Saturday, December 12, 2009

Why Kosher?

Why Kosher?  It is the title of a book that I started reading today.  It is also a question I have been asking myself lately.  Between the list of forbidden animals, the prohibition against mixing meat and dairy, the waiting time between eating milk and dairy, the need for kosher utensils, not it's enough to make your head spin, but on some level, it explains why a vast majority of Jews don't keep it.  Coming from a Traditionalist mindset, difficulty of a practice isn't an automatic deterrent for me.  One way I overcame it was to simply become vegetarian.  Trust me, it makes keeping kosher infinitely easier!  But even if I didn't, it makes one wonder: why kosher?  Why did HaShem enact these dietary laws?

Some are of the impression that kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws, are a chuk, a law without reason, which usually comes along with the statement "We do it because HaShem told us."  Although that is all well and good, why did HaShem tell us?  Adhering to to a strong degree of rationalism in my life, I can hardly believe that HaShem, the Ultimate One whose divine wisdom is quite literally beyond imagination, would create us with divine intellect (see the fourth prayer of the Amidah), but keep the reasoning for His laws out of reach.  Maimonides didn't buy that argument, either.  As a matter of fact, he went as far to say that a chuk cannot exist, and implicity opines in the Guide for the Peplexed (III, xxvii-xxviii) that anyone who does is intellectually challenged.  Being an influence of Maimonidean rationalism, dismissing it as a "leap of faith" is irrational, which is why I have to question the reasoning for these laws.  Jews have come up with explanations for these laws, which is what I would like to explore.

With my conversations with non-observant Jews, I have asked them why they don't keep kosher on any level. The answer I almost always get is that medical technology brings the health risks to a negligble level. To bolster their argument, they bring this presumption into the playing field by saying since our government has high standards of regulation, the laws are made moot.  Another example of the dismissal of kashrut is citing the prohibition of pork, using the Bubonic Plauge and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic as proof, since both were transmitted by pig.  The recent H1N1 is also transmitted by pig, but that evidently doesn't stop them from pork consumption, but again, pointing out one's inconsistencies seems to be a digression at this point, so back to the topic at hand.  Since so many Jews are under the impression that HaShem provided the Jewish people with kashrut for health reasons, I figured that this would be a good place to start.

Rabbi Zalman Packouz came up with the following hygenic explanation: 

"There are many laws that promote health. Judaism forbids eating animals that died without proper slaughter and the draining of the blood (which is a medium for the growth of bacteria). Judaism also forbids eating animals that have abscesses in their lungs or other health problems.  Shellfish, mollusks, lobsters (and yes, stone crabs) which have spread typhoid and are a source for urticara (a neurotic skin affliction) are not on the diet. Milk and meat digest at an unequal rate and are difficult for the body; they are forbidden to be eaten together.  Birds of prey are not kosher -- tension and hormones produced might make the meat unhealthy."

 There are some valid points to be made.  Jews were a lot less likely to catch the Bubonic Plauge because they abstained from pork.  Shellfish, being bottom-feeders, cause certain illnesses.  Even a combination of milk and meat cause indigestion issues.  Although Rabbi Packouz illustrates some excellent examples of the connection between kashrut and health, I have a few issues with the "the Torah is a health guide" argument. 

First of all, keeping kashrut doesn't necessarily translate into healthier eating.  There's kosher fast food and there is kosher microwavable food, neither of which can be good for you.  If you consume an excess amount of beef, you will inevitably develop cardio-vascular issues later down the road.  Plus, non-kosher meats, such as rabbit or even ostrich, are actually healthier for you than some kosher meats, such as cow or goat.  And in terms of feeling better from a cold, a bowl of non-kosher soup would work just as well as a kosher one.

Second, if the Torah were considered as such, it would have ramifications, such as the following that are mentioned by Isaac Arami: "We would do well to bear in mind that the dietary laws are not as some have asserted motivated by therapeutic considerations.  G-d forbid!  Were that so, the Torah would be denigreated to the status of a minor medical treatise [own emphasis added]."  And even if it were a medical guide, why is it an incomplete one?  Many observant Jews take the text of the Torah to be complete, with plenty of commentary, to be sure.  So where's the cure for cancer or the common cold?

Although there are some health benefits to eating kosher, at the end of the day, kashrut is not meant to be a guide to healthier eating, much to the dismay of my non-observant Jewish friends.  In my next blog on this topic, I will explore the possibility of kashrut being practiced for nationalistic reasons.

1 comment:

  1. Just a quick note that has nothing to do with your main point, Yersinia pestis (bubonic plague) wasn't transmitted by swine. John Kelly, in his book, The Great Mortality, theorizes that it was first transmitted from Tarabagan marmots on the Asian plains, and of course later to rats on ships, to human hunters in that area. Then it was spread quickly to Italy, and the rest of Europe, because of commerce and transportation. No pigs necessary.

    Also, some Jews poisoned the wells or something.