Kashrut Today

 Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Congregation B’nai Israel

April 10, 2021

There is an old Jewish joke about kashrut and Mt. Sinai.

Gd says to Moshe “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Moshe said, “Ok, don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.  Don’t eat meat and milk together.”

Gd says to Moshe “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Moshe said, “Ok. Make sure to have separate cooking utensils for meat and dairy.”

Gd says to Moshe “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Moshe said: “Hmm, don’t eat dairy immediately after meat, let it digest a little bit.”

Gd says to Moshe “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Moshe said “Have separate kitchens for meat and dairy, have separate dishes and eating utensils, wait 6 hrs after meat or hard cheese, get multiple dishwashers and refrigerators . . .”

Gd says to Moshe—“Have it your way!”

As we just cleaned and reorganized and brought dishes and pans in and out for Passover, kashrut is on my mind.  As we read Parshat Shemini, finding the animals that we can and cannot eat, what goes into our body is seen as vital in our Torah.  Yet in 21st century America, kashrut is simply not a priority for many Jews.  Hundreds of years ago, if you did not keep kosher, you were making an ideological statement, “I do not consider myself Jewish.  I want out.”  Today that is simply not the case.  Many people strongly identify as Jewish, yet do think much about how we eat.  

Some people think we have created so many barriers to kashrut, adding layers of expense and requirements for giant kitchens.  We know that most of our ancestors had far less material wealth than we did AND they were able to keep kosher.  They could not go to the supermarket and find that more than half the products had reliable hashgacha, supervision. They had to examine and consider and talk with their rabbis!  They also had to trust a lot more.

Those who do not currently keep kosher may assume it is too challenging, too complicated or too difficult.  It may not be the easiest thing you do, but kashrut in the 21st century is easier than it has ever been.  Even here in St Petersburg, we have access to so much that our ancestors could ever have imagined!

In this week’s parsha, we have extensive definitions of the animals that we can and cannot eat.  We learn the difference between wet and dry cross contamination.  We learn the importance of both fins and scales for fish and that bottom feeders are abominations.  Yet the big question, WHY?, is less clearly articulated.

Over the centuries, rabbis have analyzed the reasons and meanings of mitzvot.  (They have also been severely criticized for doing so, in fear that a reason would give us a reason WHY NOT to do something.)

Our teachers have spoken of health benefits to kashrut, yet now that Oreos and almost all junk foods are kosher, that may be less true.

Our teachers have spoken of the spiritual benefits, of finding holiness in each moment, recognizing the Divine energy in this world and our opportunities to feel the sacred.  

The legalists see a code of Jewish law and tradition and follow it because it is what is expected.  Mitzvot, commandment, implies a Commander.  God said so, so case closed!

Others look at the potential for self-improvement.  If I can show discipline in my eating habits, then I can show discipline elsewhere in my life.  Even if I am hungry, I will never eat a cheese burger.  Perhaps I can show the same discipline in getting on my bicycle on a hot day!

Kashrut offers moral lessons.  Tzaar baalei chayyim teaches that we are not to cause undue suffering.  Shechita is supposed to be done in the most humane way, to prevent pain and suffering.  What happens when kosher factories do not treat their animals or workers appropriately?  Do they remain kosher?

Some may keep kosher because that is what their parents or grandparents did.  Tradition, social cohesion, connect us through what we eat.  But what if someone just really likes bacon?  Are they separated from the Jewish community?

Leviticus 11:44-45

כִּ֣י אֲנִ֣י ה’ אֱ-לֹֽהֵיכֶם֒ וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם֙ וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אָ֑נִי וְלֹ֤א תְטַמְּאוּ֙ אֶת־נַפְשֹׁ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם בְּכָל־הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ הָרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

For I the LORD am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not make yourselves unclean through any swarming thing that moves upon the earth. 

כִּ֣י ׀ אֲנִ֣י ה’ הַֽמַּעֲלֶ֤ה אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְיֹ֥ת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִ֑ים וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אָֽנִי׃ 

For I the LORD am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy.

It appears that our Torah does have the answer.  Kashrut is about ALL of those things.  Each individual answer or argument can be defeated, but the total package remains relevant.

In a world of imperfection, we are able to do our part to repair, to fix, to improve.  Keeping kosher helps us walk in God’s ways.  What we choose to put in our mouths really makes a difference in our lives.  Eating and identity are deeply tied.

I keep kosher for ALL of the reasons above!  As an observant Jew, I simply cannot imagine eating treyf.  I keep kosher to connect with my heritage.  I keep kosher to connect to my people.  I keep kosher to connect with my family.  I keep kosher, because it connects me with God.  Maybe the same will be true for you!   

My Sermon is at the 2h and 9 minute mark.