I grew up in a kosher home. Both my parents had come from traditional Orthodox backgrounds, so there wasn’t a question about this. We had separate dishes and separate cutlery for milchig and fleishig – milk and meat; and the meat we ate came from a kosher butcher, though my mother would always wash it, salt it to remove the blood, then re-wash it, as was required by tradition, just one of that vast array of laws around kashrut that the rabbis of the Talmud, in their wisdom, developed as they took all the priestly legislation surrounding the sacrificial system that was no longer operative once the Temple had been destroyed, and transferred its stringencies onto the food laws in the home.
At mealtimes, we didn’t mix milk and meat, and although I can’t remember if we waited the full mandated 6 hours between eating meat and then eating milk products, there was definitely a gap. No ice-cream or custard after your Friday night chopped liver and roast chicken. It all seems a long time ago, that attention to the strict laws of kashrut. Over the years it gradually grew less strict: I know that the separation of milk and meat crockery stopped at some stage; but my mother all her life would only buy kosher meat, though all that palaver over how to deal with the meat when it came home stopped, maybe when butchers began to sell it fully koshered, I don’t know.
For an early-onset fish-eating vegetarian like me the whole business seemed irrelevant, as well as archaic. Though I always retained, and still do, a recognition of the significance of the laws we read about in the Torah this week (Leviticus 11), about which animals and which fish are permitted and which aren’t. So I have never sampled the delights of a bacon butty, or pork crackling, or a ham sandwich, or oysters, lobsters, crab – in fact I feel some deeply lodged disgust for anything from the sea that doesn’t have those regulated fins and scales. It’s quite irrational that feeling, but it’s there. The atavistic belief, and feeling, that all those foods (and there’s no other way to say this) just aren’t Jewish. And that to eat them, let alone enjoy them, is in some small but significant way a form of betrayal of one’s Jewish identity.
As I say, none of this is rational, and I am aware that it seems strange coming from someone who often speaks, as I did in my last blog, about the difference between laws beyn adam la’Makom, ‘between a person and their Maker’, and that other traditional category of Jewish tradition beyn adam l’chavero, ‘between a person and their neighbour’ - the realm of the inter-personal; and my belief that holiness resides much more in the latter than in the former, particularly for progressive Jews.
And the laws of kashrut, both Biblical and in their elaboration in the Talmud, are prime examples of laws between a person and their Maker. Nobody is harmed by eating a prawn cocktail or a McDonalds’ beef burger –these are Jewish laws that are described in the tradition as hukkim, laws/statutes, which have no explanation given (except ‘And God said...’) and no rational basis and don’t affect the social or moral fabric of society if they are ignored.
Yet the Torah is clear that these food laws are connected to holiness for the Israelite community. And the Talmudic rabbis clearly believed this and set out to regulate Jewish behaviour around food in an almost obsessionally behaviouristic way.
I suppose that if you think that the survival of your people as a distinctive and set apart community is itself a holy activity, then maybe it does make sense to put such an emphasis over the generations on these distinctive food laws. Because they have historically meant that Jews can’t mix with non-Jews in that most social of all communal activities, eating and drinking.
From the very beginning these laws have been bound up with a maintaining a separate ethnic and cultural identity. You only have to look at a well-known story in that early post-Biblical book, the Book of Maccabees – that’s the end of the second century BCE – where the Graeco-Syrians tried to force an old man, named Eleazer, to set a public example to his co-religionists by eating pork, or even pretending to do it, as a way of showing how integrated Jews could become to the dominant culture. But he refused, and died as a martyr.
The word holiness, kadosh, does mean ‘set apart’. So this concept of set-apartness begins with the foods themselves, and is then transferred onto the people. Obedience to these food laws, in all their multiplicity and with all their arcane detail, became a kind of badge of honour for the Jewish people, setting apart this people from the other nations of the world. The elaboration and perpetuation of the laws of kashrut had this pragmatic cultural function. For better or worse.
Of course, over the centuries other explanations for these laws arose. Philo of Alexander, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who lived in the generation before Jesus, explained the dietary laws as being there to teach self-control. Moses didn’t teach self-denial, he wrote, but wanted to discourage excessive self-indulgence. Pork was forbidden, Philo suggested, because it was one of the most delicious foods. Once you started eating it, he suggests, you’d never want to stop. The Torah of course has none of these explanations - what you see is latter commentators projecting onto the laws their own reasonings and rationalisations.
Philo is particularly interesting because of the creativity with which he defended the tradition. So the ban on eating carnivorous birds and beasts, he suggested, was in order to teach us gentleness and kindness. In other words ‘You are what you eat’. The animal becomes a sort of symbolic model for your own behaviour. So why only animals that chew the cud and have cloven hooves? Because a person can only grow wise if they repeat and chew over what they have studied, and are able to divide and distinguish concepts into what is true and what is false. These explanations probably don’t convince us today, but they illustrate the ways in which from very early on Jewish commentators found themselves having to address the Torah’s silence on the reasons for these laws.
So what about the justification for the laws of kashrut that is most often trotted out by their modern defenders? The notion that they were given as health laws? It was actually more than a thousand years after Philo that one begins to hear this argument, with Maimonides in the 12th century – who was a physician – opening up this kind of explanation/ rationalisation. He also picked up the earlier idea that it was in order to teach Jews self-control – and this meant conquering our animal natures.
But when he talked about kashrut as being to do with health, Maimonides didn’t know that tapeworm can be transmitted through pork, that rabbits carry tularaemia, that shellfish are prone to infection and spoiling. So it’s not clear what the basis for his health rationalisation was. No doubt there are some health benefits resulting from abstaining from some of these foods, but that was never suggested by the Torah, or the Talmud, as their intent.
A word or two about ‘eco-kashrut’. The word was coined in the late 70s by the traditionalist Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in the US, who went back to the original intention of kashrut – to do what is acceptable to God – and tried with his post-traditionalist community to think through what this might mean in our own contemporary world. So eco-kashrut asks whether an animal that has been slaughtered correctly is eco-kosher if it has spent its entire life caged, or if it has been force-fed growth hormones. It might be slaughtered in the required ritual way, but does that make it kosher for us? Is ritual slaughter with a perfectly honed knife the only consideration that applies when it comes to holiness? That the animal has been slaughtered according to 2000 year old tradition?
Or take fruit and vegetables, that might be kosher in the narrow sense of the word, but are they eco-kosher if they have they been sprayed with chemicals that pollute the ground? In relation to fish, I try to buy only sustainably-caught fish because the ecological issues around decreasing stocks of fish mean the religious questions today are not only about what kinds of fish are we Jewishly permitted to eat, but where they have come from and how they have been caught: what is the larger picture of the marine environment that needs to be seen, within which my eating takes place?
This kind of thinking takes a much more holistic view of kashrut than the traditional view, but it is continuous with the tradition because, as Zalman Schachter intuited, if you believe that it is the Jewish task to try to attend to what God’s vision for humanity means today in terms of our attention to the details of everyday life, you have to expand your imagination, to think creatively, to seek out ways of living that are congruent as best as possible with compassion, and justice, and the avoidance of harm to animals, to people, to the planet itself.
So eco-kashrut extends outwards from food, in many directions. If you drink a cup of tea which may be kosher according to rabbinic law, is it kosher if it is served in a polystyrene cup that takes hundreds of years to decompose? Is a household cleaning product eco-kosher if it pollutes when it flows down the drain? If the workers who have picked the coffee beans or the cocoa that end up in your moccachino have been underpaid, or exist in horrendous conditions in some far-off country about which we know and care nothing, is that coffee kosher? That’s where Fairtrade products at least help us feel we are eating in ways that might be at least a bit related to our ethical and religious values.
A rigorously thought-about progressive Jewish approach to kashrut ends up being every bit as demanding, paradoxically, as a strictly Orthodox halachic approach. Kashrut today involves much more than just checking the labels, or getting one’s meat from the right glatt-kosher shechitah authority. On which note: I heard recently about a distinguished orthodox rabbi from Stamford Hill who arrived in heaven and was greeted by an angel.
“Rabbi, we’ve prepared a special feast in your honor, with the best meats, and fish and cakes.”
“Who, may I ask, prepared the meat?” asks the Rabbi.
“Our finest chef, Elijah Manoshevksy.”
”And who, if I may ask, is the mashgiach, the rabbinic supervisor?”
“Why, it’s the Holy One, God himself,” replied the angel.
“Thanks very much,” said the Rabbi, “but I’ll just stick with the fish.”
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, April 11th 2015]