Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg
March 22, 2004 – Number 5764-22
Kashrut I: Introduction to the Dietary Laws
In the middle of the 20th Century, Kashrut was said to no longer be necessary because of government inspection of foods that insured that what we ate was safe. At the beginning of the 21st Century, Kashrut is no longer necessary because we no longer consider food to be a part of our spiritual lives. In fact, in just about every century, there were reasons given that Kashrut, the laws that regulate what we eat and when we eat it, would no longer be necessary. Those reasons are now gone, and Kashrut is still here. What is it about the Torah’s laws relating to food, that causes so much fuss and yet remain so enduring.
Let there be one thing clear from the start. The Torah does not give ANY reason for the Laws of Kashrut. They are straight commandments. Something G-d has told us to do and in our love for G-d we commit our stomachs to these regulations. In every generation, there have been sages who have tried to understand what these laws are all about. While this is a fascinating legal discussion, it does not change the fact that G-d does not give a reason, we are just given laws to obey as a sign of G-d’s love for humanity and our love for G-d.
Why should there be dietary laws at all? Food, and the drive that lies behind it, Hunger, are one of the most important things that drive human beings. Our ancestors in prehistoric times, wandered from one end of this planet to another following the places and animals that were their source of food. Wars have been fought in times of famine. And feeding the hungry is one of the most important acts of loving-kindness that we can perform. All religions must deal with our hunger. To the pagans, hunger was to be celebrated with food orgies. In early Christianity, gluttony was identified as one of the seven deadly sins. One rejoiced over eating and the other found G-d in fasting. Judaism took a different path. In our faith, hunger is not good or bad, it is just a drive, an instinct that governs our actions and thinking. Judaism was concerned that it would drive our actions, therefore, what became important was to control the drive so that we would drive it and it would not drive us. Thus we are permitted to eat, but some foods we can eat and some we cannot. This is how we control hunger.
Over the years there have been many things that have been noted about families that observe the laws of Kashrut. A hundred years ago, some philosophers noted with amazement that a Jewish woman, unlike her non-Jewish counterpart, had never killed a chicken herself. There is something about removing the slaughter of animals from our everyday actions, and establishing a single person in the community, a person not only of ability, but of piety, to do all the killing on our behalf. Thus by training this person, (a shochet) was an expert in kosher slaughter as well as an expert in the examination of the animal for disqualifying flaws in the organs. He was also able to keep the blood and death in a religious perspective. Understanding the ritual requirements for meat and for living a Jewish life.
Besides keeping bloodshed from the hands of ordinary Jews, Kashrut also de facto, kept Jews out of food events that involved other communities. While there are few laws that regulate our contact with non-Jews, the dietary laws severely limited the kinds of contact that were possible. Buy not being able to share meals with others, it established the boundaries of our community and kept our people from excessive contact with competing faiths. Little wonder that when Jews were angry enough to abandon their Judaism, the first thing they left behind were the laws of Kashrut.
Finally, Judaism required a blessing over most foods that we eat. In order to bless our food, it also has to be worthy of a blessing. Certain foods do not seem to fit the context of holiness implied by the blessings. Thus food that comes from animals that prey on others animals as well as animals that frequent places not associated with holiness (ruins, cemeteries, privy) would not qualify as worthy of a blessing. Thus we become aware that what we eat can have an influence on our character and our actions. By removing these foods from our plates, we not only make our meals worthy of a blessing, but we make our lives worthy of blessing as well.
Next week: Kashrut II: Kosher and Non-Kosher Animals