Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Re'eh-5769 - THAT'S NOT KOSHER



Rabbi David Walk

This is probably a mistake. Generally, writing about mitzvoth, as opposed to stories or philosophy, doesn't work as well. And, if you must write about mitzvoth, the positives tend to be more popular than the negatives. This week we have the prohibitions of which animals we are forbidden to eat. Why couldn't the eating rules be stating in the positive? I think many of us would handle this situation better if it were presented as an obligation to eat steak rather than a prohibition against eating pork. This was a bad PR move on God's part. I think people are more comfortable with positives than with negatives, because they're so, well, negative. We like to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Well, we Jews do like to eat, so, let's take a look at this most famous Jewish law.

This brings me to the real problem: What's the whole idea behind keeping kosher? This is really a big argument. One team feels strongly that keeping kosher is reasonable because there are ethical and, perhaps, even medical reasons behind it. We are healthier and better for keeping kosher. The other team (basically captained by the Ibn Ezra, R. Avraham ben Meir, 1089-1164) believes that kashrut is totally a chok, a law which we can't fathom. The Ibn Ezra, who traveled extensively (not always voluntarily), talks about the strong and healthy sailors and stevedores who ate all that stuff prohibited by the Torah, while the kosher eating Jews didn't seem as hale and hearty. It was very common to have food taboos in ancient societies, but we would like to think that we can find some meaning in our practices beyond saying that it's a divine decree.

Allow me one editorial comment. Eating disorders (bulimia, anorexia, obesity, etc.) are a growing health emergency in western society. It's seems that the more we are able to feed ourselves, the greater issues we have with eating problems. It's almost like we were meant to live on the edge of food shortages. We don't handle surplus well. Perhaps a discussion of kashrut will give us direction on these other problems as well.

I believe that guidance to deal with this issue can be found in the verses which dictate the kashrut laws. There are two locations where the laws of kosher animals are found. One is in chapter eleven of Leviticus and the other is in this week's Torah reading, Deuteronomy chapter 14. Both places give general rules describing which mammals (with a couple of examples) and sea animals can be consumed. This is followed by a list of prohibited birds. Generally speaking we prohibit birds of prey and scavengers. Both of these sections are dominated by an instructive term. In Leviticus the word is sheketz, which appears eleven times. In Deuteronomy the expression is to'eiva, which introduces the entire section: You shall not eat any to'eiva (Deuteronomy 13:4). If you read this stuff in English you wouldn't even know that there was different terminology, because they both get translated as abomination. I love that word; you can really thunder it out. It's an abomination to God Almighty! If no one's around try it. Isn't that great? However, that doesn’t help us get any where in trying to understand why we keep kosher.

There's one verse in our Bible where both terms appear. So, the translators must run to their thesaurus (Deuteronomy 7:26). Art Scroll renders the combination as loathe and abominate; JPS has detest and abhor. Basically, both terms are understood to describe something truly gross. We Jews don't like this because we don't believe that Hebrew has synonyms. Every Hebrew word has an exact nuance different from every other one. This being the case we have to ascertain what is the point of sheketz which differs from the idea of to'eiva?

I would like to suggest that sheketz describes an object which physically nauseates the observer. This is a visceral, gut reaction to exclaim 'Yichsa (Hebrew)' or 'Feh (Yiddish).' To'eiva, on the other hand, is a more cerebral effect. This term is used for many moral issues, like honest weights and measure (Deuteronomy 25:16). To'eiva is less gross, than reprehensible. The rejection comes from the brain rather than from the kishkes. This distinction, I believe strongly, is very important. We're being told that we should be physically revolted by these animals and that after due consideration we intellectually arrive at the same conclusion. In other words the laws of kashrut should affect our brains as well as our tummies.

What's equally fascinating is the word kosher. It doesn't mean edible; it means fit and right. Our Sages use the word to describe witnesses and business practices. The word assumes ethics and honesty. So, it's a bit ironic when the bosses of the kosher food business don't always behave morally. We kosher consumers have been embarrassed by a number of scandals in the last few years. The shameful behavior has included fraud concerning the Jewish laws of kashrut, inhumane treatment of animals and illegal business practices. Somehow it seems that certain parts of the kashrut observing public are only outraged when the technical rules of keeping kosher are abused. I find that dismaying.

Thank God there are elements of the Jewish community who are fighting to bring ethics to keeping kosher. We now have advocates for the better treatment of the animals. There are groups fighting to make sure that the kosher companies keep up with environmental and health concerns. As of now these movements are a bit outside the mainstream of those who rigorously keep the laws of kashrut, but hopefully this awareness will grow.

It's imperative that when we claim to answer to a higher authority, we mean more than technical observances. Let us try to bring about the day when not only our food is kosher but the companies that provide it are kosher, too.