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Keeping Kosher in the Modern World

In the modern reality, many Jews living in concentrated Jewish regions enjoy easy access to kosher food. Most of the struggle to acquire kosher food has been eliminated, and, consequently, the values behind a kosher lifestyle oftentimes remain uninspected. Without “investing” in keeping kosher, we may forget the meaning behind this all-encompassing mitzvah. Parshat Shemini is the perfect opportunity to reinspect the meaning and messages of a kosher lifestyle.

On first glance, many of the biblical laws governing kosher food appear random. Why should animals that chew their cud be kosher while those with more direct digestive flows be forbidden? Why should split-hoofed animals be kosher while straight-pawed animals are banned? Selecting birds based on the bone structure of their tiny legs seems capricious. Though we remain unable to decipher all these stipulations, and the rationale behind kosher food may seem “mysterious,” we believe that if God outlawed certain foods, evidently they are unhealthy for human fitness or for human spirituality. As arbitrary as the details may appear to us, each and every mitzvah—and particularly those that govern the foodstuffs we admit into our bodies—are intended to refine us (letzaref et habriyot- see Bereishit Rabbah 44:1).

The well-known attempt of the Rambam and others to identify ta’amei hamitzvot (reasons for mitzvot) presumes that such reasons do exist and that mitzvot aren’t arbitrary. Even a mitzvah such as para adumah (about which we also read this Shabbat), whose rationale has remained perennially indecipherable, possess logic; its logic just wasn’t discovered by humans. Every mitzvah possesses logic but for various reasons that logic wasn’t always delivered to the human mind.

Regarding kosher foods, it is highly unlikely that science will discover medical reasons to justify kosher dietary norms. However, we adhere to these laws out of a deep sense of conviction that, at some level, we are pursuing a healthier lifestyle—again, either physically or spiritually. Kosher food is not just a ritual or religious habit but is also beneficial for human experience in ways we may never fully discover.

Additionally, and beyond the particular impact of kosher food upon our health, the laws of kosher food are intended to create an overall attitude about our relationship with food in general. Human beings require food to survive, and without question we also enjoy the experience of eating. Reciting a bracha before and after eating acknowledges the value of eating both as an element of survival as well as an aesthetically enjoyable experience. The Gemara in Brachot (35a) attempts to associate a bracha recited upon food with hallel, or praise. Just as we are thankful and recite hallel about events of national significance and salvation, we are also thankful for the provision of food.

Yet, there is a thin line between enjoying food and obsessing over food. A quick recall of the 180-day long party of Shushan—complete with endless food-gorging and, of course, induced regurgitation—is enough to remind us of the horrors of unlimited food consumption. Obtaining kosher food in the modern era is so easy and the availability of kosher food so abundant that we can easily become disproportionately obsessed with food.

The Torah concludes the section detailing kosher animals with a command to be “kodesh,” as God is “kodesh.” Kodesh in this context doesn’t mean holy, but separate or detached. As God possesses no physical attributes, He is the ultimate kodesh or detached from the physical world. In our attempt to simulate God we are also encouraged to be somewhat “detached” from this physical world. Of course, Judaism doesn’t endorse extreme self-deprivation or asceticism, but it also values a degree of temperance or even balanced abstinence. Though this balance should be different for each person, this balance should exist, at some level, in every Jew and, in truth, in every human being. Limiting the types and range of permissible food helps create a deterrent to unlimited food obsession and to unhealthy fixation about food consumption. I remember the horror Rav Lichtenstein, zt”l, expressed upon encountering an article reviewing in-flight meals of various airlines. He was so dismayed that something so trivial should warrant this type of attention and interest!

This function of kosher food in creating a general deterrent to over-indulgence in eating is especially resonant regarding the kosher laws that govern seafood. A reasonable percentage of animals are kosher and, similarly, a reasonable number of birds can be consumed. With regard to seafood, however, the overwhelming majority of marine creatures are forbidden to eat. Close to one million different species inhabit the ocean, and yet, a very small minority are kosher. The severe dietary limitations upon such an exotic and enticing menu of potential foods provides a very stark reminder that our overall attitude toward food should be tempered rather than indulgent.

The period of Pesach will soon be upon us, and certainly this holiday is anchored by strict laws that further limit our food experience. In fact, chametz is not only forbidden to eat but cannot be owned over Pesach. The Torah itself imposes a unique restriction or chumra: We cannot own chametz lest we accidentally consume it! The holiday that emancipates us from slavery and confers dignity to former slaves protects us against succumbing to an even more harsh form of slavery: bondage to our “base” desires for food and for excess consumption. Kosher food limitations aren’t just targeted laws preventing us from consuming hazardous species. These laws encourage us to calibrate our relationship with food in general. We are meant to eat healthy as well as to enjoy the experience of eating. However, we are certainly not meant to excessively binge.

In the concluding section of parshat Shemini, the Torah introduces yet another latent concept of kosher lifestyle. We are not merely instructed to become kodesh or partially detached from the physical world through adherence to the laws of kosher food. Additionally, the Torah stresses that kosher laws condition us to separate between tamei and tahor (pure and impure) or between those animals that are consumable and those that are forbidden. Beyond our relationship with food, the concept of kosher reminds us to render decisions and to live a discriminatory life in general. What values are consistent with the type of moral life God expects of us? What aspects of our culture are consistent with Torah spirit, and which are antithetical, even if they don’t pose a direct religious violation? What aspects of modernity possess significant upside that may offset potential risks? By contrast, which aspects of the modern world are too risky to unconditionally embrace? These questions lie far beyond the scope of kosher laws, but as discriminatory eaters we must train ourselves to be discerning people.

The modern world has greatly simplified the experience of keeping kosher as it has granted unprecedented access to a broad range of consumers. The advent of national kashrut organizations and the transport/export of kosher food has provided reasonable kosher food opportunities for people across the globe. Recently, kosher food accessibility for vacationers has dramatically expanded, liberating kosher travel across the globe. Maintaining a kosher lifestyle—depending upon location—requires little exertion and in many cases poses tolerable financial challenges (Pesach perhaps being an exception). At a practical level, these developments are welcome and have popularized kosher experience across a broad range of the Jewish community. However, the ease of keeping kosher may dull us to the value of keeping kosher. One of the dangers of modern religious experience is that ease of religious practice sometimes obscures the meaning behind religious practices that are so trouble-free and comfortable. If we lose sense of that meaning behind religious experience, we face the danger of religious deterioration.

By Moshe Taragin


Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.

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