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Why Keep Kosher? - Re'eh 5781

August 7, 2021

Chicken fried steak, donuts, cheese pizza, Doritos - all kosher! Keeping kosher does not automatically make for a healthier lifestyle. However, with real intention, keeping kosher can make for greater compassion, mindfulness, gratitude and ultimately, mental and physical health.

Parashat Re’eh covers all of our basic laws of kashrut, although this is not the first time in the Torah that we hear them. We only eat mammals who chew their cud and have split, cloven hooves; beef and venison are alright, but no pigs or rabbits. We only eat fish and seafood with fins and scales - salmon and tuna are great, but no shrimp or crawfish. And we only eat from a specific list of flying creatures - chicken and duck are good, but no eagles or bats. Yet again, we hear the classic line - לא תבשל גדי בחלב אמו - “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Deuteronomy 14:21), which eventually evolved into the Rabbinic understanding of not eating milk and meat together. We are told to pour out the blood from the meat we slaughter and not to eat n’veilah, an animal we have found to be dead; we must only eat meat that has been slaughtered in a specific way. Over the years, such practices have transformed; modern kashrut prescribes separate dishes for meat and milk, a waiting period between eating the two, and certification processes to ensure that food from restaurants and grocery stores are prepared according to the laws of kashrut. When we keep all of these rules in mind, we are compelled to think a whole lot about what, when, and how we feed ourselves. Eating becomes a practice in attention to detail.

When we keep kosher, we are forced to think about the morality of our eating practices. The animals we eat are not just food on a plate, but were once living and breathing beings. Because we want to make sure that the animals we eat have only suffered minimal pain, we only eat animals that have been slaughtered quickly, with the sharpest knife possible. When choosing which animals to eat, we must think about their actual body parts - their fins and scales, their hooves, their digestive systems; we must come face to face with the reality that we are eating organisms with bodies not so different from ours. As Professor Jacob Milgrom teaches, our separation of milk and meat prevents “the fusion and confusion of life and death. The mother’s milk, the life-sustaining food, should never become associated with death.” In kosher practice, we cannot eat animals or animal by-products without thinking about their origin.

More practically, in our modern world, keeping kosher means that we must keep a check on the amount of meat we eat. We cannot just go to the supermarket and pick up the first meat we see that is on sale, and we cannot just order the first thing we see on a restaurant menu. Especially here in Shreveport, we have to order our often-expensive meat from elsewhere or drive three hours to pick it up in Dallas. Beyond the symbolism of life and death, keeping kosher in a place like Shreveport actively limits our meat consumption, limiting the inevitable cruelty that comes with even the most humanely raised meat. 

In addition to sustaining the lives of animals, we know that limiting our meat consumption also helps our environment to restore itself - raising livestock requires breathtaking amounts of land and water and emits devastating amounts of methane. When we limit our meat consumption through keeping kosher, we preserve our natural world for those who will come after us. As Moshe tells us when he instructs the people Israel not to eat the blood of an animal, לא תאכלנו למען ייטב לך ולבניך אחריך כי תעשה הישר בעיני ה׳. You shall not eat it so that good will come to you and to your children after you, that you shall do what is right in the eyes of Adonai (Deuteronomy 12:25). By becoming aware of the life present in the food that we eat, we preserve this Earth not just for our own sake, but for the sake of those we love, who will exist long after we are gone. Even if keeping kosher does not necessarily limit our meat intake, it at least makes us acknowledge the life we are consuming.

Beyond the morality of kashrut, keeping kosher demands mindfulness in eating. We pause before eating ice cream to make sure we haven’t eaten meat in the last three hours, and we look at food labels before we buy or bite, to make sure we don’t see any offending ingredients. Although not necessarily a part of kashrut, we say blessings before we eat, giving us time to reflect on whether or not this food (or even this amount of food) is something we really want to put into our bodies. And we bless after we eat, giving us time to express gratitude to God, as well as to the people who brought this food to our plates, from the farmers, to the truck drivers, to the grocery store cashiers, to our spouse who did the shopping. With so many opportunities to pause in between acts of eating, we have the ability to embrace our own health and wellbeing through the mitzvot associated with keeping kosher.

Of course, kashrut brings us face to face with our Judaism throughout our day. Kashrut pervades every-day decisions, such as where and when to eat for dinner, what material of pots and pans to purchase, and what to look for in a potential kitchen. In making such decisions among friends and family, our Judaism comes out into the open; we proclaim our identity through what we are willing to eat. Keeping kosher truly fulfills the V’ahavta’s instruction to keep God’s words in our hearts, “when we are sitting in our house and walking on the way, when we lie down and when we rise up.” We remind ourselves of our adherence to God and responsibility to perform mitzvot with every bite we take.

No one I know has ever claimed that keeping kosher is easy. Taking steps towards kashrut requires conversations with friends and family, and buying kosher meat and new dishes can be expensive. I can say that I still eat food with kosher ingredients at restaurants that use their dishes to cook all types of food. I still eat food with kosher ingredients at the houses of family and friends who do not keep kosher, although I keep a fully kosher kitchen at home. For some, the hardest step to keeping kosher is giving up shrimp or pork. For me, it’s the conflict that comes from tricky conversations with loved ones, along with, quite honestly, the convenience of ordering lunch when I’m crunched for time. But the hardest step or steps do not have to preclude taking other steps towards embracing kashrut.

Keeping kosher can start with cutting out one type of food, like pork or shellfish. If you have already embraced that, you can try cutting out the mixture of milk and meat, buying only certified kosher meat, or even becoming vegetarian. If you are interested in keeping a kosher home, I am more than happy to help! I can advise on how to kasher different materials of pots and pans and tell you a bit about my experience explaining kashrut to visiting relatives. As our Sages teach in Mishnah Kiddushin (1:10), “Everyone who does even one mitzvah, it is good for them, and their days will be lengthened, and they will inherit the land.” Every time we say a blessing before we eat or choose not to put cheese on our burger, all with the intention of bringing Judaism into our every-day practice, we give ourselves one more chance at goodness and life.

Seven times throughout Parashat Re’eh, we are commanded ושמחתם or ושמחת - to rejoice or be happy, specifically when we visit the Temple in Jerusalem. Now that we have no universal place where we all gather to worship God, we must rejoice in the little, every-day moments of our lives. The pauses we take, the food choices we make, the pots and pans we purchase, and the way we bring all of that together to share our celebration with those we love can all contribute to our daily rejoicing, our daily health and happiness. Today, I look forward to the gift of eating kosher food with my Jewish community, in celebration of the prayer we have shared this morning. And I look forward to those questions I am bound to receive multiple times a week about which pots and pans and ingredients to use or not; every time I hear one of these questions, I hear another effort to bring God and Judaism into the kitchen, into the home, and ultimately, into the heart. Shabbat Shalom. 

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784