I find myself keeping kosher for the first time. Do I believe in the strict guidelines? No. But in respecting my roommate’s lifestyle, I have reevaluated my own stance on Kashrut. Here is how I make sense of it:
It is a deeply personal decision to keep kosher. How we nourish ourselves, respect tradition, and worship G-d are essential components to following the laws of Kashrut. However, in choosing this lifestyle, it is necessary to have a personal stake in the matter — habit is not reason enough. Yes, tradition is a major tenet in the Jewish faith, but if one does not question these principles, then custom and ritual become mechanical motions devoid of meaning. There comes a point when following Halakha is less about the law and more about following expected norms and customs.
To be a citizen in today’s globalized world, open-mindedness, curiosity, and cultural understanding are some of the vital ingredients that create a harmonious coexistence. Keeping strictly kosher can limit experiences with other ethnicities. According to an article by Rabbi Kalman Packouz on the Aish HaTorah website, “a special diet reminds us of our mission and keeps us together as a people to fulfill it.” The strict laws are decided upon by the Rabbinical Assembly of America, members of which are based mostly in Los Angeles and New York, where there are large Jewish populations. Many of these guidelines are broad interpretations of what is written in the Torah, and are very detailed as to what constitutes kosher, such as the type of products that require a hescher, or how to clean dishes in a porcelain sink. These rules may be difficult to apply to individuals in areas with few Jews, particularly if they want to dine in a non-Jewish home, thereby encouraging close-knit Jewish communities.
Globalization does not require assimilation to the extreme of losing cultural identity. Judaism’s rabbinic tradition of interpreting texts allows each person who reads the texts to form a different opinion, colored by the lens of his or her place in time. For example, Exodus 23:19 states that “you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” which stems from an idolatrous Canaanite fertility ritual. This was subsequently interpreted to mean complete separation of all dairy and meat products. I should mention the Scripture in Genesis 18:8 stating that Abraham “took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them, and he stood by them (G-d and his two angels) under the tree, and they did eat.” In order to stay consistent, this scripture has been interpreted to mean that they waited eighteen minutes between eating the dairy and meat. Evidently, the laws of Kashrut are no less subject to interpretation than any other laws. It is especially true for Kashrut, because there has never been a clear consensus as to why the kosher laws exist. As Rabbi Ben Bag Bag mused, “Turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it.”
Differentiating between mishpatim (laws that are understandable) and chukim (statutes that cannot be rationally explained) is crucial to the issue of keeping kosher. The reason behind Kashrut may be interpreted, but no concrete reason is ever written in the Torah. The closest explanation written is the Parshat Shemini, in which G-d lays out what can and cannot be eaten, concluding that “you shall be holy, for I am holy.” In other words, you are what you eat, and to be a holy people, we must imitate G-d. However, this still does not explain the specifics of the laws, which I will consider to be chukim.
Adaptation and interpretation is what will allow Judaism to remain relevant and meaningful today. If we are to prevent religion from becoming stagnant, we must incorporate the mitzvot to be meaningful to modern day life — tradition can be fluid. To preserve Judaism is to preserve the spirit of the law, which requires the letter of the law to affect the ne’shama (soul). Following the rules of Kashrut for sake of custom alone, then, is not leading a Jewish lifestyle in the true spirit of Judaism. To observe these laws by being mindful of choice in diet is to consciously partake in Jewish tradition.
By this standard, I personally define the best form of Kashrut to be vegetarianism, as G-d originally intended before the flood. Proverbs 12:10 states that “the righteous person regards the life of his or her animal.” Therefore, one cannot be cruel to animals to be considered righteous. Most meat consumed today is not butchered in the backyard but killed in factory farms. Even if this process is done completely ethically, purchasing meat in a plastic-sealed neat package does not allow for any personal connection to the sacrificed life of the animal. This separation of the consumer from the animal ultimately diminishes the reverence for the animal’s life. Keeping kosher should be a way to revere life. In Genesis 1:21, 24, both animals and humans are referred to as nefesh chaya, a living soul. Judaism puts the utmost value on a single life, for everything alive is touched with holiness. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel questions in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, “Does existence simply mean to seize and eat, to seize and drink, or does it have a double meaning: to exist and to serve a purpose?” For me, this purpose is to respect life, both human and animal. For Kashrut to have meaning, for it to animate the spirit of the law and to go beyond the letter of the law (Lifnim Mishurat HaDin), the vegetarian diet allows me to be conscientious of my duty to regard life as sacred.