French gastronome, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, famously asserted, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Certainly keeping kosher is a lifestyle that defines the eater, and provides clues about the community to which she or he belongs in many ways.
The origins of Jewish dietary or kosher laws (kashrut) have long been the subject of scholarly research and debate. Regardless of their origins, however, these age-old laws continue to have a significant impact on the way many observant Jews go about their daily lives.
Many modern Jews think that the laws of kashrut are simply primitive health regulations that have become obsolete with modern methods of food preparation. There is no question that some of the dietary laws may have some beneficial health effects. A close friend, who does not keep kosher, will only eat kosher fish. No bottom feeders for her! However, many of the laws of kashrut have no known connection with health.
Jews observe kashrut because the Torah says so. The Five Books of Moses include dietary laws, which have also been interpreted and augmented by rabbinical scholarship. Although the Talmud does give several reasonss for these laws, the Torah does not but for a Torah-observant, traditional Jew, there is no need for any other reason.
In his book “To Be a Jew,” Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin suggests that the dietary laws are designed as a call to holiness. He also points out that “the laws of kashrut elevate the simple act of eating into a religious ritual…. A Jew who observes the laws of kashrut cannot eat a meal without being reminded of the fact that he is a Jew.”
However, a 2013 Pew survey found that only 22% of American Jews surveyed say they kept kosher in the home. Many Jews observe kashrut partially, by abstaining from pork or shellfish, or not drinking milk with a meat dish. Some keep kosher at home but will eat in a non-kosher restaurant.
Today, attitudes towards keeping kosher vary just as the level of observance varies. However, kashrut is still a focus for all Jewish movements. The attitude of Reform Judaism, in the earlier period, was more or less one of indifference to the dietary laws. In 1888, a number of leading American Reform rabbis adopted the “Pittsburgh Platform,” in which is contained the declaration:
“We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinic laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”
However, as Rabbi Louis Jacobs in “Kashrut & Reform Judaism” points out, “the Reform movement has in recent years advocated more engagement with traditional categories of Jewish observance including kashrut and some Reform Jews do keep the dietary laws.”
Jacobs continues, stating that while Conservative Judaism may accept the findings of the critics that many of the dietary laws may have had their origin in primitive taboos, these laws must be obeyed as the most powerful means of preserving the Jewish people. Among Orthodox Jews, since the dietary laws are directly ordained by G-d, these laws are unreservedly obeyed.
The Reconstructionist movement views kashrut as one of Judaism’s central practices with which individuals and communities should wrestle, and about which they should make conscious decisions. Many Reconstructionists also share with the Jewish renewal movement a concern for “eco-kashrut.”
Rabbi Richard Hirsch in “Reconstructionism Today” describes “eco-kashrut” in which “the fitness of food is measured not only by compliance with biblical regulations but by consideration of ethical- ecological-economic issues. Food which is grown under conditions of oppression is ripe for rejection; overly-packaged and environmentally insensitive products seem indulgent; foods full of empty calories, cholesterol, fats and sugars do nothing to promote health and eviscerate the image of the Divine in which we are created.”
Hirsch also believes that our attitude towards eating itself should be a dimension of kashrut. Taking a moment to bless what we are about to eat and then an abbreviated prayer of gratitude, or a moment of silent appreciation before leaving the table, seems very appropriate.
And finally, Hirsch writes about a third area of contemporary kashrut: how, and how much, we eat. “The accelerated pace of life has obliterated the time set aside for meals.” “Grazing,” as he calls it describes how people eat “on the street” from carts and takeout fast food shops, “seems antithetical to the dignity Judaism confers on human beings. We wash hands, bless, sit and eat and bless again precisely because we are not animals who simply eat out of hunger. As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan said, we should eat to live, not live to eat.” And the great medieval Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides gave clear instructions regarding not only what to eat, but when and how much people should eat in order to lead a healthy life. So for those who do not observe the strict rules of kashrut, there may just be another way of thinking about it and incorporating it into our lives.
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.