The Spirituality of Kashrut by Miriam Biber
Volume 2 , Issue 4 (April, 1989 | Nisan, 5749)
One of the mitzvot in the Torah which falls into the category of chukim, laws that transcend human reason or intellect, is that of keeping kosher (kashrut). Although many theories have been espoused as to why pork is prohibited, for example, or why we separate dairy and meat, human wisdom is still unable to provide a completely satisfactory answer. The theories of disease prevention or improved sanitation just do not fit with what our sages tell us about the prevailing medical views of earlier times. Unlike some of the mitzvot discussed in the Torah, such as the prohibition against theft, or even the observance of the Sabbath, it is difficult to understand how the laws of kashrut were derived or what their purpose might be. Although we never make observance of mitzvot contingent upon human understanding, we are obligated to use our intellect as fully as possible to attempt to grasp the full meaning and significance of a mitzvah.
This issue is especially relevant to women, since keeping kosher is one of the three mitzvot especially entrusted to women. The other two mitzvot are lighting Shabbat candles, representing the larger mitzvah of keeping Shabbat, and immersion in a mikvah, representing the laws of family purity. As Ihave discussed previously in these pages, women are considered the primary ?spiritual caretakers? of the home. Through observing these three mitzvot, a woman can determine both the material and spiritual character of her home. Through her actions, she can influence the spiritual development of her family members, as well as any other individual who steps into her home. With regards to kashrut, therefore, women have an added interest in gaining an understanding of the laws, since the responsibility of keeping the home kosher (even if the man in a particular household is doing more of the cooking) and providing kosher food for her family and guests rests primarily on her shoulders.
Although the Torah does not give us any outright explanations for the laws of kashrut, we can gain certain insights into the significance of these laws which will help us enhance our observance. Perhaps the first glimpse into the function of the laws of kashrut can be gleaned from the sequence of verses in Parshat Shemini (Leviticus, Chapter II) in which the Torah defines which animals are permissible and which are not. There it is explained how kosher animals must chew their cud and have a split hoof. The Torah also identifies which fish and fowl and even insects are permissible. Directly following these verses, the Torah states (verse II) ?For I am the Lord your God. Sanctify yourselves and be holy for I am holy.? Rashi, the famous commentator, explains that the seemingly unnecessary phrase ?for I am holy? means that ?just as 'I am holy', ('I who am the Lord your God'), so shall you make yourselves holy below (on Earth).? In other words, God expects us to sanctify ourselves in our daily lives here in this physical world. How do we make ourselves holy ?below?? From the proximity of this verse to the preceding verses concerning the laws of kashrut, we learn that one way in which we sanctify ourselves is by keeping the mitzvah of kashrut. By only eating animals which are permitted by the Torah, for example, we are purifying ourselves. Through an everyday activity such as eating, we have the potential to achieve the lofty goal of ?making ourselves holy.?
The Basis of Our Relationship to God
The idea, however, that the basis of our relationship to God is the observance of the 613 commandments, most of which involve an everyday activity, does not fit into the prevailing world view of what the religious experience is supposed to be all about. Perhaps because we have internalized non-Jewish ideas, when we hear the word ?spiritual? or ?religious,? we conjure up an image of an ascetic off on a mountain meditating. Granted, a more conventional, more Jewishimage, might be of a person praying or studying Torah. In any case, the image of a person eating a piece of kosher chicken is certainly not going to come to mind! This way of thinking about spirituality, however, is non-Jewish and is potentially dangerous for it can ultimately lead to the idea that one can lead a complete Jewish life without observing mitzvot.
We often hear these days the popular view that ?being a good Jew? is enough.? What does this statement mean? Usually the message being conveyed is that it is not necessary to keep actual mitzvot such as Shabbat and kashrut in order to be an ethical Jew or to have a spiritual or Godly experience. In fact, the adherents of this view will argue that they do not think that God really cares if a particular individual keeps kosher or not. Perhaps it is thought that God is preoccupied, so to speak, with more pressing global matters such as preventing nuclear disasters or stopping human persecution. When this viewpoint is taken even further, it is argued that the observant Jews' ?obsession? with Jewish law is not only unnecessary, but also can even interfere with one's ability to lead a Jewish life. ?Technical? discussions about whether gelatin is kosher, for example, are seen as being an obstacle to ?being a good Jew.? The verse in Parshat Shemini, however, teaches us that God is quite concerned with what we eat. He wants us to ?sanctify ourselves? precisely through these physical, seemingly insignificant, actions.
Kashrut Provides ?Spiritual Food?
Besides elevating the physical world, which is a component of all mitzvot, kashrut has a special importance in that it provides the ?spiritual food? for our soul. This concept should not be difficult to grasp, since these days such a tremendous emphasis is placed on health and keeping the body in good shape. People will be extremely careful, for example, to avoid eating foods with any number of ingredients ranging from cholesterol to pesticides. Since people are legitimately concerned about not ingesting harmful agents, they go to great lengths to change their diet and lifestyle. The same principle operates on a spiritual level. Simply stated, eating non-kosher foods (which are spiritually impure) can have a damaging effect on the spiritual organs of a person, such as the soul. Eating foods which are not in accordance with God's will causes a spiritual blemish. In other words, it desensitizes us to Godliness and diminishes our awareness of the holiness in this world.
We can see this occurring in our own generation, where there is a lack of belief in God on a scale not commensurate with previous generations. Not only is there a lack of belief in God, but the whole notion of the existence of a supreme being or a divine creator is completely alien to the average individual. It appears as though our spiritual antennae have become jammed, preventing us from receiving the spiritual wavelengths which are traveling to this physical world. Perhaps the widespread neglect of kashrut has contributed to this current spiritual condition.
Aside from the spiritual impact keeping kosher has on the Jewish soul, the laws of kashrut also enhance our awareness of Godliness in a more obvious, tangible way. By keeping the laws of kashrut, one is reminded, on a daily basis, that a person has a relationship to God. Before eating any food, a Jew must ask him or herself, ?Is this food kosher?? or stated differently ?Does God want me to eat this food?? Similarly, saying a blessing before partaking of the food makes us stop to think about the fact that God created this food and provided it for us to keep us alive; we are constantly dependent upon God. Without this built-in structure which removes us, even momentarily, from our worldly preoccupations, our connection to God might only be experienced at certain limited times of the day, such as during prayer. The laws of kashrut and the associated blessings are, therefore, mechanisms which force us to remember that our primary purpose is to create a vehicle for Godliness in this physical world.
Serves as a Reminder
Of course, if keeping kosher becomes too habitual and mechanical, it will no longer provide a way of refocusing our awareness on Godliness. We must actively work at using the mitzvot to serve as reminders of God's presence. Sitting back and expecting the mitzvah of kashrut to automatically enhance our awareness of Godliness, obviously, will not work.
Another issue which needs to be addressed in a discussion about kashrut is the considerable self-discipline it requires, especially for someone who is making a change from non-kosher living. The changes in lifestyle required both inside and outside the home are truly enormous. It is difficult not to feel, for example, left out of one of the life experiences of the twentieth century, when we are bombarded daily by the media about the latest restaurant or taste sensation. In addition, one often has to significantly change his or her daily routine, since it is no longer possible to dash into a fast food restaurant for lunch. Similarly, the single person who survives on take-out foods has to start learning to cook for himself. Perhaps even more problematic are the potential difficulties which arise when dealing with food situations involving friends, family and work colleagues. It is not easy to tell business associates that you will not be joining them for lunch. Family members can be personally offended when kashrut appears to get in the way of traditional family get-togethers. I recall an incident early in my kosher career, shortly after moving into a new apartment. My new neighbors had graciously invited me over for dinner. I was quite pleased and went ahead to arrange the date and then mentioned at the end that I would be bringing my own food. They responded by politely telling me that perhaps there would be another opportunity to get together. So ended a friendship which had not yet begun.
Is Keeping Kosher Worthwhile?
Although all of the above mentioned situations are resolvable, such scenarios can make one begin to wonder if keeping kosher is worth all of the self-sacrifice involved. The answer is a resounding, yes. Although it appears that the person keeping kosher is maintaining a rather restricted lifestyle; in truth, more meaningful choices are being made than by those who do not keep this mitzvah. A person who decides to eat in a particular restaurant because it is kosher, for example, is making a choice between two clearly distinct options, even if there is only one available kosher restaurant. This individual is making a choice based on moral or religious principles. In contrast, the average non-kosher consumer will choose one restaurant over another on the basis of food preferences, e.g., the restaurant's reputation for its chocolate mousse. Thus, for him, taste sensations and physical desires are the guiding criteria. In truth, the two non-kosher restaurants are not significantly different from each other. Superficially, it looks as though the kosher eater has more restricted options, since he will eat only at the kosher restaurant. On a deeper level, however, the kosher eater is exerting a real choice between two qualitatively different options, rather than two essentially identical ones. The degree of self-commitment required and the quality of the choices involved with this self-discipline should ultimately lead to self-refinement and character development, which, in the long run, makes the self-sacrifice clearly worthwhile.