Parashat Shemini

Kashrut After Refrigerators

Jewish dietary practices allow us to welcome the sacred into our daily lives and into mundane acts.

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Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

Without attempting to justify the elaborate Jewish dietary laws, the Torah provides a lengthy list of which foods are kosher and which are not. Animals with cloven hooves and which chew their cuds are kosher. Fish with fins and scales are kosher. Birds which eat grain and vegetables, and which can fly, are kosher. Insects, shellfish and reptiles are not.

Since the earliest stages of our history, Jews have understood the patterns of kashrut (the dietary laws) to be at the very center of our heritage. Jews have sacrificed their lives rather than desecrate themselves with 'treif' (non-kosher) food. From the biblical and into the rabbinical period, new guidelines and restrictions developed as Jews encountered different cuisines and aesthetic standards, yet the core of kashrut has remained unchanged over the millennia. Some of our most stirring stories of Jewish martyrdom--of Jews who preferred to lay down their lives rather than abandon their Judaism--center around the laws of kashrut.

Thus, as early as the time of the Maccabees (167 B.C.E.), we have stories of Jews forced to eat pork by the Syrian oppressors. In those stirring tales, the Jews chose to die with their integrity intact, to expire still obedient to the dictates of God and Torah. They could not conceive of a Judaism without kashrut, so central were the dietary laws to the entire rhythm of Jewish living.

No Justification

Yet, the Torah gives no justification for kashrut. Consequently, Jews throughout history have struggled to understand the reasons underlying kosher eating. One explanation, popularized by the Rambam (12th-century Spain and Egypt), is found in Sefer Ha-Hinnukh (The Book of Education). For this school of thought, God is a cosmic doctor, providing a prescription to ensure the health of the Jewish People. "God knows that in all foods prohibited to the chosen people, elements injurious to the body are found. For this reason, God removed us from them so that the souls can do their function."

This view understands kashrut as a medical plan to ensure the health of individual Jews. God prohibited foods that were harmful, thus ensuring that Jews would be vigorous and fit. God, they tell us, was the first health-food freak, and kashrut was the macrobiotics of its time.

The problem with such a viewpoint (that pigs cause trichinosis and were prohibited for that reason, for example) is that it implies that God doesn't care about the health of the rest of humanity. After all, kashrut applies only to the Jews. If God is the creator of all humankind, then isn't it logical to expect God to care about everyone's health?

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.