By Larry Herman, 14 April 2018
My Kosher Fetish
Once again I dedicate this davar Torah to my friend and humanitarian, Dr. Ken Elliot, who was abducted by al-Qaida linked jihadists in northern Burkina Faso in January 2016 and remains captive, now 2 years and 3 months.
I also wish to acknowledge that as always, this drasha is a collaborative effort with Diane, who is skilled at making the incoherent comprehensible.
About thirty years ago we attended a bar mitzvah at a Conservative shul on the Shabbat of parsahat Shemini. The bar mitzvah gave a short davar torah on the laws of kashrut. He explained that his study had inspired his parents to kasher their kitchen and begin to keep a kosher home. As he sat down and the rabbi took his place at the pulpit I thought, what a fat ball! How could the rabbi not take the opportunity to discuss kashrut and encourage his congregants to take inspiration from the young man and his family and join them in this manifestation of Jewish practice and identity?
But he did not.
- Perhaps he felt that nothing more need be said.
- Perhaps he felt that his community was not open to the pleading of their rabbi to become more observant.
- Or maybe he had some ambivalence about the practice of kashrut.
I admit to ambivalence of my own. Although I grew up in a kosher home, and Diane and I have kept a kosher home from the beginning of our married life, I did not always keep kosher. My own personal standards of kashrut have varied over time. I have little tolerance for some of the stringencies that are practiced, such as Glatt Kosher lettuce. I think that kashrut is the most fetishized of all of our religious practices, something that discourages some from keeping kosher and distracts us from ethical prescripts, even as they apply to issues of kashrut.
I know that I’m not alone in these thoughts, even among those who identify as orthodox and are strict in their own practice.
I’m also bothered by how the observance of kashrut, which actually occupies a rather small part of the Torah, has expanded, become much more complicated, burdensome and expensive. Part of the problem is that the Torah is a lousy instruction manual. It reads like one of those crazy booklets that come with foreign manufactured products or Ikea assembly instructions. I know that Jewish practice requires professional interpretation. But when the instructions get so complex and seemingly illogical, it’s tempting to find shortcuts or to just ignore them entirely.
This week’s parsha which includes the basic rules of which animals we are permitted and forbidden to eat is a great example. The basic principle makes perfect sense: eating meat requires the taking of life and defiles us. Limiting the scope for taking the life of living creatures – and ritualizing the act of taking of that life – uplifts us, making something that is otherwise profane, at least a bit sacred
But I find the Torah instructions more confusing and perplexing than sanctifying. Why doesn’t the Torah just tells us which animals we can eat?
- Fish with fins and scales,
- Chickens, and some similar birds,
- And a few bugs.
Instead, it gives us a complicated and not very consistent set of rules, lists and criteria, sometimes telling us what is permitted and other times what is forbidden. At least the rules for mammals and fish are pretty clear. But birds are another matter.
Birds are the only species group for which there are no general rules. We are only given a specific list of what is forbidden. But which birds are these? I consulted three sources for English translations: Etz Haim, Aryeh Kaplan and Silberman and of the 20 varieties or groups of birds, they agree on only nine. Further, since there is no general rule it would seem that everything else is permitted. So if the little, great and white owls are all specifically prohibited does that mean the barn owl is permitted? And since there are about 10,000 species of birds in the world, that doesn’t make sense. I guess we best not think of eating our pet parakeets or parrots.
But it’s with insects that things get real confusing. We are told that
ALL winged swarming things that walk on fours are an abomination
Oh-oh. I know that insects have six legs so I’m already confused. But to add to my confusion, despite the “ALL” in verse 20, we have another rule that tells us that we can eat them if:
they have above-their-feet jointed legs to leap on the ground.
This is further qualified with a specific list of four varieties:
אַרְבֶּ֣ה סָּלְעָ֖ם חַרְגֹּ֣ל חָגָ֖ב
Our Chumash translates these as families of:
Locusts Bald locust Crickets, and Grasshoppers
On the other hand, Aryeh Kaplan translates these four as the families of red locusts, yellow locusts, spotted grey locusts, and white locusts. Kaplan really knew his locusts!
For some reason, the instruction manual takes a break until verse 41 where it states
וְכָל־הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵ֣ץ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ
All creeping creatures that creep on the ground (creepy reptiles and amphibians, apparently)
shall not be eaten, and then– among these creeps– those that go on their belly, walk on four legs, up to many legs also shall not be eaten.
Ok, I get it. I’m on the lookout for the two-legged creepers. Maybe they’re ok. Could be delicious with garlic butter.
Hey, don’t laugh. Rashi, benefitting from at least a millennium of rabbinic interpretation has his own linguistic and zoological take on what is included and excluded and why. I will only note as an example, that he interprets the seemingly redundant verse 23 to infer that that five-legged swarming things are indeed kosher, if one can find any such animals.
And I wonder what Rashi would say about the annual gorging on flying termites that we witnessed in West Africa as they hatch, breed, lose their wings and fall to earth in huge mounds over several days, to be scooped up and roasted for a high protein treat.
For me, the text raises a lot of questions besides the most obvious one of why.
Now I know that the traditional interpretation of “why” is that helps us to become holy as explained in verses 43-44 of our Parsha. But that didn’t stop us from coming up with all manner of other justification.
Philo (Yedidia HaCohen) thought that the laws of kashrut were intended to teach us to control our bodily appetites and to discourage us from excessive self-indulgence.
He also claimed that:
- We are prohibited from eating carnivorous animals to teach us gentleness and kindness.
- We eat animals that chew their cud to remind us that we must chew over what we have studied.
- And we eat animals with divided hooves so that we learn to divide and distinguish good from evil.
The Rambam espoused similar views a millennium later and added the consideration that the laws of kashrut were healthy. Being a physician, who was going to argue with him? Well, Abarbanel for one. But the view persists to today among some Jews and even non-Jews that kosher food is healthier.
Of course we are all familiar with the claim that keeping kosher is a one of the things helps us to maintain our separate identity or to paraphrase Ahad Ha’am, “more than the Jews have kept kashrut, kashrut has kept the Jews.”
I haven’t forgotten the most fundamental and straightforward argument: kashrut is mandated by God, it is God’s diet for spirituality.
I don’t find these arguments compelling reasons to keep kosher:
When kashrut becomes a fetish it’s difficult to understand how we are made holy. Isn’t saying a bracha over all food a sufficient means of making the profane act of eating holy?
While practicing kashrut does entail a degree of self-control, casual observation would not lead one to believe that those of us who keep kosher are less gluttonous than those who do not.
As for argument that eating kosher food is healthier, I’m with Abarbanel. Most of those arguments have long been debunked. A diet heavy on schmaltz and grivenes is a fast track to a coronary.
Maintaining a kosher kitchen is expensive. Having separate sets of cookware, dishware and cutlery is wasteful. And putting hecksherim on bottles of water or disposable aluminum pans is just silly.
Still, kashrut is an important manifestation of my identity. It’s one way that I continuously remind myself and others that I’m a Jew. I want it to help me maintain my distinction as a Jew, but I still want it to make sense in the world we live in. Perhaps, just as my own practice of kashrut has changed over my life, our observance of kashrut as a people needs to change in response to changing times. To be more relevant and not just more stringent.
So now I get to the meat of the matter, as it were – the ethical aspects of being a carnivore, this being the focus of Chapter 11. Kindness in the selection, raising and slaughter of animals to be eaten is important, and is not consistent with factory production of veal and poultry or high speed mechanized slaughter. In fact, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef banned the force-feeding of geese to produce foie gras because it causes unbearable pain to the animals. The Israeli Supreme Court banned its production in 2003. And both Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi David Golinkin questioned the kashrut of veal because the young animals are fattened by severe restriction of their movements.
Animal welfare advocates argue that the reasons for refraining from killing animals are similar to the arguments against killing humans. While it is easy to mock the arguments for speciesism, it wasn’t long ago that arguments against racism or sexism seemed farfetched. Just as we look back on slavery and the subjugation of women and are appalled, I believe that sometime in the future, as we learn more and more about the sentience of species that we use for food, our children will look back on us and be appalled by our callous carnivorousness.
As for the ecological aspects of eating meat, the modern production of meat is highly inefficient in terms of natural resources and contributes to global warming. It requires far more grain, water, land and energy than a non-meat based diet. Livestock production is responsible for almost one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions. Meat production has a huge carbon footprint. It contributes to acid rain. It’s just plain bad for the environment.
Kashrut doesn’t mean that we have to eat meat. Kashrut doesn’t mean that we have to eat unhealthily. And Kashrut doesn’t give us license to harm the environment through our animal husbandry practices.
The Jewish Vegetarian movement is pretty strong and includes a lot of rabbis from across denominations; the website Jewish Veg lists 135 vegetarian rabbis, with many names that I recognize including Miryam Glazer, David Wolpe, Sharon Brous, and Lord Jonathan Sacks.
I don’t know how many of them actually argue that vegetarianism is a logical extension of kashrut but I do find the argument compelling. I’m struck by how many things that were not only permitted in the Torah but were regulated by Jewish law, are now forbidden. They were appropriate for that time but not for now. Slavery. Stoning. Sotah. Levirate marriage.
So perhaps that’s why the rules permitting us to slaughter and then eat meat were so complex and somewhat confusing. It was a step in the direction of limiting our biological and evolutionary cravings. The Torah recognizes that we couldn’t immediately suppress our natural human compulsions but had to be gradually weaned away from them. The real intent is expressed in the first chapter of Bereishit when the newly created humans and all the animals were instructed:
Behold, I have given you every seed bearing herb, which is upon the surface of the entire earth, and every tree that has seed bearing fruit; it will be yours for food (1:29)
We weren’t ready for that then. I’m not sure that I’m ready for that now. But I’m pretty sure that it’s coming.