Kashrut: My, How You Have Grown!

March 29th: Shemini
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This Torah portion has the beginnings of what we now call Kashrut, our Jewish dietary laws and customs. The first step is in Leviticus 11: “These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hoofs, with clefts through the hoofs, and that chews the cud—such you may eat.” After some specifics about mammals that either have split hoofs or chew the cud—but not both, the instructions continue with approved water-dwelling creatures: “anything that has fins and scales.” Birds and poultry do not seem to have any specific characteristics; rather there is a list of prohibited birds—with the understanding that birds not on the list are acceptable. There’s also a potentially disgusting angle. “Winged swarming things that walk on fours shall be an abomination,” but there are some insects that are permitted. “These you may eat among all the winged swarming things that walk on fours: all that have, above their feet, jointed legs to leap with on the ground…” I have never seen locusts for sale at kosher food stores, but, then again, I have never really looked for them.

This is the start, but our Tradition has grown this notion of acceptable food into a much more significant system. Today, the system of Kashrut has five basic components:
(1)   Which animals are acceptable to eat (among mammals, fish, birds, and insects)
(2)   How these animals are to be slaughtered and butchered
(3)   The separation between dairy and meat foods
(4)   The special Passover rules forbidding chametz (leavened grain products)
(5)   Rabbinical supervision and authorization—due to the ever increasing length and anonymity of the food supply chain

Of these five, only two and a quarter of them are in the Torah. The Torah does tell us to “return the blood—that is, the soul—to God” by letting the lifeblood drain onto the ground, but it does not include the elaborate slaughtering and butchering techniques (including the inspection, salting, and washing of the meat) that are now part of kashrut. The Torah tells us not “to boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” but it says nothing about separating dairy and meat foods in the general sense. And, the Torah says nothing about Rabbinical supervision—which happens to be the most complex and controversial aspect of Kashrut today.

Why did Judaism grow and enhance the system of Kashrut? What were the purposes of each innovation and addition to the process? Why does it resonate with so many Jews—and not resonate with many more? These are the questions I would like to approach this week.

The formative documents of Rabbinic Judaism—the Mishnah and the Gemara—do not explain the rationale for these dietary rules; they assume them and then discuss a host of details. Thinkers have been speculating as to God’s rationale—or the rational of the Sages who “interpreted” God’s instructions for a long time. Back around 2000 years ago, Philo Judaeus (25 BCE-50 CE), an Alexandrian Jew and Platonic philosopher, suggested that Moses was a great scientist and philosopher and prescribed the various mitzvot based on rational thinking. Philo’s approach is interesting, but it is inevitably speculation. The fact is that we do not know why God commanded what is in the Torah or why the Rabbis enhanced the message into what we now know as Rabbinic (or Traditional) Judaism.

The explanations that make the most sense to me come from two recent voices, the late Dr. Ellis Rivkin of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and Rabbi Marcia Prager of Philadelphia.

Dr. Rivkin discusses the development of Pharisaic/Rabbinic Judaism in his book, A Hidden Revolution: The Pharisees Search for the Kingdom Within. He notes the raging threat Hellenism posed to the then-traditional Jewish lifestyle in the third century BCE and sees the development of Rabbinic Judaism as a conscious attempt to craft a Jewish spiritual lifestyle as a counter-cultural option for Jews. This was accomplished by gradually adopting and adapting priestly practices and prohibitions for regular (non-priestly) Jews. Rather than occasionally attending sacrificial services at the Temple, regular Jews living outside of Jerusalem could pray more regularly and in their villages in a house of prayer called a synagogue. The priestly vestments were adapted and prescribed for regular Jews so that, through their clothing, they too could feel the ambience of holiness. Even the dietary limitations of the priestly sacrificial meals were adopted by many regular Jews as they sought to increase and enhance the Presence of God in their lives. The religion described and discussed in the Mishnah (225 CE) reflects a 400 year old “Oral Torah” process in which Rabbis and students sought to wrap themselves in adapted or newly developed religious techniques to help them feel closer to God.

 Rabbi Prager also discusses this process of sanctification. In her book, The Path of Blessing, she sees the practices of Rabbinic Judaism as techniques of mindfulness—of mental and spiritual focus—so that we can live life with more intention, moral integrity, and spiritual purpose. Is Hamotzi before eating bread for God or for us? It is for us in terms of reminding ourselves of the Divine and creative context in which we eat and live. And, it is for God in terms of mentally and spiritually connecting the Creator and the created. She even goes further. When we use the techniques of our Tradition, we turn ourselves into portals of Divine energy and thus bring God’s Presence—God’s consciousness and influence—into a world that yearns for it.

 Every layer of development and enhancement is part of this process. In order to sense God in a world that distracts our spiritual vision, our Sages have built upon the Biblical forms and crafted spiritual techniques to focus our attention on the Presence of God and to open ourselves to be channels for the flow of Divine energy into the world.

 From making the mundane slaughter of animals into an act of sanctification, from not boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk to separating all meat and dairy foods, and from elevating the local production of Kosher food to an institutionalized holy food industry, each step of the growth of Kashrut has been an attempt to fill our lives with meaning. Whether or not Jews follow Kashrut—and to what degree—is based on how this Divine connection through food resonates or does not resonate with their spiritual sensibilities.