In Parshat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:28-16:18), God says, “These are the laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land that the Lord, God of your fathers, is giving you to possess, as long as you live on earth.” I’d like to head immediately to the meatier parts of this parsha, the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher). In Re’eh we find some food for thought.
What can we eat? According to the parsha: Cattle, sheep, gazelle, deer, ox, goat, roebuck, ibex, antelope, all with hoofs which are cleft in two and which chew their cud. Forbidden are: camel, hare, daman (also called hyrax, rock rabbit or dassie) and of course, and I’ll try not to ham it up here, swine. As for seafood, it’s OK if has fins and scales, otherwise no. As for fowl, no birds of prey, no eagle, vulture, kite, falcon, buzzard, raven, ostrich, nighthawk, sea gull, owl, pelican, bustard, cormorant, stork, heron, hoopoe or bat. Also, animals are to be ritually slaughtered; we don’t eat anything that has died a natural death. Never, ever do we partake of the blood, which symbolizes life.
And, of course, as God commands, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. I’m assuming most of you know variations of the following joke: God says, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Moses responds, “OK, so we have to have two sets of dishes.” God says, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Moses replies, “So we have to wait six hours between eating meat and dairy.” God says, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Moses says, “So someday when dishwashers are invented you don’t mix meat and milk dishes when you wash them, and if you really want to show your kashrut creds, you run an empty cycle between the two.” God responds, “OK, have it your way.”
Kashrut is one of the least understood aspects of Judaism. An excellent short book on the subject is The Jewish Dietary Laws by Rabbi Samuel Dresner. Dresner acknowledges what he calls “the lack of a satisfying modern formulation of the meaning and relevance” of kashrut. He says that kashrut, “is more misunderstood than understood.”
In our culture we seem to understand the motivations of vegetarians and vegans, and those on paleo-diets, and respect their choices, while it’s not always the same for those who keep kosher.
Some believe that kosher food is healthier than non-kosher. Chicken fat anyone? It is a common misconception that kashrut is an ancient health measure no long needed because of modern methods of slaughtering, government inspection, and legal guidelines for sanitary food preparation. However, when God tells us what we can and cannot eat He follows these instructions with commands for us to be holy. In fact, there are many references to holiness, but there are no references to health. Don Isaac Abarvanel, the 15th-century statesman and Bible scholar, said, “God forbid that I should believe that the reasons for forbidden foods are medicinal! For were it so, the Books of God’s Law would be in the same class as…medical books…Furthermore, our own eyes see that the people who eat pork and insects and such…are well and alive and healthy…All of which points to the conclusion that the Law of God did not come to heal bodies and seek their material welfare, but to seek the health of the soul.”
Which leads us to the idea of hallowing, of making the everyday holy. Referring to basic human drives such as hunger, sex and material gain, Dresner notes that Paganism glorifies them, aspects of Christianity attempt to subjugate them, while Judaism seeks to hallow them. Judaism teaches that nature is neither holy nor unholy but is waiting to be made holy and thereby, in Dresner’s words, “sublimates the natural desires of man through a system of mitzvot, to serve God…our world is neither to be defied nor vilified, glorified nor subjugated, worshipped nor despised. It is to be hallowed,” to be made holy.
We achieve holiness and serve God not only at shul or on Shabbat and holidays, but in our acts and words in all aspects of our lives — how we speak to our spouse and children, treat animals, care for the widowed and orphaned, how we do business. “We hallow the everyday by performing all deeds in a way that they become a means of serving God,” says Dresner, “The duty of Jews is to lift up all of life to God, to hallow the everyday, so that all of life becomes holy.” Through kashrut we hallow the act of eating.
As far as eating meat, our tradition considers this to be a compromise, in Dresner’s words, “a divine concession to human weakness and human needs.” We are to be aware that a life was taken to provide our steak and burgers. This is why kashrut includes humane slaughtering, by a shochet steeped in Torah.
Other scholars point out that the dietary laws also connect us with Jews throughout time and throughout space, that is, throughout the world, that it creates a distinctively Jewish environment and strengthens our Jewish identity. There are few things that make me feel part of a welcoming community as much as Shabbat and holiday dinners with family and friends. And as Rabbi Harold Kushner recently pointed out, kashrut also instills discipline — if we can say no to eating certain foods, we can say no to problematic behaviors.
Philosopher Martin Buber said that Judaism teaches us to overcome the fundamental separation between the holy and the profane, pointing out that many everyday actions are introduced by a blessing. We make brochot on awakening, dwelling in a new home, surviving an illness or danger, seeing a rainbow, hearing good news, hearing bad news, seeing a head of state, experiencing the wonders of nature. And of course there are many brochot related to eating — before and after — before baking challah, before eating bread and matzah, plus different prayers for different foods, including fruits and foods made from wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt, and of course before drinking wine. I think there should be a brocha over coffee, even decaf. You can recite up to 100 blessings a day if you want to enter the Mitzvah Hall of Fame. To bless is to bring holiness to the everyday. And that, for the most part, despite laws which can sound weird and arbitrary, is what kashrut is all about.
All of this begs the question: do I feel hallowed and uplifted every day by virtue of keeping kosher? No. Getting down to the day-to-day nitty gritty of kashrut, the expense, the multiple sets of dishes, Passover, and the need to shlep to get kosher meat, yes it can be a pain. There are days when I have a sink full of milchigs (dairy dishes), but first have to run the fleishigs (meat dishes) through the dishwasher because, as Moses decreed, we do not mix milk and meat in our dishwasher. I think we need the words of Buber, of Abravanel and the commentaries of scholars like Dresner and James Lebeau, who wrote another excellent book on the subject, The Jewish Dietary Laws: Sanctify Life. They remind us, in modern words, that there’s a reason we do this. In fact, without such reminders, kashrut can become rote and aggravating. Did I mention Passover?
So, for those who know me well and the cat who owns me, I offer the following: Eat, drink and be Murray*! For all of us I’ll end with the wise words of Ecclesiastes: “Eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God.”
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