This week’s Torah portion outlines many of the laws and precepts regarding Kashrut. Specifically, which animals are fit to eat and which animals are prohibited to be eaten. Kashrut is also the subject of one of the more common conversations between a Kashrut observant Jew and anyone else. That conversation goes something like this:
“Taste this [non-kosher food].”
“You sure? It’s really good.”
“Ya, really, I’ll pass.”
“Just try it!”
“I can’t. It’s not kosher.”
“Kosher?! You keep kosher!? But you seem so normal!”
“Ya, I keep kosher.”
“But isn’t that an archaic law that was about being healthy and staying clean in the desert? Nowadays, we know that pig is safe to eat and shellfish are safe to eat. Why would you keep kosher in 2015?!”
“Kashrut has nothing to do with health! That’s a myth created by people who just don’t want to eat kosher! Kashrut is about [insert something spiritual or religious or whatever]. Only super liberal Jews and secular Jews think it is about health!”
Sounds familiar, right?
The thing is, this is a lie. Sure, there are plenty of reasons one can propose or concoct for keeping kosher. For some people it is discipline, for others it is mindfulness, for others it is spiritual health, and there are many other reasons.
Maimonides says in the Guide (3:48, Friedlander Tr):
I maintain that the food which is forbidden by the Law is unwholesome. There is nothing among the forbidden kinds of food whose injurious character is doubted, except pork (Lev. xi. 7), and fat (ibid. vii. 23). But also in these cases the doubt is not justified. For pork contains more moisture than necessary [for human food], and too much of superfluous matter. The principal reason why the Law forbids swine’s flesh is to be found in the circumstance that its habits and its food are very dirty and loathsome. It has already been pointed out how emphatically the Law enjoins the removal of the sight of loathsome objects, even in the field and in the camp; how much more objectionable is such a sight in towns. But if it were allowed to eat swine’s flesh, the streets and houses would be more dirty than any cesspool, as may be seen at present in the country of the Franks. A saying of our Sages declares: “The mouth of a swine is as dirty as dung itself” (B. T. Ber. 25a).
The fat of the intestines makes us full, interrupts our digestion, and produces cold and thick blood; it is more fit for fuel [than for human food].
Blood (Lev. xvii. 12), and nebelah, i.e., the flesh of an animal that died of itself (Deut. xiv. 21), are indigestible, and injurious as food; Trefah, an animal in a diseased state (Exod. xxii. 30), is on the way of becoming a nebelah.
The characteristics given in the Law (Lev. xi., and Deut. xiv.) of the permitted animals, viz., chewing the cud and divided hoofs for cattle, and fins and scales for fish, are in themselves neither the cause of the permission when they are present, nor of the prohibition when they are absent; but merely signs by which the recommended species of animals can be discerned from those that are forbidden.
Clearly, Maimonides held that kashrut laws were about health, and he wasn’t a secular Jew.
What are we to make of this?
The reasons for commandments are flexible. They change with time, place, medical and scientific advances, and personality. This is unavoidable for many reasons. This is a good thing. The laws are firm and cannot be changed, but the social benefits and ideas they are able to teach us change all the time. We can seek – we should seek! – and discover the meaning that subjectively resonates with us and we cannot impose subjective meaning on others.
There are no objective reasons for Torah commandments. There is only subjective speculation. These ideas can only enhance our observance of God’s word and they cannot be a reason to undermine or violate God’s word. We have to do it, but we can do it for the reason that works for us.
Kashrut is a huge part of observant Judaism today. It can mean so many different things to different people. It is extremely unlikely that kosher food is part of an undiscovered secret healthy diet and the rest of the world is consuming deadly foods every day. Aside from having no scientific or medical basis dietarily speaking, there is just no way anyone would believe that Jews possess any gastronomic advantage over anyone, especially Ashkenazi Jews.
You want to know why people keep kosher? Ask them. Ask yourself. Research the issue and find something that makes sense for you. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, I think that is what we are supposed to do.
Why Do We Keep Kosher? http://t.co/URxAFNuLgI
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) April 17, 2015