RELIGION: The discipline of keeping kosher in today’s world

Parashat Shmini

Lev. 9:1-11-47

We are fortunate in today’s world that more packaged foods have kosher marks (hechshers) than ever before. It gives those people who keep kosher a nice level of comfort when they shop for foods. Nevertheless, the choice people make to keep kosher or not, or to come up with a level they are comfortable with, is an ongoing process many people live or struggle with. Many ask why do we need to keep kosher, what’s the meaning, what’s the value and what’s so terrible if we don’t.

Cantor Ralph Goren
Cantor Ralph Goren

The Torah portion of Shmini spells out a very specific set of kosher laws that state which animals are kosher (permissible) and those that are not. By itself, the questions that we ask aren’t answered just by spelling out the laws, so commentators over the centuries have come up with explanations that try to make them palatable to human reasoning. I’ve always appreciated one very basic interpretation–keeping kosher is a way of teaching discipline. Choose how we eat so we choose how we live. We can help discipline ourselves by choosing the guidelines that are given.

That’s great, but still leaves a spiritual void as to why certain animals are on the list of permissible animals, and others are on the non-permissible list. Put even more simply, why is one list good and the other isn’t. No matter what kind of explanation we are given, spirituality requires some degree of faith that expects us to accept things at face value. Therefore, while the above explanation gives us some sense of rationale, the rest is up to us to be spiritual and accepting. We can’t rationalize that we can’t eat pork because pigs live dirty lives–chickens also live dirty lives and can be made kosher.

Keeping kosher has always been associated with Jewish identity, a sense of being different.

Different doesn’t mean special. Different implies setting an example for the rest of the world. Therefore, if we are disciplined with laws of Kashrut, and also with laws of purity–both spelled out in Shmini, we as Jews have a special way of being a Light unto the World.

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