So this week I spoke on food for an interfaith group and sex for a Jewish Adult Ed Class. It was fun. I love teaching Torah, I love thinking about it. So here are some of those thoughts laid out.
This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, discusses, among other things the laws of Kashrut, keeping Kosher. This is one of several times in the Torah what we eat as a people is laid out for us. Certain animals are allowed, others forbidden. Certain parts are allowed and of course the prohibition against the eating of blood. All this led the Rabbis of the first few centuries of the Common Era to come up with a wide ranging system of eating that currently includes kosher homes having separate dishes for meals that include milk and those that include meat, a seemingly endless number of official organizations to deem food acceptable, each with their own mark and of course, the endless conversations about which of those organizations gets it right enough.
But for many modern Jews, keeping kosher has lost meaning for them. Their theology doesn’t include a God who lays out laws to be simply followed. Others see this as a system designed to keep us apart from our neighbors, something that is no longer a value for many. Even more so, not eating certain foods, as a rule, does not make some people feel more Jewish, in fact it makes Judaism feel less comfortable. So I am often asked why I keep kosher if I don’t do it because of the simple fact that “God said so”.
It is funny; keeping kosher is one of the pillars of what makes me feel Jewish. The way I see it, food is an essential part of life that we have the most control over. Keeping kosher makes me think about everything I eat. It makes the act of eating holy. Not because I am following a rule of God, or the Rabbis, but because I bring consciousness into the act of eating. Am I perfect at it? No. Do I sometimes eat things whose Kashrut is questionable even with lack standards? Yes. But most of the time, the food I take in has at least had some thought put to it so it links to the larger ideals of my faith and tradition. Kashrut centers me in a way that even davening does not. It is an active choice of finding Godness in the most mundane and necessary action, providing my body with energy. And of course that was one of the most important goals of the Torah, it was not about blind obedience to God or the words on the page, the Torah is about meaning making. For me Kashrut allows for that.
In the modern world, Jews and non-Jews mingle, share meals, and even worship together. A way of eating that separates us from our neighbors is a difficult thing to inject in our greater culture that begs for unity in diversity. While everyone eats Barbeque and you have tuna salad on a paper plate you stick out. But a line can easily be drawn between shunning the food of others and eating a pig’s blood sausage. I personally not such hard lines about where I eat but struggle with what I eat when I am sharing meals outside of a kosher environment. I don’t worry as much about the plate it is served on or the grill it is cooked on. I tried to maintain a level of my own observance but will sacrifice even that for the sake of not be offensive, especially if an effort was made. Once, at a Jewish Educators conference, a local hot dog vendor purchased kosher hot dogs knowing that he would have so many Jewish people in his catch area. He did not have Rabbinic supervision; frankly he probably knew nothing about that. He didn’t kasher his grill, nor did he stop selling other links. I don’t even remember if the buns were parve. What I do remember is seeing terse warning signs about this guy. It made him sound like he was attempting to be deceptive, like he wanted to cheat the Jews who wouldn’t know better. The last line of the sign was THEY ARE NOT KOSHER. True, by halachic standards they weren’t, but here was a man who put himself out to try to be welcoming to Jews and while he may not have gotten it all right, he did what he could. I raged the hot dog stand.
Even more so, when I think of keeping kosher I think of all those who fought for the right to be Jewish at times when their faith was under siege. In researching for a talk I gave on Jewish food I stumbled on an article by Rabbi Richard Hirsch, a great leader in the Reconstructionist movement. Talking about his own kosher journey he spoke about those things that struck him about the idea of keeping kosher in a modern world. He quoted a verse from God of Daniel S.: In Search Of The American Jew., an introduction to Reconstructionism written by Rabbi Alan Miller: ". . . He had simply woken up one day to find that he could no longer eat with impunity an animal whose flesh his ancestors had resisted eating to the point of death." That is a big vote from the past. If we think about what our ancestors gave their lives for so we can live as Jews, it seems that it might be something to at least contemplate as we go along our daily lives. It is stunning that this is a far more persuasive argument than that of “God said so”.
But I want to be clear. Keeping kosher, like any mitzvah, has to have real meaning to the person doing it. I never shun or look down on those that don’t keep kosher. I find it worse to practice something without meaning, than to not practice it. It doesn’t make you any less a Jew or a person. I have great Jewish friends that love bacon double cheese burgers, shrimp cocktail and sausage. They find meaning in their Judaism from other aspects. If we argue that making concessions in our own practice for the sake of the larger community is a value, we must also feel comfortable with allowing our Jewish friends to practice the shared faith in their own way. That does not mean we must lower our own personal or even communal standards because most of us “don’t follow that” but it does mean that we shouldn’t make someone feel bad for how they choose to practice. One’s Judaism is personal and how one chooses to express it much be left to him or her.
Kashrut was one of the things the early Reform movement saw as a stumbling block for many to feel Jewish and part of the new post-enlightenment society. Thoughtfully they saw those rules as non-binding and thus, in my opinion, allowed people to retain a Jewish identity while also having a foot firmly planted in modern world, in many ways saving Judaism from becoming a much smaller and less vibrant civilization. It should be noted that I know several Reform Jews that strive to find a way to maintain a level of Kashrut in their daily lives even if it would not meet halachic standards. In that way they honor the tradition and isn’t that what we hope we all do as Jews?
Again, as we see the Torah as a guide to life, the very essence of life should play a central role. Food, a basic need, becomes holy through our thoughts and actions. Being holy can take on many forms. Finding your way to do it is in the Torah, all you have to do it open it up.