Kashrut--What Does Kosher Really Mean?
Rabbi David Lerner’s remarks at the annual Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association Interfaith Service: THANKSGIVING 2010-11-23
Good evening and Happy Thanksgiving.
First, I want to thank Lucinda Duncan for her many years of service to this community and to the town of Lexington. She is retiring this coming year and she has been a wonderful friend, pastor and teacher to me and to so many of you. She has helped build the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association and help us be the inclusive, cooperative and supportive group that we are. Let’s all rise and show our appreciation of Lucinda.
Now, she did ask me to speak about kosher.
So, here goes.
Many people think kosher food is blessed by a rabbi; it is not.
Kosher food means it’s kosher – it follows the laws of keeping kosher, articulating in the Torah (mostly in the book of Leviticus) as they have been interpreted for thousands of years.
Basic rules – certain animals, fish, and birds are kosher; the rest are not. Animals and birds must be killed in a manner that minimizes pain to the animal and understands the significance of taking the life of animal. There is no mixing of meat and milk – meaning something that was once alive is different and more important than something that sustains life. All fruits and vegetables and grains are kosher. Kosher food is supervised to ensure that nothing that is not kosher gets in the food.
The rest is commentary; go and eat!
Wait, there is something else – kosher is evolving to include new ideas like organic produce, pastured meats, environmental impact and worker’s rights.
In fact, the centrist movement in American Judaism: Conservative Judaism, which is where my rabbinic training is from – is starting the Magen Tzedek – the Shield of Justice which will appear on products beginning in 2011 and will guarantee that these other standards are met.
But like many of us, we are disconnected from what we eat.
How many of you who eat meat have seen the slaughtering of an animal?
Until this summer, I had never been to an actual shehitah – Jewish ritual slaughtering. My rabbinical school covered many areas, but that old-fashioned knowledge was not in the curriculum.
So last June, I joined a group at a farm outside of Worcester to see chickens being kosher slaughtered and to help process them.
My thinking was that if I could not handle it, I would become a vegetarian.
It was intense experience watching shehitah and it certainly was not pleasant.
Naftali, our shohet, explained the process – these were not regular chickens, but pasture-fed free-range chickens (apparently, many free-range chickens never actually venture outside) who had not been pumped with antibiotics, or growth hormones. They were treated well for chickens despite their unnaturally shortened lives.
The day began with a blessing –– Praised are you Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with mitzvot and commanded us about ritual slaughtering.
This set a tone to our work; it was holy.
I stood next to the shohet as Dave, the farmer who raised the chicken, held it and Naftali took his knife and killed the bird in one swift, short stroke.
It was intense, but it forced us out of a dis-associative state that tricks us into thinking that our meat magically appears on store shelves.
If we are to eat animals, I think watching the process should be a prerequisite.
Naftali handed me the dead bird, still warm, which I then plucked – it was hard work. Normally, chicken feathers are machine plucked. In a strange way, I became close to this recently deceased bird, which, after some 45 minutes, was eviscerated by someone else before being soaked and salted to drain the rest of the blood – steps in the kashering process.
I bought some of these chickens to take home. Because of the way these chickens were raised, the diverse free-range diet they were fed, the minimal processing, and the freshness, we roasted the tastiest chicken I had ever eaten.
It was also strangely the most connected I ever felt to something I ate – it was like picking fresh fruit and eating it. I had been with this chicken on its journey from life to death, becoming kosher, being cleaned and cooked. I saw this chicken all along and understood the significance of what I was eating.
* * *
Not only did I learn a lot that day, but this meat was more expensive, discouraging us from eating too much of it or wasting it. It also reminded me of several key Jewish values: we treated the animals as well as we could, given that we were taking their lives. We were the workers, so there were no labor issues (except the hard work). Dave also works hard to mitigate his farm’s impact on the environment. Finally, since we simply took the chickens home, there was clear transparency, corporate integrity and the consumer was well protected.
* * *
We have been buying these chickens regularly and I have a turkey in my fridge right now from a similar process. We have held a hands-on learning session in our synagogue.
A final vignette that sums up the Jewish way of kashrut takes me back to the farm. After hours of plucking chickens, we were sweaty, hot and tired.
But before we could leave, we had one more vital ritual, one that I had never seen, in fact rarely heard of, even though it is mentioned in Leviticus (17:13-14).
It was the covering of the blood.
Naftali took sawdust and wood chips and sprinkled them over the floor where some of the blood had spilled and recited a brakhah, a blessing –– Praised are you Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with mitzvot and commanded us about the covering of the blood. Just as we opened the shehitah with a brakhah, we closed it in the same manner.
It was a solemn moment – reminding all of us of what we had done, we had taken the lives of these animals, and that was not to be taken lightly. As we drove home, I thought about the power of that ritual, of the sanctity of all life and how Judaism has always pushed Jews through the commandments, especially through kashrut, to move toward holiness.
It is clear to me that the laws of keeping kosher as well as the blessings that Jews recite before and after eating – help us elevate the animalistic act of eating to something that can be more holy.