A kosher supermarket in Monsey, N.Y. (Uriel Heilman/JTA)

Keeping Kosher: Contemporary Views

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

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.

Kashrut 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.

Harold Kushner, Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts, is the author of several popular books, including When Children Ask About God, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough. This passage is reprinted with permission from To Life!: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking, published by Little, Brown and Co.

Does God Care What We Eat?

After a lecture I was giving one evening, I invited questions from the audience. One woman raised her hand, identifying herself as a Jew who tried to be a good and honest person, a helpful neighbor, and a supporter of Israel, but said that she did not live a religious Jewish life. She asked me, half seriously, half challenging, “Do you really believe that God will like me better if I keep kosher?”

I told her that I was no authority on whether or why God liked some people better than others, but that was the wrong question. One didn’t live a seriously Jewish life so that God would like you. Maybe that is what we were taught as children, but if so, that is only because children operate on that basis, not because God does. Children strive to do the right thing to win the approval of parents, teachers, and other important people in their lives (including, I suppose, God). If our perception of Judaism is still based on what we were told as children, we may well think in terms of doing things? going to services, keeping kosher, telling the truth? in order to please God.

But, I told her, if we can outgrow that childhood notion, we will come to understand that living a seriously Jewish life is not a matter of winning God’s favor but of growing as a human being. Is God angry at you if you eat a cheeseburger? I can’t believe He is. Do we disappoint God when we regularly reject the opportunity to turn breakfast, lunch, and dinner into religious moments, to raise them from the level of animal sustenance to the level of encounters with our humanity by imposing standards of permitted and forbidden on the foods we eat?

Do we disappoint God and shortchange ourselves when we only worry about the food we are eating nourishing our bodies, when we worry about its calorie count, cholesterol, and artificial ingredients, and never worry about choosing food so as to nourish our Jewish souls? That I can and do believe.

Reprinted with permission from Harold Kushner, To Life!: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking, published by Little, Brown and Co.

We Observe Kashrut Because God Demands It

The faithful Jew observes the laws of kashrut not because he has become endeared of its specific details nor because it provides him with pleasure nor because he considers them good for his health nor because the Bible offers him clear-cut reasons, but because be regards them as Divine commandments and yields his will before the will of the Divine and to the disciplines imposed by his faith. In the words of our Sages, “A man ought not to say ‘I do not wish to eat of the flesh of the pig’ (i.e., because I don’t like it). Rather he should say, ‘I do wish to do these things, but my Father in Heaven has decreed otherwise.'”

Although “the benefit arising from the many inexplicable laws of God is in their practice, and not in the understanding of the motives” (Moses Mendelssohn), nevertheless the Jew never tires of pursuing his quest to fathom the Divine Mind and to ascertain the reasons that prompted the promulgation of God’s laws. For the man of faith is sure that reasons do exist for the Divine decrees even if they are concealed from him.

Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin, Ph.D. (1928-1982), served Congregation B’nai David in Southfield, Michigan. Reprinted from To Be a Jew, published by Basic Books.

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