Jewish Journal

Why Keep Kosher?

Parshat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

by Rabbi Debra Orenstein

Posted on Mar. 27, 2003 at 7:00 pm

The end of this week's Torah portion supplies the major biblical reasons for kashrut: "For I am God....

You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.... For I am God who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God.... To distinguish between the ritually impure and ritually pure, between living things that may be eaten and living things that may not be eaten" (Leviticus 11:44-46).

This coda doesn't exactly clarify the reasons behind kashrut. What do cloven-hoofed cud-chewers have to do with ritual purity, much less holiness? In what way do fins and scales on a fish acknowledge God as the One who redeemed us from slavery? The "explanation" for kashrut demands further explanation.

Keeping kosher is a chok (that variety of Jewish law that is not based on reason). Most commandments can be understood rationally. "Don't murder" -- that makes for a workable social contract. "Don't commit adultery" -- there are lies and anguish down the road, if you do. But "don't eat a pig; cows are OK?" There is no humanly discernible reason behind kashrut.

Religion is meant to inform our lives -- and to add a holy mystery to them. Chukim, super-rational laws, acknowledge and make us aware of life's mystery. Kashrut in particular acknowledges that there is a taxonomy to the world beyond what we discern -- and, accordingly, cows yes, pigs no. Kashrut has nothing to do with health considerations or scientifically meaningful categories. It does, in some mysterious way, have to do with making ourselves holy by making distinctions, and remembering who God is for us.

Commentators derive lessons from individual elements of kashurt. Rabbinical laws that spare animals pain during slaughter are meant to inculcate compassion generally. Birds of prey are forbidden, lest we absorb their predatory quality. Pigs are the ultimate symbol of treif (non-kosher) because one must look closely to see that they don't meet kosher standards. Beware of hypocrites and charlatans and (self-)deception through packaging.

The ancient rabbis were both drawn to and cautious about uncovering ta'amei hamitzvot (reasons behind the commandments). Certainly, we all want a literate Jewish populace for whom practice is based on understanding, and not just obedience. But there is also an inherent danger and hubris in thinking that one "understands" the mitzvot. If you believe you have the reason for a mitzvah, you might stop studying or resist new interpretations. There is even a chance that you might stop practicing: I have the message, why bother with the mechanics? Knowing about Judaism intellectually is no substitute for practicing it. Practice often leads to new insight, which leads to deeper practice, which leads to new insight....

Keeping kosher has been most helpful and meaningful to me as a kind of rehearsal. When I pay attention to what I ingest physically, it reminds me to pay attention to what I take in spiritually. Kashrut presents an order to the world that I don't understand, but nevertheless accept. In that way, it parallels -- and prepares me for accepting -- other things about how the world is ordered that I can't comprehend. Death and random suffering are embedded into the structure of the universe for reasons I will never fully understand. Yet, I must somehow learn to accept and deal with those realities. 

Keeping kosher keeps me mindful of relationships. Every worthwhile association requires sacrifices. My relationship with God, like any relationship, is strengthened by giving out of love when reason doesn't demand it. The reasonable requests are easy to meet. What do I do when a normally rational loved one asks something of me that doesn't make logical sense? With God and with people, how much do I keep score? How much do I accommodate? How much do I savor the opportunity to respond purely out of love?

My personal attachment to kashrut was cemented age 14, when I first traveled alone by train. A man seemed to be staring at me, so I moved my seat. He moved his. I changed compartments; he followed me. I left my luggage, taking only my wallet to the dining car, hoping he would move on by the time I returned. When I sat down again, he approached me. Of course, I was nervous.

Then he asked, "Are you Debra Orenstein?"

He wasn't quite the masher I had feared.

He explained: "I wasn't sure it was you. I was a student of your father's, and the last time I saw you, you were six years old. I noticed that you were going to the dining car, and I thought, 'If she comes back with something kosher, then I'll know it's Debra.'"

For me, kashrut is ultimately the rehearsal of identity. Every time I eat, I remember who we are to God and among the Jewish people -- and who we are asked to be.   

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Congregation Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana and editor of "Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life" (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997).

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