Refrigeration and Kosher Food: Rite or Right
This week’s Parsha talks about kosher food and discusses the signs and details that render an animal, bird, or fish kosher. Being as so many people think that these laws stem from a lack of refrigeration and other considerations due to the limitations of the ancient world, we will attempt to set the record straight by presenting a classical Jewish ideology of food and how it affects our lives. Like any other mitzvah, keeping kosher involves not only observing certain laws but also understanding some of the depth behind them.
Most traditional scholars have rejected the theory that the kosher laws are merely about physical health. The 15th century commentator Abarbanel (Leviticus 11), argues that attributing the laws of keeping kosher to medicinal reasons, makes the Torah a mere medical text. This is obviously not the case because there are many poisonous herbs that are not prohibited by the Torah. If the purpose of keeping kosher is no more than a health issue, why were these herbs not included in its prohibitions? Furthermore, non-Jews who eat all the foods forbidden to us appear no less healthy than Jews who abstain from these foods.
A similar argument was made in the 16th century Torah commentary, Akeidat Yitzhak (60), who argued that if the laws of keeping kosher were based on health, the Torah would not distinguish between Jew and non-Jew, as King David in Psalms (145:9) declares, “His mercies are on all His works.” Why were the laws of keeping kosher not incorporated into the seven Noahide laws [incumbent on all mankind]?
Abarbanel notes that the Torah uses the Hebrew word tamei (lit. spiritual defilement) with regard to non-kosher foods. “Tamei” signifies spiritual defilement, not physical harm. Therefore, it seems obvious that the kosher laws are not intended to heal bodies or provide for their material welfare, but to heal the soul and cure its illnesses.
Before talking about kosher food, let’s talk about food in general and its interplay in our life. We have a physical body and so do animals but we have a soul, a spiritual side, and that is something we have in common with heavenly beings. The goal of the human experience is to subdue one’s internal baser nature and live in accordance with a moral standard unique to humans. Humans protest cruelty to animals but the animal kingdom itself is cruel and a classic example of survival of the fittest. There are no animal shelters in the jungle or “safe places” but humans are expected to be kind and create safe havens not only for humans but for animals also. Humans aren’t just another mammal, we have a soul and are expected to be moral and protect and defend those weaker than us. However, a Jew has a different mandate; s/he is supposed to bring holiness from the soul to the body, to raise the mundane to a level of spirituality, and to sublimate and transform the temporal into the sublime. You don’t have to be born Jewish to be part of that mandate; anyone who wants to live that way can convert and buy into our vision. The main thing is to realize that we have a daily battle between allowing our bodily pleasures and comforts rule our lives or allow our spiritual side to be the dominate voice in making life decisions.
Human existence is a partnership between body and soul, in which each partner seeks controlling interest. Life’s vicissitudes – triumphs and failures, ascents and descents – are part of this ongoing struggle. The ultimate victory is not when a human can rule over an animal, it is when the individual can subdue and transform the animal within himself or herself.
The act of eating grants life to the human being and also is the point of fusion between the spiritual and physical. It is the place where combatants engage; where the ongoing struggle to forge a productive relationship between the physical and the spiritual is at its fiercest. It is no coincidence that in Hebrew the words for lechem (bread) and locheim (warrior) are etymologically connected.
There are two strategies in the battle for supremacy of the spiritual: abstinence – seeking to totally decimate the innate desire for consumption or redirecting and focusing one’s inclination by sublimating it to a higher purpose.
When G-d tells the Jewish people to be “People of holiness…for Me” (Exodus 22:30) He was not exhorting us to be angels, devoid of any darker side, he was directing us, says the Kotzker Rebbi (19th century), to be people of holiness, fully human yet totally sanctified. Holiness means not abstinence but rather full participation in all facets of life. G-d is not looking for angels, it is human beings—with all their frailties, weaknesses, and imperfections—living on an inspired and exalted plane, that He desires.
Bearing this in mind, we can understand why Maimonides (1135-1204), in his magnus opus on Jewish Law calls the laws governing morality in relationships and the kosher laws Kedusha—holiness. True holiness is extending G-d, spirituality, and the enhancement of His honor to the areas of life that are most prone to egotistical pleasure.
Being as Jews have a special mandate to bring holiness into the world, their souls require special food; when one does not eat it, it causes a loss of a certain degree of sensitivity, which the Talmud refers to as a dull heart (Yoma 39a). Compare this to being a marathon runner. One can’t just eat anything he or she wants before during and after training. In addition, it is not enough just to eat the right amount of protein, carbs and other foods, they must be eaten at the right time; one doesn’t eat a huge meal 15 minutes before running a marathon. If one choses to be a marathon runner, s/he must also realize that without the proper diet, s/he will not be able to accomplish his or her goal. Whether one is born Jewish or choses to become Jewish, we too run a long race throughout life of overcoming our animal side and being spiritual. When the animal in us takes over, we are selfish and will choose the biggest physical pleasure in front of us at any given moment, but when we are spiritual, we forgo that pleasure for something greater. For example, when one is wronged, the animal in him seeks revenge, the spiritual in him finds solace and grandeur in his ability to forgive. When someone attempts to seduce a married man, he can give into the physical pleasure of the hour or he can find spiritual fortitude and overcome his animal side and take pleasure in the fact that his love and commitment to his wife is more powerful than his animalistic urgings. Granted, every human has the ability master his or her animalistic nature, but the Jews have a special mission to do so.
The Ten Commandments and other ethical teachings of the Hebrew Bible have been the greatest cause of good to influence the world. As John Adams once wrote, “I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation. If I was an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations …” Being as we have this mandate, there is special spiritual food we eat in order to keep our sensitivities and moral barometers intact.
The food one eats has a profound impact upon one’s nature. One who eats a particular animal ingests its nature and characteristics as well. It is no wonder that all vegetative species are permitted by Torah law. These have no soul or character that can be absorbed by one who eats them. The animals permitted by the Torah are all ruminators that subsist on vegetative matter, but species of animal and fowl that are carnivorous are forbidden by the Torah. One who eats their meat will be influenced by their cruel nature and will make it difficult to grow in sanctity and closeness to G-d.
For not by bread alone does man live rather through the word of God does man live. (Deuteronomy 8:3)
In food of a forbidden nature it is the negative that controls and subverts the nature of a person. The laws of keeping kosher regulate human intake, allowing the spiritual life-giving element in food to connect with all that is Divine in man.
In Jewish consciousness, there is an idea that the world was created for the use of humanity; we are at the center of a great balance. If s/he is drawn after the world and is distanced from his or her Creator, s/he becomes ruined and ruins the world with him/her. However if s/he exercises self-control and cleaves to his or her Creator, using the world only as an aid in service of the Almighty, s/he is uplifted and uplifts the world with him.
Refrigeration does not determine the kosher status of food but one who ingests the meat of cruel birds or animals can make himself or herself cold and distanced from a warm and caring soul. Kosher is not just a religious rite, it is what enables us to be morally just and right.
(Source: The Kosher Kitchen: A Practical Guide by Rabbi Binyamin Forst is an exhaustive and hands on work about being kosher. The ideas presented above were taken from the authors Introduction pp. XXI-XXXIII)