Kashrut From a Place Other Than Fear and Disgust – Leviticus 11:1-47
I grew up respecting the laws of kashrut, and have accepted an explanation that says that distinguishing between the animals Jews can eat and those that are forbidden differentiates the human being from the beast: we must exert self-discipline and deny ourselves the pleasures of certain kinds of meats so that we do not assume that everything is here on Earth solely for our own pleasure. I know that is only a very simplistic explanation, but let’s leave it at that for the moment, because what struck me in reading this verse in its entirety was not being denied the option of savouring shrimp, lobster and pork-chops (I am vegetarian in any case), but, rather, the disgust inherent in even just touching, never mind devouring, such food stuffs.
With all its talk about “tameh” (impure, unclean, defiled, contaminated) and “sheketz” (abomination) the reading really drives home the horrors of eating non-kosher meat. Perhaps once upon a time it was important to instill fear in order to achieve compliance. But it appears that fear remains as a major motivator for following these rules even today.
While religious people may deny that there is fear involved, I beg to differ – listening to people who have left the religious fold you hear much about being afraid of doing things for the first time that were part of an observant lifestyle. As they move to embrace secularism, some are scared that the sky might cave in on them, so to speak.
In this parasha, we are hounded with the apprehension of partaking in an “abomination”. If it is an abomination to eat these foods, does not the language of the Torah set us up to be arrogant toward the non-Jew who regularly eats treif? To be arrogant toward the secular Jew who does not keep kosher?
Looking at it from another perspective, according to some cultures, we are what we eat – cannibals build a whole philosophy on that – eating the flesh of the deceased who have qualities they want to imbibe. Therefore, the sense of eating food that is considered an abomination means taking within me that very abomination and perhaps growing disgusted with myself. Another kind of fear to keep the Jew kosher?
Furthermore, those who follow Jewish dietary laws cannot eat at the homes of those who do not. The Jew observing the laws of kashrut cannot eat from pots in which non-kosher meat has been cooked or on dishes on which it has been served. For the very religious, even a promise that the secular household has always been strictly vegetarian does not soften the attitude. I have spent evenings with people who would only drink water from a glass. Nothing more.
This results in dividing peoples who might otherwise intermingle more freely. Conjoint dinner parties become an issue – paper plates and plastic cutlery are mandatory, the ones following kashrut will only eat foods they themselves contributed to the meal, or pre-cooked dishes bought in places with the kashrut certification recognized by that individual (there are more than one) and unopened before being set on the table.
The more I study Jewish sources, the more I appreciate the ethical and moral foundations upon which our people relied in our early developmental stages in the insanely barbaric Middle East of Biblical times. Separation from other peoples was probably justified at that time, and promoted cementing of the Israelite tribes into a nation.
However, experiencing the divide as I grew more observant in my 20s brought me, personally, to a critical choice-point. I had friends who were secular Jews and friends who were not Jewish at all. They were important to me. I wanted to feel comfortable eating and drinking with them wherever we went. When I finally realized that religious observance was not for me (and not only because of this), I was relieved to return to eating off friends’ plates even if they cooked non-kosher meat on them.
When I more recently came across a deeper meaning, the symbolism in fact, behind those animals we are permitted to eat and those that we are not, I felt my inner world vibrate in an exciting way that only happens when something feels right to me: when the emotional, cognitive and spiritual sides of my being are in synch with each other.
In brief, there are two characteristics that need to be present in mammals that render them kosher – cleft hooves and chewing their cud. While there are many mammals with neither, only four have one but not the other: the camel, the badger, the rabbit and the pig.
Each of these animals represents a nation that separated the Israelites from Eretz Yisrael after Moses had brought us to our promised homeland. The camel represents the Babylonian Exile, the badger, the Persian period, the rabbit the Greek influence that secularized a large portion of our people and enticed them away from religious studies and practice and therefore was a spiritual and not physical separation from the Land. Finally, we have not long ago ended the most recent exile, the 2000-year exile resulting from the Roman Conquest.
This last period of dispersal is represented by the pig and is supposed to be the final dispersal before the coming of the Messiah. In fact, the word “pig” in Hebrew has the same root as the word for “return”. And we Israelites have returned as a sovereign nation to Eretz Yisrael!
There is, of course, a lot more to explore concerning the spiritual significance of kashrut. What I am struck by with this tiny bit of learning is how different it can feel to become aware of the spiritually metaphoric significance of following an otherwise seemingly concrete and arbitrary law, such as which animals to eat and which not to eat. Each time you see or think about one of the non-permitted mammals, it is a reminder of one of our four dispersals. Remembering that, connecting with history in this way, is far from an abomination. It is a reminder that there is a plan, that somehow on this seemingly inhumane planet there is a plan for something better. I wish that kashrut could be taught to everyone in that light and not just as rules that you follow because you are afraid to break them. I doubt my devout grandparents had even an inkling of the depth of the spirituality behind the laws of the kashrut they followed, well, religiously.
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Source: Moshiach in the Parasha
Image Credits: pixabay.com