an unusual opportunity: the opportunity to decide how to rebuild our status quos anew.

Choice through knowledge offers us a guiding vision for how to do so. Like Jacob’s ladder, choice through knowledge reaches us here on the ground, each of us where we are as we are, and leads us upward into experiences and states of mind that reach the heavens. The opportunities to do so are as manifest and varied as human life itself: from kashrut to Shabbat, from time in the sukkah to Torah study in all its forms, and onward.

For all who seek, this new era — and on some level, each new day in any era — will be replete with new opportunities to find this kind of Jewish spirituality. Nothing is too small to be a part of it. Not even cicadas.

About the Author
Noah Lawrence writes on Jewish legal and religious ethics and Jewish spirituality. He has worked at the Knesset, the US Senate and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, and he is now a rising final-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and the rabbinic intern at Congregation Kol Ami of Westchester, NY. The opinions herein are his own. Follow him @noahlawr on Twitter.
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