Keeping Kosher: Contemporary Views

Recent writers reflect on what observing kashrut has meant in their own lives.

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Among Jewish thinkers in recent times who have advocated the observance of kashrut, opinions vary widely about just why it is that such observance is worthwhile. Is there something inherently worthwhile in the details of kashrut observance, or does its value lie instead in its effect on the life of the individual or society, and not its details? Here are several opinions on these questions.

Kashrut Makes Me Ask Good Questions

The observance of kashrut is an example of an annoying series of mitzvot that I am glad not to have dropped because of some of the rather important surprises it has offered. Because it is a public observance, I have to justify it rather frequently, to my friends and certainly to myself.

I find that whether I like it or not, kashrut brings me into contact with a series of rather important questions: What is my responsibility to the calf that I eat, or to the potato? Is the earth and the fullness thereof mine to do with as I will? What does it mean that a table should be an altar? Is eating, indeed, a devotional act? Does God really care whether I wait two or six hours before drinking milk after a meat meal? If kashrut makes me ask enough questions, often enough, I discover that its very provocative quality is one of its chief virtues for my religious life.

--Rabbi Richard J. Israel (1929-2000)directed Hillel programs at UCLA, Yale University, and in the Boston metropolitan area and wrote The Kosher Pig: And Other Curiosities of Modern Jewish Life. Reprinted from The Condition of Jewish Belief: A Symposium, composed by the editors of Commentary Magazine, by permission; all rights reserved.

kosher dill picklesKashrut Makes Eating a Religious Matter

Let's go back to my hypothetical lunch with a friend. Watching me scan the menu, he may suspect me of thinking, "Oh, would I love to order the ham, but that mean old God won't let me." But in fact, what is probably going through my mind at the moment is "Isn't it incredible! Nearly five billion people on this planet, and God cares what I have for lunch!" And God cares how I earn and spend my money, and whom I sleep with, and what sort of language I use. (These are not descriptions of God's emotional state, about which we can have no information, but a way of conveying the critical ethical significance of the choices I make.) What better way is there to invest every one of my daily choices with divine significance?

There is nothing intrinsically wicked about eating pork or lobster, and there is nothing intrinsically moral about eating cheese or chicken instead. But what the Jewish way of life does by imposing rules on our eating, sleeping, and working habits is to take the most common and mundane activities and invest them with deeper meaning, turning every one of them into an occasion for obeying (or disobeying) God. If a gentile walks into a fast-food establishment and orders a cheeseburger, he is just having lunch. But if a Jew does the same thing, he is making a theological statement. He is declaring that he does not accept the rules of the Jewish dietary system as binding upon him. But heeded or violated, the rules lift the act of having lunch out of the ordinary and make it a religious matter. If you can do that to the process of eating, you have done something important.

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