Keeping Kosher: A Personal Perspective

Boundaries, rules, cravings, and keeping my kashrut fresh

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.

Some examples: Contact in the presence of heat, whether physical or chemical, and soaking in a liquid are the common means by which taste moves from one food to another or to an implement, or vice-versa. Taste that has been imparted to an implement cannot be imparted back to food after 24 hours, except if the transfer is effected by chemical heat. And so on… but the list of principles is finite, and not even very long.

It’s important to note that unlike electric charges, milk and meat aren’t present at the level of subatomic particles. If taste is not transmitted, milk items and meat items may come into contact. Once the principles are understood, it becomes clear that one can exaggerate the separation of milk and meat unnecessarily. Much of what is commonly done today, such as having separate dish drains for meat and milk dishes, is designed to help up avoid mixing up the things that really count. One isn’t really required to have two of absolutely everything and to seal each off hermetically from the other, to the point of having two separate sets of everything.

Seeing Negative, Seeing Positive

Now, surprisingly, as in the case of the game with the long rulebook, you might find that your focus shifts to what you can do, rather than what you cannot do. Recipes that call for milk can be made with soy or rice drinks, or with fruit juices. At a lunch meeting, you can order a cold salad (hold the onions–they’re chemically hot and impart non-kosher flavors from the knife!) instead of a hot meal, and today you won’t even stand out by doing so.

Yes, I can have steak and eggs–as long as the eggs are prepared without dairy products. Like the optical trick in a picture that can be perceived either as two profiles facing each other or as the goblet that is the space between the faces, the same reality suddenly looks different.

Can’t Have It, Don’t Want It

After a longer time, you may discover that even the non-kosher foods you once liked are unappealing. Blatantly non-kosher foods–lobster, cheeseburgers–may even seem disgusting. You might have expected the opposite. You might have imagined that the prolonged self-restraint would just make it that much more tempting. As the Hebrew expression puts it, “stolen waters are sweet.” It turns out instead that a thing you declare off limits to yourself can become, foresworn enough times, a thing you not only no longer want but cannot even imagine desiring.

And here is precisely the challenge of keeping your keeping of kashrut fresh. Only the occasional challenge, whether in the form of a situation to be navigated or a curious questioner to be answered, makes playing the game of kashrut something that has meaning at the conscious level. I am grateful for the large non-kosher world in which I live. Without it I might forget that I am serving God and affirming my identity with each bite I take–or more precisely, with each morsel I pass up.

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