At our Saturday morning service on April 15th, Rabbi Deena argued that the Torah's food laws are more than just an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it obligation — kashrut is also an ancient mindful eating practice we can all learn from!
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Produced by Mishkan Chicago. Music composed, produced, and performed by Kalman Strauss.
My dog is a very good dog. She’s generally patient, gentle, sweet, friendly, cuddly, chill… except when we’re in the park and another dog comes sniffing around my fanny pack looking for a treat. Then, my dog turns into a growling aggressor, chasing off anyone who tries to eat her treats, and she’s even been known to be less than careful with her teeth when snatching a treat with a little too much zeal. She will eat absolutely anything, and she will only eat alone.
My dog, then, is the opposite of what it means to keep Kosher. Kashrut literally means "fitness" —and yes, in Israel a gym is called a cheder kosher. The practice of keeping Kosher is the traditionally Jewish set of eating practices that govern both what and with whom we eat. Kashrut as fitness is not just what is fit to put in the body, but what is proper, what allows us to be intentional in our relationship to the land and to the people who are our people. That starts in this week’s parsha, where we get some of the original laws of kashrut. Really, this amounts to God telling Moshe to tell the people, “Eat this and not that” and getting into specifics about things like split hooves and removable scales.
As with much of the book of Exodus, God doesn’t seem to give much of an explanation for why we should adopt these eating practices, just saying, Ki Ani Adonai eloheichem, ve’hitkadeshtem ve’hayetem kedoshim, ki Kadosh ani — “because I am your God, so you shall make yourselves holy and become holy, just like I am holy.”
In the seeming absence of a reason to eat according to these fairly stringent guidelines, religious commentators and anthropologists alike have speculated on the origin of this particular set of laws. One prevailing sociological theory has to do with health and sanitation: again and again, God says "don’t eat this, ki tamei hu," which is usually translated as “Because it is unclean.” You might even have heard a theory that kashrut was meant to spare the Israelites from trichinosis, which is found in pork products, but this theory has largely been debunked, because there are plenty of other types of food poisoning that one can get from meat. This theory about kashrut as ancient food safety stems, I think, from a mistranslation — tamei doesn’t mean "clean" in a dirt-free sense. It’s opposite is not naki, clean. Its opposite is tahor, pure. Tamei means impure in a ritual sense. Not fit to eat because it doesn’t align with the community norms.
The instinct to prescribe meaning to the categories on the basis of the categories themselves is deeply human, and therefore missing the mark. It’s not about the particulars of a category, as if fins and scales or split hooves are somehow better than not. What God seems to want in this parsha is for humans to be conscientious about the process of categorization, the act of thinking about what something is and deciding it is fit to eat, or not. The problem is not that pigs or horses are more or less sanitary than cows, they just… don’t fit the categories that God has laid out. In fact, many other major religions observe some kind of dietary laws: Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and so on, and each one is particular in its own way… for a reason. Religious dietary practices are partly about adherence to a particular system, reminding yourself of your belonging to a specific group every time you put food in your mouth, which for most of us is at least three times a day.
The ancient philosopher Philo of Alexandria says that the essential lesson of Kashrut is that, because we are capable of making choices, and even making choices that are difficult, we should do so. Unlike animals which eat whatever they can find, we can be choosy about our food, and we can take it in slowly, savor it, even wait to eat until everyone is served. Kashrut is an old school mindful eating practice, one that calls us to pay attention to our food before it even goes into our bodies.
But the other key element of kashrut is that who you eat with is who you build community with. For the Israelites in the desert, recently freed from slavery, building a national identity and a sense of belonging to each other and to God was a vital task; for the next several thousand years, the ability to draw boundaries around our community was a critical tool for survival.
This takes us back to the original “justification” for keeping Kosher, which is that kashrut helps us be holy like God. To understand this, we need to do a little lesson in linguistics. In ancient Hebrew, the root for the word we translate as holy, Koof-Daled-Shin, means to keep separated. Kedusha, holiness, is about separateness. Yes, this relies on intentionality, but it also means that acting with kedusha in our eating means differentiating ourselves. This is what my dog cannot do, but I can: I can look at some people and say, “Yes, I want to share food with you as a way of forging social connections”, and I can look at others and say “Pass thanks”, or even, “Pass for now.”
Kashrut is about separating people, marking one group an “us” and another a “them,” which is why the early reformers, the first Reform Jews, rejected it! Abraham Geiger, a German rabbi considered the founding father of Reform Judaism, wrote of kashrut: “... these dietary laws that are …such a hindrance to the development of social relationships.” For Reform Jews, being separate from secular society was a hindrance to the kind of lives they wanted to lead, and so they eschewed keeping Kosher.
On the other hand, for Jews looking to solidify their differences from their neighbors, kashrut was an excellent tool. In the time of the Maccabees, Jews chose to be martyrs rather than eat pork, sending a message to the Greeks that they would literally rather die than socialize with them.
What God is telling the Israelites in commanding them to keep Kosher was, make yourselves separate from the other nations the way that I am separate from their gods, and do it in the fundamental practice of eating.
Eating is a form of belonging, and making intentional choices about what we eat and with whom is an exercise in human sacredness. One of my earliest memories is as a kindergarten student. Someone in my class had a birthday during Passover, and I distinctly remember my mom coming to school during the cake part of the day to give me a kosher for Passover blueberry muffin. We were discussing this incident a few years ago, and she asked me, “Did I make a mistake? Should we have just let you eat cake with the rest of your class?” Not at all, I answered. I didn’t resent that muffin, even though it meant less sugar, because I knew it made me Jewish and made me belong to people who matter to me.
Who we eat with matters just as much as what we eat, which is the essence of keeping Kosher. We all do some version of this in our eating and in our social lives, even if we don’t call it kashrut: we make a GF dessert when we know one of our guests is gluten intolerant, or we meeting a sober friend for a movie or coffee instead of in a bar, or we don’t wear our leather jacket when meeting up with a vegan friend, and so on. Keeping kosher means looking carefully at an item and deciding if it is fitting for the kind of life we want to live, and the kind of community we want to belong to.
In the 1970s, Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi, the founder of Renewal Judaism, coined the term “eco-kashrut” to refer to practices such as avoiding buying items packaged in styrofoam, or not buying from agri-businesses, even if that meant choosing an item that didn’t have a heshcher, the symbol of something’s ritual fitness. About a decade ago, in response to an investigative journalism report about on poor working conditions in a Kosher agriprocessor, Rabbi Morris Allen of Minnesot started the “magen tzedek”, a kind of kosher certification that attests that the production of the product was up to Jewish legal standards on labor, animal rights and environmental stewardship, along with ritual kashrut. The label is not widely used, but it reminds us that Jewish law cares about more than just the species we consume. Eating Jewishly, which by the way you don’t need to be formally Jewish to do, should remind us of our humanity, our social connections and our ethical values.
Passover tends to be the time of year most Jews and Jewish adjacent folks think about keeping kosher, even if they don’t do so the rest of the year. It was common in my public but fairly Jewish middle school for people to bring ham and cheese sandwiches on matzah during Passover, utterly disregarding the prohibition on eating pig products AND eating meat and milk together while simultaneously holding fast to the prohibition on bread. This isn’t a knock, it’s a reminder that kashrut doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If that’s your version of kashrut, I’m proud of you for taking the time to change things up in honor of Passover. And, my invitation is to not lose the momentum of this intentional eating, even as we go back to our squishy, bready, carby lives.
Maybe for you, keeping kosher means buying your pork from a co-op of small-scale farmers you get to know personally, and sharing the meat with friends. Maybe it means learning about the fair trade certifications and looking at the labels of your food to ensure they weren’t produced with slave labor. Maybe it means keeping a set of dishes in your home so you can invite over friends who keep kosher according to a more strict sense of the Jewish law… or maybe you’re the strict one, and you offer to order takeout from a kosher place so you can go over to a friends’ house for dinner. The goal is for you to look at your food practices with intention and connection, reminding yourself that it is sacred to be that connected to what we eat and who we eat it with.