The Torah portion Shemini spends a great deal of time, an entire chapter, describing the ‘whats’ and the ‘hows’ of Kashrut. Glaringly lacking is the ‘why’. In its silence, the Torah screams for us to insert ourselves into the process of ‘whying’ Kashrut. Why did these rules come into being, for what purpose, to what end. Many have offered up rationales and reasons as sacrifices to modernity. I too shall throw myself on the pyre of reason, but first let us look at some previous offerings.
It has been proposed that the rules were some form of esoteric health code. I think not! The cure for eating road kill is to wash our clothing. Our soul is damaged by eating grubs and frog legs. It does not state that we will become ill from eating such delicacies (though some might argue that it goes without saying).
It could be that these laws reflect our ancient, non-hunting nomadic, cum-agrarian society. We cannot eat carnivores of any kind and the only herbivores that we can eat have to have a cloven hoof and have more than one stomach. Chewing a cud has to do with the cycle of eating regurgitating. Animals that do this have more than one stomach for digestion. It is not, as my mother used to admonish me, the loud chewing and popping of gum or not chewing with ones mouth open. But that reflection does not reflect much light on the subject. We are, after all, not allowed to eat the locusts that are otherwise a blight on the farmer (though there are some we are permitted consume). The pig, a farm animal if ever there was one, is forbidden to us (though it is no more or less forbidden than the rabbit or the camel).
Some will say that the choices have to do with the environment of the people in ancient times. Animals that were designated as not Kosher had other purposes such as the camel and the donkey. This falls short of the mark as well. What purpose, other than food would we propose for rabbit or the lobster. It is true that the Shochet (the ritual slaughterer) uses a method that is more humane than most if not all others, that too is not the reason for Kashrut. After all, if it were a matter only of the Jewish view of kindness to animals, why is there not a humane way of ‘slaughtering’ fish? And one might ask why we are not all vegetarians.
The simple answer to this, and to any other question in Judaism for that matter, is tradition. In this case someone asks: “Why do you keep Kosher?” One might answer: “Because G, in the Torah, commands us to keep Kosher.” That is the Pshat, period, end of discussion (but it never really is). Pshat is the simple contextual answer. Pshat covers the surface meanings. But there can be more than one Pshat meaning to a Pshat question.
By keeping Kosher or more accurately, by keeping to the laws of Kashrut the ancient ancestors were making a separation. Jews were to be different. Our hairstyle was to be different, our clothes were to be different and our eating was to be different and therefore we were to be different. We were distinctive and we were tribal. There was a comfort level within the tribe that was not felt without the tribe. All tribes have certain distinctive sociological features that bring the tribe together. Eating, dressing, hairstyle, similar dwellings, ritual practices, all give members comfort and succor within the tribe. We still have remnants of that tribal feeling today. When a Jew travels and sees a Mezuzah on the door of a house, it elicit in a feeling, an illogical, visceral sense of comfort. There is something reassuring about being in a strange place and finding that little symbol of our people. That a Jew notices, is an expression of tribal togetherness. In that remnant of ancient feelings we might find another part of the origin of Kashrut in our consciousness. Put another way, Kashrut was placed in our Torah to create a level of comfort within our tribal consciousness.
So, we have 2 reasons for Kashrut in Pshat: 1) It originates in the Originator of all. 2) It is a tribal comfort conductor. We have the Pshat both traditional and from the corner called the “Modern Critical Approach” to understanding. But our look at Kashrut can be enlightened by delving deeper into levels of personal understanding. In order to shine some light on those shelves entitled personal meaning or Drash, we need the lamp of Remez, the key/clues.
Our Remez lamp shines on an undisputable fact (is there really such a thing) that keeping the path of Kashrut is a bother. In order to keep Kashrut, what must we do? We own two sets of dishes and have to think about which set we are going to use, the ones for dairy or meat. When we shop, we have to look at ingredients or travel to a store that only sells Kosher food. We examine Hekshers, those funny symbols that inform us that the food is Kasher. We need to sit and decide how Kosher we want to be. Are we going to use separate sides of the dishwasher, refrigerator and different cabinets? Do we keep Kashrut in the home only? Do we decide that our level of Kashrut will be that we eat only intrinsically Kosher animals (but not necessarily slaughtered according to Halacha) avoiding pig and other animals that either don’t have a cloven hoof or don’t chew a cud? Do we forego any fish that doesn’t have fins and scales? Do we make sure that the ingredients in our favorite desserts do no use animal fats (no more hostess cupcakes). Are we careful not to mix meat and milk in our cooking. In each case, no matter what ‘level’ of Kashrut we observe, there is a commitment to observance and choice that requires us to slow down, to observe and to choose. And that is the Remez and the soul reason for modern Kashrut.
When animals feed it is an instinctual process. We have remnants of that instinct. If you secretly watch ‘a guy’ come home and grab a bite to eat, you may understand. I do not speak for all guys but I have been known to grab whatever plastic container is in the refrigerator and gobble down its contents at the kitchen counter. I blame it on the animal instinct and I only do it when I am alone. I am chastened by the horrified looks of the female of the species when I am caught ‘en flagrante delecto (or is that fragrant delicious). But, because I keep to the path of Kashrut, I am required to slow down and become aware. Even if I were a gourmet chef instead of a gourmand, the process of preparing and eating on the ‘Kosher path’ would always be an added step of awareness, a spice added to the meal.
That is my drash (personal understanding and explanation). That is my offering on the altar of understanding Kashrut. That is what is enlightened by the light of my Remez lamp. Kashrut demands that we be aware. The food that we eat has an origin. The grocery store is only one step along the path from earth matter to body energy. By coming into contact with that consideration, I am in contact with the holiness and the wholeness of the process. The progression of earth matter to body energy to earth matter is the cycle. And my awareness of that cycle leads me to a greater awareness, the awareness of the Source of the cycle. Add to this practice the path of blessing (that will be a discussion for another blog) that moves in parallel with all action and we have a potent combination for illuminating our journey in this world.
And so here, my dear friends, is my Drash on Kashrut. It has become for me a Sod, part of the mystery path of who I am. It has become a measure of how I relate to the Source of all mystery.
Orthodox Jews would say there are no levels. Either it is Kosher or not! And yet, some Orthodox Jews will only eat meat that is certified Glatt Kosher. Some insist on 2 dishwashers. Choice is part of our process. Observance and choice go hand in hand, and there too, we find a Remez for the personal meaning of Kashrut.