This essay surveys one person’s experience of keeping kosher, looking not at the reasons behind the choice but at the changing perceptions that followed that choice.
“You are what you eat.”–“Was Mann isst, das ist Mann.” In various languages, pithy sayings indicate our sense that food is more than fuel for our bodies; it defines us and our place in the universe. An anti-vegetarian bumper sticker puts this notion in the twin perspectives of natural history and anthropology: “I didn’t claw my way to the top of the food chain to eat vegetables.” One’s diet can signal our unbounded mastery of nature. It can also indicate our choice to exercise restraint.
A Thicket of Rules, a Handful of Principles
To observe Jewish dietary laws is to live within boundaries. As you do when you begin to play a complex game, you focus at first on learning what appears to be a vast number of rules, especially if one is determined not to cut too many corners. Milk, but not with meat. No milk after meat. Meat after milk, but only with some kind of demarcation or cleansing. No meat from certain kinds of animals. No blood, so only meat that has been through a complex salting-and-soaking process. But not liver. Fish, but only if they have fins and scales. The list just seems to get longer.
Then the questions begin to flood in. What about fish that once had scales but now do not? What about a species of fowl unknown to the rabbis of the Talmud? Why is it OK to eat fish that was cooked (without milk products) in a dairy pot even after I eat meat–or even with the meat? Why is exactly the same thing not OK if I cooked the fish with an onion? What if my son wants a meat lunch and my daughter a dairy lunch; can the two of them eat at the same table?
With a knowledgeable guide who can explain the underlying principles, one quickly learns to discern patterns and logic in those rules, to internalize them, and to apply them to new situations.
When it comes to meat and milk, the operative principle not often enough enunciated to the kosher tyro is this: The taste of kosher milk and the taste of kosher meat are both OK, but they must never mix in the same food or be consumed at the same time. Certain clear principles govern whether taste is considered to be transferred or not.
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