Personal responsibility is rather like the pet tarantula you might have begged your parents for when you were little: it sounded like so much fun until you got it, but then you realized that aside from being fuzzy and hairy, it doesn’t do much besides scuttle towards (or away from) you. However, unlike tarantulas, personal responsibility isn’t something you can avoid simply by steering clear of certain geographic areas; it comes with growing up and maturing into an adult.
Free Will and Spiritual Elevation
In Judaism, personal responsibility and the preliminary concept of free will are axiomatic ideas. The Torah explicitly states (Deuteronomy 30:19) that people have the ability to choose their paths and actions in life, along with the responsibility to choose to do good. There are no concepts of original sin, predestination or damnation; rather, every person is born with the power to determine his or her own fate. This is where the personal responsibility comes in: since all are endowed with self-determination, every person can choose whether to be compassionate or apathetic; kind or cruel; angry or calm; good or bad. With this choice comes the responsibility of choosing well and elevating oneself spiritually and morally, rather than skating and declining.
The Bible and much of Jewish literature are dedicated to the topic of spiritual and moral elevation along the lines of imitatio Dei, or the imitation of G-d. An entire chapter (Ethics of the Fathers) of the Talmud is dedicated to ethics, and tomes such as The Way of the Just, Kuzari (“The Khazar”), The Way of G-d, Ethical Discourses, The Paths of the Righteous and Tanya are commonly found in Jewish libraries. Among other topics, these books all discuss the importance of positive intentions and thoughts, in addition to constructive behavior, as methods of spiritual elevation. Positive intentions, specifically those regarding one’s physical actions, allow one to transform mundane items and activities — eating, sleeping, exercising, doing organic chemistry homework — into spiritual and character-building ones. According to Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, a sixteenth-century kabbalist, the world is imbued with divine potential; when a person makes use of something toward a G-dly end, he or she elevates it and realizes the purpose for its creation (Etz Chaim 39:2). Eating a steak, for example, can be done simply for the purpose of satiation or for the purpose of recharging one’s energy to be able to build a relationship with G-d and better the world. Elevating the potential of food means that you don’t just eat because the cake looks good and your lower blood glucose levels have stimulated your lateral hypothalamus — you eat it because you need the strength to continue to better yourself and the world.
Many of the mitzvot in the Torah are meant to accomplish this elevation. The very word mitzvah, or “commandment” (from tzav, “command”), is related to the word tzevet (“connected group, team”), as their fulfillment is a method, by which human beings can elevate themselves by connecting to their Creator. A number of the mitzvot involve eating certain foods, such as matzah, at certain times; others involve not eating certain foods or substances, like blood, pork and crawling arthropods (such as thrips and those tarantulas), at all. These carry over into preparation of permitted foods, such as meat, which must be thoroughly salted and then exsanguinated after slaughter in order to avoid any consumption of blood, and leafy vegetables, which must be checked for infestation. These mitzvot regarding food and its elevation into spiritual matter are collectively known as the laws of kashrut.
Kashrut may be one of the prime examples of elevating the mundane and leading a lifestyle based on thoughtful, directed action, but it’s not the only one in Judaism. Jewish law also directs people to thank G-d for their food before and after eating in the form of blessings and Grace After Meals, and to be careful about their speech, which is described as one of the most powerful tools people possess. Gossip and slander are considered a degradation of speech, while encouraging another with kind words or a funny joke, or learning aloud, especially with others, elevates it.
The Holiness Factor
A person’s potential to choose good and elevate the world stems from the Torah’s emphasis on the divinity within every human being. Genesis (1:27) describes how man was made “in the image of G-d,” meaning that people can also elevate themselves to become holy. The final chapter of The Way of the Just explains that “holiness” refers to a state in which a person becomes close to G-d to the point of elevating all physical actions and objects used from being mundane to being ethereal. Holiness involves exercising free will to use one’s own inclinations, tendencies and actions, along with the resources of the natural world, for purposes other than simple metabolism and pleasure, as important as those are. According to Jewish thought, being holy involves seeing a higher purpose to life and directing every act toward accomplishing that purpose. Being holy means that you perceive and claim a meaning to life, something with which many college undergraduates may ponder and struggle.
Becoming close to G-d and refining one’s character, as described throughout The Way of the Just, involves, in part, developing a sensitivity to others and their pain and joy. It even involves developing a sensitivity toward other life forms and not causing them unnecessary pain. With this regard, kashrut also involves slaughtering animals with the most expediency and least amount of pain possible, as well as the least amount of hormonal damage; while the Torah permits the use of and consumption of animals, it does not permit causing an animal any discomfort or pain, where possible. (While, unfortunately, some kosher slaughterhouses keep their animals in uncomfortable and sometimes terrible conditions, this goes against the spirit of kashrut itself, which, again, emphasizes the need to reduce animals’ pain and does not permit causing it.)
Mindful Awareness of Your Calorie Sources
From a related perspective, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the nineteenth-century German founders of the neo-Orthodoxy movement within Judaism, explains (regarding Exodus 23:19) that the dietary laws comprising the body of kashrut are of a symbolic nature, rather than being rooted in dietetic or moralistic grounds. Limiting consumption of meat to kosher animals that have been slaughtered according to Jewish law is meant as a reminder to be careful about what we do and what we consume. Specifically, by discriminating by food choice, one is reminded of one’s free will and ability to act in ways other than inbred instinct, which animals cannot do. Even when eating animals, instead of simply being other omnivorous members of the kingdom Animalia, we are reminded that we are distinct from what we eat and have the ability to act accordingly.
Rabbi Hirsch further points out that kashrut is one of the most comprehensive and catholic components of Jewish life. Unlike mitzvot such as making a Passover seder, blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and keeping Shabbat, kashrut has no set time frame for observance. You can eat as infrequently or as often as you like; you can eat whenever you choose; and you can decide whether having dinner means cooking at six p.m. or ordering greasy takeout at one a.m. No one enforces an individual’s kashrut; unlike the mitzvot of returning a lost item, not smelting idols and not attempting necromancy, no one can compel a person to eat only kosher. There is no kashrut police or anti-pork patrol. When someone chooses to keep kashrut, he or she has chosen to create a relationship with G-d based on his or her own initiative.
While kosher meat and some cheeses are, unfortunately, very expensive due to the higher production costs involved, as well as other factors (some of which may be attributed to middlemen), most kosher products are no more expensive than non-kosher products. Fresh produce, as well as eggs and other unprocessed items, do not need kosher supervision, in fact. Keeping kosher does not need to be a wallet-emptying enterprise, and, as with anything, from college tuition to manicure bills, if something is important enough to you, you try to keep it in your life as much as you can.
Ultimately, though, I keep kosher for the same reason that I keep any of the mitzvot: because I believe in a G-d who cares deeply about what I do and what I eat, and because I believe that the Torah is essentially a guide to the galaxy authored by Someone smarter than me, Someone more knowledgeable and experienced about running the universe than I am.
And that’s definitely more exciting than a pet tarantula.
To read the counterargument, The absurdity of kashrut in the contemporary world by Noah Wallace, click here.