Kashrut

  • Rav Ezra Bick

 

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Please daven for a refua sheleima for YHE alumnus
Rav Daniel ben Miriam Chaya Rut

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I

 

            In colloquial Halakho-lingo, kashrut refers to all the laws of forbidden foods.  Properly speaking, the word "kosher" (kashrut is the generic noun) means "proper" - any item can be either kasher or pasul (fit or unfit) for a particular purpose.  An upright individual is also called "adam kasher" in the Talmud.  This is, in fact, very close to the meaning of the word in New York English (as in: "Sam, the weatherbeaten detective, murmured, 'Something is not kosher about this setup'").  But we shall use the word in its usual connotation of the entire complex of laws governing what we may eat.

 

            There are many different kinds of non-kosher food.  Next week, we shall discuss the differences between them and try and understand them individually.  But this week, I wish to address the entire category of forbidden foods.  The modern mind, even when it attempts to be religious, finds the idea of forbidden foods alien.  What do religion, morality, human or divine values have to do with what we eat?  Most of the religious people in the Western world today subscribe to an ancient saying, ascribed to a first-century Jew, "It is not what goes into a man's mouth that defiles him, but what comes out."  Morally speaking, that seems to be a correct ordering of priorities.  Yet, Halakha expends a great deal of energy on a minute detailing of the particulars of the kashrut of foods and their preparation.  The practical effect on observant Jews is no small matter; after the costs of Jewish education, kashrut is the most expensive item in Jewish observance.

 

            The laws of forbidden species (animals, birds, and fish) are found in the Torah in parashat Shemini (Lev. 11).  The final three verses (11:45-47) of that section reads:

 

"For I am God, Who has elevated you from the land of Egypt in order to be your God, so you shall be holy, for I am holy.  This is the teaching (Tora) of the animal and the fowl, and every living soul that moves in the water, and of every soul that creeps on the earth; To separate (havdil, to distinguish) between the impure (tamei) and the pure (tahor), and between the animal that may be eaten and that which may not be eaten."

 

            A similar thought is repeated not long after (Lev. 20:25-26):

 

"You shall separate (hivdaltem) between the pure animal and the impure, and between the impure fowl and the pure; and you shall not contaminate your souls by animal or by fowl or by all that creeps on the ground, which I have separated from you as impure.  And you shall be holy unto Me, for I God am holy, and I have separated you from the nations to be Mine."

 

            Three different concepts are combined here; holiness, impurity, and separation.  The verb "havdil" (separation) is repeated a number of times as being the activity that has been commanded by God when He gave us the laws of forbidden foods.  Aside from any particular understanding of a given category of forbidden foods, these verses indicate a major element in the very idea of forbidden foods.  Man is commanded to distinguish, to separate between that is before him.  In a striking correlation, God says to the Jews - You must separate between animals, as I have separated you from the nations.  The very existence of Israel is based on separation, distinction, and this is reflected in a basic Jewish activity - separation and distinction within the world that is before us.

 

            When we discussed Shabbat, we noticed the connection between holiness and separation, as reflected in the havdala blessing.  It is not surprising to find the same connection here.  Holiness requires separation, distinction.  But an element is added here that is not stressed in the holiness of Shabbat.  "You shall be holy (by following the laws of kashrut), AS I, YOUR GOD, AM HOLY."  Once again, the laws of kashrut, of examining what we eat, rejecting some and accepting others, is a reflection of God.  He has separated us, so we must separate things before us; He is holy, so we are to be holy.  Our problem now is to understand what is the value in separation, and how it is connected to holiness.

 

II

 

            We saw in our discussion of Shabbat that the negative commandments, the prohibitions, were the framework on which the positive content of Shabbat could be hung.  Rav Soloveitchik would often stress the priority of prohibitions in Judaism in general.  He stressed the inherent value in the act of withdrawal.  This quality, the ability to draw back, to refrain, is associated in Jewish thought with the Divine attribute of "gevura," strength or greatness, the greatness of the heroism of the spirit.  It is paired with, and balanced by, the attribute of "chesed," of giving, of producing, of creating.  Greatness, the Rav would tell us, is found primarily in withdrawal, in heroic restraint.  Precisely because Man is endowed with the spark of divine creativity, it is necessary for him to first of all develop the quality of restraint so that his expansive creativity should have form and value.  The principle of havdala teaches us that only within firm borders can kedusha, holiness and expansiveness, become concrete.  It is indeed true that there may be no positive content to prohibitions in themselves.  Nonetheless, the Rav would say that through them one attains the state of saintliness (as opposed to kingship).

 

            The human spirit, as a reflection of the divine, strives to conquer, to expand, to ingest, and to experience.  That is the positive "fuel" of its greatness.  But that drive, that movement, if not tempered, or rather anchored, by restraint and gevura, becomes nothing more than devouring greed and swollen egotism.  Humility is a prerequisite of greatness, even as it psychologically contradicts it.  This is a basic paradox, which we instinctively recognize yet find so hard to understand.  Judaism recognizes that the greatest evils derive from the same spiritual striving as do the greatest accomplishments of the human spirit.  Esau, the tyrant and murderer, is the twin of Jacob.  The difference is not in their positive spirits, but in the gevura, in the ability to hold back one's hand.  This is based on "le-havdil" - to separate, to distinguish, to approach every situation first and foremost with a prior understanding that not all can be conquered, not all can be accomplished, molded into man's spirit.  There is a part of the world that is meant to resist man, to remain outside his reach.  Why?  Because that, too, serves man.  If everything can be yours, then man's greatness loses its moral basis, and nothing has been genuinely achieved.

 

            Let me illustrate this in another way.  Our usual way of thinking is that morality consists of not doing anything wrong.  If there is someone beside me, I should not steal his money.  Suppose I am on a desert island, alone, with no one else.  I do not steal, do not kill, do not oppress. I am blameless.  But am I living a moral life?  Is it not necessary that there be someone else, richer than I, beside me, so that I not steal from him?  If we live in a society where all are rich, and there are no problems to solve, is our character the same as that of one who faces iniquity and rules his spirit, restraining it, setting firm boundaries to his conduct?  Modern Western society has, in recent years (perhaps unconsciously), set for itself a goal of eliminating moral choice, of reaching a state where evil is defeated by making everything permitted.  It is possible that this makes life happier - I doubt it - but it surely has not made human life greater.  There has to be a choice in order for there to be meaning to the restraint.  The world is created in such a way that parts of it are out-of-bounds, in order not that we should conquer them, but that we should conquer our selves, conquer our very spirits, not because the striving was bad, but because its good is dependent on its being based on the power of withdrawal.

 

            (The Rav zt"l, Rav Soloveitchik, discerned in this law a basis for the tragic nature of life.  All human achievement must be tinged with failure, with withdrawal at the height of success, as Moses discovered on the peak of Mt. Nevo, from where he could see the promised land but not reach it.  The Sages state that a man does not depart from this world with even half of his desires achieved.  There is, of course, an inherent contradiction in this situation.  Most of us do not object to restraint, to morality, on the condition that we be convinced that the thing we are giving up was a bad thing, or at least bad for us.  But not eating poison is not a moral sacrifice at all.  It is only by restraining the genuine spiritual expansiveness of man that one purifies it of its self-satisfying greed.  The paradox is internal: since humans are created in the image of God and have the capacity to be like God, therefore they must restrain that very capacity, in order that it indeed be the image of God, and not a graven image of wood and stone.  Humility, restraint, not being creative, is an essential element in true creativity and greatness.)

 

            Hence the stress on havdala as the basis of being holy, "AS I AM HOLY."  Man can accomplish a lot without restraint, conquer worlds like Alexander the Great, but it will be merely human accomplishment, natural achievement, with no transcendent value, ultimately nothing at all on the cosmic scale, like the statue of Ozymandias.

 

"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away."

 

            In order to be like God, to create true value, one must be holy, as God is holy, and that is found precisely in the "le-havdil," to separate the pure from the impure, to distinguish.

 

III

 

            But why, you will ask, why food?  Why not something more important?  If it is primarily a moral quality, then stealing and murder are sufficient to be moral restraints, not something as innocuous and as morally neutral as eating.  Why make choices about steaks?

 

            The answer is in a sense identical to the question.  Because eating is so basic, so natural, so universal, it is crucial that the basic movement of withdrawal and separation be inculcated there.  It is immediately apparent that halakha almost never is directed directly to the spiritual values which we discuss.  It is an axiom of halakha that man must shape his basic existence, the parameters of his daily, natural life, in order to be free to find value and achievement in his personal life.  There is no halakha to be great, to conquer, to create.  That is the inner spirit of halakha, but it is achieved by regulating the nearly unconscious aspects of daily life.  For man to be great, withdrawal has to become virtually an instinct.

 

            Halakha is very concerned about eating, precisely because it is a natural, basically animal, process.  We eat to assuage our hunger.  We eat in order to ensure life, not in order to give it content.  It is more basic (and hence, less value-oriented) than other human experiences.  That is why havdala belongs there, so that havdala also become a basic human attribute and not one that we apply when we see the need for it.  As usual, halakha attempts to slip in beneath our skin - in this case, literally.  We are not worried about man doing something wrong, but about his transforming his life to one of holiness.  Even eating - no, precisely eating! - must be the bearer of holiness, so that holiness not be something I engage in, on Shabbat, or in synagogue, but rather something I AM.  The act of withdrawal is valuable in and of itself, and not only because the object given up was in fact bad for me.  This message, the value of havdala for itself as a basis for holiness, must be imparted in an area whose moral value is hidden, where the spirit of conquest knows no reason to desist, where the inner drive of man demands only satisfaction.  If man can learn not to eat like an animal, not to eat only to satisfy himself, he has learnt restraint.

 

            There are of course positive actions whereby man distinguishes his eating from that of the animal.  All societies insist on such marks.  Halakha also has precepts that impart to our eating a higher framework.  We shall discuss halakhic "table etiquette," and how it differs from Emily Post, shortly.  But here we return to the previous point, the priority of the negative over the positive.  Restraint is more basic, more heroic, than the positive input, even though the positive input has more content.  First man must restrain himself, must learn the borders of his experience, and then, and only then, can he start to endow his experience with content.  Indeed, even eating can achieve positive value, as we shall see.  But first, it must be "separated," and, in this case, this is necessary not only for endowing eating itself with kedusha, but as a prerequisite for endowing all of human activity with kedusha.

 

IV

 

            I would like to conclude with a personal note.  I grew up in the fifties and sixties in New York, observing kashrut basically instinctively, at a time when there was not a great supply of kosher food.  When traveling, we took along food without even thinking, knowing that we would not find much to eat on the way.  (The memory of matza and salami sandwiches at the 1964 World Fair is one of the fond shared experiences of my generation.)  I think an unconscious part of my experience is the feeling that large parts, the major part in fact, of the gastronomical world, was off limits.  (Modern food technology, with its many additives, has vastly increased the scope of non-kosher foods.)  This was so much so, that I was not actually consciously aware of withdrawing, of restraint.  My world was divided into two, and the other side practically did not exist.

 

            In 1974, I found myself in Hawaii for three days, with no food other than fresh pineapple, and, for the first time in my life, I found myself, hungry, walking down a street permeated with the smell of sizzling hamburgers, and feeling a desire to eat.  The Rambam states that one should not say about nonkosher food - "I simply cannot eat that" - but rather - "I can, but God has forbidden it."  That was the first time that I genuinely fulfilled that statement - the hamburgers seemed to me to be good and desirable, but it was forbidden.

 

            I have lived in Israel for twenty years.  Generally speaking, food is kosher.  I realized (instinctively, not intellectually), as my children grew up, that they were missing a POSITIVE experience of my childhood, learning that you can't eat everything.  It was with relief, and not sadness (though I am not happy about the reason for this), that I started teaching them that you have to check a falafel joint before you eat there.  Kashrut is loaded with possible "chumrot" (stringencies) beyond the absolute requirement of the law, and sensitive religious people often wonder about their value.  All too often we find people who are extremely stringent about what they eat and not, unfortunately, about how they conduct their business, or about what comes out their mouth.  But in this case, I was very happy that I have some chumrot in kashrut, so that my children can have something to be "mavdil," to separate and distinguish, in the foods that are presented before them.  I know this sounds like I am saying that if my whole neighborhood were kosher, I would have to invent a chumra even if it did not exist.  That is correct: that is what I am saying.  Perhaps that is why God created pigs - so that we can refrain from eating them.

 

            Next week, we shall examine the different categories of kashrut - species, meat and milk, slaughter, vegetative restrictions, and try to understand the individual meaning of each, at least to some extent.  Until then, bon appetit!