The Torah, the Jewish people’s primary document, outlines a way of life, a life of holiness. Its concerns touch on practically every aspect of living, sometimes with broad strokes and at other times with great specificity, at times with purposeful reason and at other times merely stated as a given. For more than two thousand years, poets and prophets, priests and rabbis have been studying and interpreting its words. Their thoughts and deliberations form a vast literature which invites us to jump in and start learning.
From the very first book, the Torah demonstrates concern for not only what comes out of our mouths but what goes in as well. The first inhabitants ate only plant based foods. From every tree which is in the Garden, you shall eat (Genesis: ). Being human, food consumption is one of our primary needs. And so, according to the Torah our original ancestors were vegetarians. It was not until after the flood, when the earth was filled with violence and corruption, was Noah given permission to eat meat. Some say that God hoped that by eating meat we might be less violent towards one another. How’s that working out?
It was not until we became a distinct people, after the Exodus from Egypt, that the Torah introduces the laws that will collectively become known as “kosher” or “kashrut” (i.e. permitted). The Torah forbids us from cutting the limb off of a living animal (which is called “traife”, later, that word will signify all forbidden foods); it requires that if we want the eggs from a nest we must first chase the mother bird away; it prohibits boiling a kid in its mother’s milk; we are not allowed to eat animals that died (no “road kill”); and perhaps most famously lists the requirements necessary for animal consumption—cloven hoofs and chewing of the cud for land animals; fins and scales for creatures of the sea. All carnivorous animals are forbidden as are most birds.
Now here is the rub. There is no reason given for any of these injunctions. None. We are merely told, eat this, don’t eat that—which has led to lots of speculation on the part of our rabbis. I would suggest that there are four primary categories for the rabbis’ thoughts. One avenue says it was an early health system—pigs were considered dirty animals with the threat of trichinosis; bottom feeders picked up lots of bacteria as did carnivorous animals; dead animals could be disease ridden. Another stream of thought speaks to the inherent cruelty of taking a life or harming an animal—thus, don’t allow that mother bird to see you stealing her eggs; hacking off a limb of a living animal is a horrible thing but I am sure it was done in the ancient world; boiling a baby goat in the milk that was supposed to give it life is a vicious act. If we eat different foods than our neighbors, there creates a boundary between us. The ancient Jewish people were surrounded by polytheists whom we know from the complaints of the prophets were attractive. By not sharing meals, we were able to be a separate and distinct ethnic people; at least that is what this third stream of rabbinic thought implies. And finally, there is the “just do it” folks as a spiritual discipline. In other words, by accepting the dietary laws and making them our own, we create a consistent dietary regimen not because we like it, or we reason it is good for us, but just because God said so. In every religion and spiritual practice there are elements that go beyond our individual capacity to intellectually comprehend. By trusting the system, or the guru, or the rebbe we take a leap of faith placing ourselves in their greater wisdom.
While I recognize that is a very brief summary of two thousand years of scholarly discourse, I think it is a fair summary. Of course, we can reject all of those ideas or create our own hybrid. That choice is always ours.
Back in the 60’s we used to say, “You are what you eat.” It was a way to become more conscious of our diets. And in fact, many of Judaism’s spiritual giants, like Rav Kook were vegetarians. Given all the medical evidence we have today about the ill effects of too much flesh foods as well as dairy products in our diets, perhaps it is time for us to consider that as well.
But while food consumption is inimical to Jewish ethnicity, it is far from the Torah’s only concern for us as human beings living a life of holiness. I would argue that in addition to the humane treatment of animals, three other concerns need to be taken into account as we move toward what I am calling “a new kosher.” The rights of workers to a safe environment with fair pay and labor practices; the impact we are having on the environment; our body’s health and the health of others. Just as our rabbis added new prescriptions to the dietary laws called fences, I would suggest that these three Torah values be a part of any future heksher. In this way we will expand the requirements of what it means to be kosher beyond a mere list of forbidden foods that the vast majority of Jews ignore because they deem it outdated and irrelevant.
Does this mean I am saying that it is now okay to eat shellfish and pork? Hardly. But just as Jews today determine the extent of their observance of the dietary laws—kosher home but not when I eat out; permitted animals, but not necessarily from a kosher butcher or grocer; always kosher but not in a Chinese restaurant; kosher ingredients but not necessarily with a heksher; etc.—so will this expansion of kashrut allow for more people to opt in. If the goal is to maintain the current system, then my suggestion here will fall upon deaf ears. But if, on the other hand, the goal is to have more Jews make ethical Jewish value choices about what they eat or do not eat, then I hope this opens a broader conversation. Keeping kosher as a spectrum…Twersky
Who knows what options the future may bring?
I exist to be a connector—connecting people to themselves (allowing for awareness and insight, as well as wholeness and personal growth); to one another (creating sacred community); and to God (linking themselves to a Higher Purpose in all they do in life).
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