Sunday, September 5, 2010

Can We Modify the Definition of Kashrut?

We are what we eat.  The more I study Jewish dietary laws and the reasoning behind them, I find that dietary choices reflect one's personality.  The piggishness of many Americans brings new meaning to "you eat like a pig."  In contrast, people who make conscientious decisions regarding their diet, whether it is in keeping with the traditional notion of kashrut or keeping vegetarian out of a sanctity of [animal] life, are, by and large, more refined individuals.

Back in December 2009, I had done a series of blogs on what it means to keep kosher.  I had analyzed the reasoning from spiritual, ethical, nationalistic, and health-based reasons given from Jewish tradition.  Even after posting those blogs, I had always came back to the questions of "Why Kosher?" and "What Does It Mean to Keep Kosher?"  I ask these questions for two reasons.  The first reason is that I am a strong proponent in the Maimonidean concept that the Torah is human-oriented, which means that the purposes of Torah are to refine the individual and to refine humanity.  The second reason is because so much has changed in recent history that different questions are being asked than they were fifty or a hundred years ago.

Some people might be shocked to find that the motivation for writing this blog entry is an article from the Reform Movement that touches upon this very topic.  Although I generally disagree with the Reform Movement for a myriad of reasons, I still believe that a broken clock can at least be right twice a day.  And so it goes with this article.  It got me pondering whether we can modify the definition of kashrut.  For the more traditionally-minded, I'm not going to tackle the myth of "nothing ever changes in Judaism" because it should be self-evident that plenty has changed since Moses came down from Mount Sinai.  But I hope that you also realize that I chose the word "modify" over "change," which has the implication that I am not looking to automatically throw out every dietary law on the books.  I am, however, looking for a way to make sure that by either rendering new meanings or re-discovering traditional meanings to our dietary practices, kashrut becomes neither trivial nor vapid.

I am glad to see that the Reform Movement brought up questions of whether it has a hechsher or if is in accordance with Jewish law.  These are important questions to bring up in mind since it we are talking about what it means to eat Jewishly.  Ultimately, when I refer to modification, I am talking about the possibility of taking other factors into consideration when determining whether something is fit to eat.  I think asking this is of importance because the word "kosher" literally means "fit" or "proper," and is not limited to food consumption.  Therefore, it gives us license to bring in other factors. 

For instance, the article brings up whether in our food consumption, we violate the mitzvah of b'al tashchit (not wantonly wasting or destroying).  If Jewish tradition teaches us that we are supposed to be so meticulous that we are not supposed to even destroy a mustard seed, then we should bring this environmental consciousness within our Jewish practice.  By considering b'al taschit, we can turn something as seemingly mundane as recycling or not buying more food than we need into a spiritual act.

Shemirat Haguf, protection of the body, is another Jewish value I think many forget.  Is the consistent eating of fatty meats and sugar-packed desserts kosher, even though they have kosher certification on it?  Nope!  Deuteronomy 4:9, 15 teaches us to protect our bodies because our bodies are the vessels in which we do mitzvot.  We are also taught to choose life, and that means prolonging our lives.  It doesn't matter if the unhealthy food stocked in your kitchen has the proper certification.  If you are making poor dietary decisions that deteriorate the overall health of your body, that is not kosher.

Tza'ar baylei chayim, the mandate not to treat animals cruelly, is yet another Jewish value to consider.  We have to keep in mind that modern agriculture is very different from that of our ancestors.  It has essentially become a greed-motivated, assembly line process where animals are cramped into cages (i.e., it's anything but free range) and treated miserably.  Do we go about considering the treatment of our animals when we purchase them?  Shechita, kosher slaughter, is the most compassionate way to kill an animal.  But if we are going to be concerned with the suffering of an animal at Point Z, shouldn't we be equally concerned with the animal's well-being from points A to Y?

Postscript: Much of the questions that the Reform Movement presented in their article are still in the exploratory phase for me and my attempt to properly define what it means to eat in a kosher manner.  Even so, I can state that in my life, keeping kosher will go beyond the certification process.  As I continue to ponder these questions, I hope to come up with more answers and more insight not only as to what keeping kosher means, but also why and how these new factors resonate with a twenty-first century Jew who is looking to preserve tradition while still bringing in innovation and change in his Jewish practice.   

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