The term "kosher" applies to all aspects of our lives, from business to morality to the food that we eat.
Even though “kosher” is mostly used in relation to food, it really refers to anything that is fit and proper according to halachah. Only a Torah scroll with all the letters intact is kosher for ritual use. “Kosher” can also refer to a person who lives a moral life. In business, a kosher transaction is an honest one.
It’s a widespread misconception that the dietary laws are ancient health measures — that our ancestors were wise, for instance, because they realized that the flesh of a pig sometimes contains worms that cause trichinosis. Or that it’s a filthy animal that wallows in the mud.
In the Torah, the pig is simply lumped together with the camel, the horse and the rabbit as not kosher because they lack certain physical characteristics irrespective of hygiene. A kosher quadruped must have cloven hooves and chew the cud. A pig has cloven hooves but does not chew a cud. Therefore, it’s not kosher.
Sheep, goats and cows are not any cleaner in a physical sense than pigs. Barnyard fowl, which are kosher, have no great reputation for cleanliness. Hygiene may be an indirect outcome of kashrut but it does not explain the origin of the rules.
A traditional view toward kashrut is that there is a benefit to the rules but that’s not the reason for them. Observant Jews keep kashrut because it’s commanded in the Torah. According to the Talmud, Jews should not say: “We do not eat the flesh of a pig because we do not like it.” Rather they should say: “We would like to eat it because it’s so tasty, but God has decreed otherwise.”
The only reason for food regulations in the Torah is the call for holiness, as stated in Leviticus 11:45: “For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.” In the Torah, holiness is the opposite of defilement, which is not a physical state, but a spiritual condition. Something that is holy elevates the soul; something that is defiling contaminates it.
We have English usages that play on the symbolism of clean and unclean: clean tongue, a person with clean hands; dirty mouth, dirty mind, dirty old man. We understand these phrases in a moral or spiritual sense. Holiness can be seen as a middle ground between denial of legitimate pleasures and excess. For example, Judaism views sex for procreation and pleasure within marriage positively but pornography and prostitution are examples of excesses that are out of bounds.
Though we do not know why some animals were permitted and others forbidden, we have searched for moral reasons: self-discipline to adhere to ethical actions; compassion for animals; a means of Jewish distinctiveness. What we eat is a way of identifying what we stand for. Think of the different kinds of diets and the values they represent. Vegans eat no animal products; ovo-lacto vegetarians eat dairy products and eggs; low-fat, low-cholesterol diets allow poultry and fish but no red meat.
Food is an area of life that identifies us with a group. Remember the scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen’s non-Jewish girlfriend orders a corned beef on white bread with mayonnaise? We insiders howl with laughter because the corned beef should be between rye bread smeared with mustard. Regardless of the degree of our observance of the dietary laws, they have played an important role in our Jewish identity through the ages.
Rabbi Fred Davidow is the chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home. Email him at RabbiFVD@aol.com.