Torah Portion: Shemini
Book of Leviticus
April 21, 2017
While not surprised at how little non-Jews know about Judaism, I am constantly amazed at what they do know about us! Among the most universally recognized features of Judaism is Kashrut: Jewish Dietary laws. I am reminded of the billboard that once graced the Upper Westside of Manhattan. It featured an African-American youngster eating a hotdog with the accompanying caption: “You Don’t Have To Be Jewish To Eat Hebrew National.”
Why keep kosher? There are almost as many answers to this query as there are questioners. Observing kashrut is about excluding certain forbidden insects, fish, fowl and animals from one’s diet. It is about only eating meat that has been slaughtered in a specified manner and, then, not combining it with milk products. Though the Torah offers no rationale for these dietary practices, over the centuries rabbis and scholars have supplied their own interpretations.
Maimonides (12th century Spain) felt the motive behind Kashrut was to achieve good health. He would later be challenged by Rabbi Isaac Arama (15th century) who wrote, “The dietary laws are not, as some have suggested, motivated by therapeutic considerations, God forbid! Were that so, the Torah would be denigrated to the status of a minor medical treatise and worse.” Some explain kashrut as a means of separating oneself from their non-Jewish surroundings and a good way to meet other Jews. Later scholars explained Kashrut as a symbolic gesture to reflect humankind’s allegiance to God.
The common thread running through all the interpretations and explanations is a reverence for life. The Biblical ideal for the human diet, taught in the first chapters of Genesis, is to eat only of the fruits and vegetables. There is no mention of killing animals for food. Contemporary bible scholar Pinchas Peli writes, “The laws of Kashrut come to teach us that a Jew’s preference should be a vegetarian meal. If however one cannot control a craving for meat, it should be kosher meat, which would serve as a reminder that the animal being eaten is a creature of God, that the death of such a creature cannot be taken lightly, that hunting for sport is forbidden, that we cannot treat any living thing callously, and that we are responsible for what happens to other beings (human and animal) even if we did not personally come into contact with them.”
In the end, keeping kosher is a discipline in moral/ethical living. If one can learn to display restraint with regard to the food he puts into his mouth, then how much more so the words that come out? If one can appreciate eating as a life-sustaining act of holiness, then one may be better able to discover holiness in the air they breath, water they drink and, most importantly, in the lives of all God’s creations. Not a bad reason to consider keeping kosher!
Rabbi Howard Siegel