How the Irrelevant and Meaningless became Central and Meaningful


Keeping Kosher


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What? So, Now You're Keeping Kosher?

By Michael H. Zaransky

I had enough. The question was asked over and over again by my friends, when I would pass on the Chicken Soup, Chicken Parmesan, and even "Kosher Style" Corned Beef for a vegetarian omelet, grilled tuna steak, or a chopped salad....hold the bacon and turkey. I knew I needed a better way to explain my transformation to observing the laws of kashrut in my mid forties. The explanation was particularly important after a lifetime of Ribs, Cheeseburgers, and the finest in Shrimp and Lobster.

The how to of keeping kosher was common knowledge to me early on in life. I was provided with a traditional after school religious education (just memorize the prayers don't ask why we say them) and raised in a kosher home. I never was exposed to the why keep kosher side of the issue. It was then, as many of my generation and background can attest, considered enough to teach children the how and be expected to accept that the why was simply because "God commanded." As I matured, the idea of keeping kosher was not even a consideration because the antiquated dietary laws were so clearly irrelevant and without meaning for me.

It is the why that so many modern commentators and great Jewish minds feel my generation so desperately seeks. Jewish ritual practice, as a result of the power of modernity is, in my view, in danger of extinction unless we make observing laws such as kashrut relevant to peoples lives. Without the why, we will loose the next generation from Jewish ritual observance and community. This essay is an attempt to give you my answer to the question, as to why I decided to keep kosher. It is as much an explanation of my evolution as a more observant Jew as a hopeful guidepost to others of my generation and the generation of my children.

It changed for me several years ago when I began to reexplore and reenter my Judaism. As my knowledge and observance level started to increase, I was exposed to a wealth of insight and commentary that combined to bring new relevance of kashrut observance into my life. I finally learned the why. Dennis Prager in A Common Sense Approach to Jewish Observance, published in Ultimate Issues, April-June, 1989, got me through the first barrier and opened my eyes to the possibility of greater observance when he explained that "you don't have to be Orthodox to observe Jewish law. You merely have to want to be deeper, lead a richer and holier life, and become a serious Jew."I knew I was serious about my Jewishness, felt at home in the more liberal non-orthodox movements, and wanted a deeper and more meaningful life, so I began my Journey.

I must acknowledge the loving teaching and direction received from the three members of the Clergy at my Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Illinois, Cantor Steven Stoehr, and Rabbis Carl Wolkin and Adam Wohlberg along with the staff and faculty of the Wexner Heritage Foundation led by Rabbis Nathan Laufer and Shoshana Gelfand. These individuals, together with Wexner faculty members Rabbis Irwin Kula and Saul Berman opened my eyes to the beauty and meaning of Jewish observance and the joy of living a more Jewish life. I am forever indebted to each of these wonderful teachers and role models. My thoughts on keeping kosher, as well as my desire to write about Jewish observance, are largely motivated and formed as a result of these outstanding Jewish educators. Many of the ideas and philosophies I have adopted belong to these teachers and those that have influenced their teachings.

So, this assimilated suburban Jew, affiliated with the Conservative movement, became kosher in the course of my studies while searching for greater meaning and closeness to God. The fact is that if the Torah can create meaning in our lives, and teach us how to live as a better people.

The laws of keeping Kosher are among the most distinctive of practices and have been followed by generations of the Jews going back at least 3,000 years. Keeping Kosher and eating in a distinctive prescribed way has been as much a part of the history of the Jewish people as is our biblical master story. The fact that our method of distinctive eating has predated me and my contemporaries by at least 50 generations, and that the dietary laws are a part of the Jewish master story that has been "our" story for so many years, is enough for me. When I take a pass on a cheeseburger, I am identifying with millions of Jewish ancestors who came before me. When those brave wandering Jews in the Exodus story received the original laws of kashrut and passed on the rules from generation to generation thereby preserving the observance until today, they were leaving a legacy unique to the Jewish people. When I refuse to order sausage and pepperoni on my Pizza, and instead opt for mushrooms and onions only, I'm not just keeping my cholesterol and fat intake down,

I am carrying on a tradition embraced by my great, great grandparents and their children and grandchildren. I am honoring the tradition that past generations of my people were murdered for.

In addition to creating an affinity with previous generations of Jews, keeping Kosher makes me feel a part of the Jewish people today and gives me a strong sense of identity. I am connecting vertically as well as horizontally with my people. My everyday acts of eating and choosing what and how to eat are performed simultaneously with other Jews living and practicing the laws of kashrut today. When I sit down for my kosher dinner, millions of other fellow Jews, all over the world, are eating in the same distinctive manner. Together, even though we don't all know each other, we are creating a community. We are making conscious choices as to how and what we eat thereby separating our acts of eating from the rest of the world. By eating in our own distinct way, we are all creating a unique and holy community and identifying with the tradition of our people. We become participants, as a Community, in an observance that is a highly visible part of a religion that has survived longer than any other known religion.

"It is the consciousness of the act," teaches Rabbi Irwin Kula that creates community and makes the act distinctively Jewish. My conscious decision to eat a kosher hot dog at a ball game, because I won't eat non-kosher meat, transcends the decision of the guy in line behind me buying a kosher hot dog because the wait is shorter than at the crowded general non-kosher concession stand. This, even though we are both engaging in the very same act of eating the same kosher item. Eating kosher meat due to a knowing decision to follow the laws of kasrut reminds us from where all of our food and sustenance comes from. God is the ultimate provider of our food. By limiting what we eat, following fixed dietary laws, and making a knowing decision as to what to eat, we are not just grabbing anything and everything.

Rabbi Saul Berman drives the point home when he teaches that a major purpose of the laws of keeping kosher are to constantly remind us that God remains the owner of everything in the world. We are not free to just eat anything we see or desire. We did not create anything and have no right to just take and eat whatever we choose. We are not the masters of everything on earth...there is a superior being who is the master.

It has become clear to me that aside from creating a sense of identity with previous and current communities of other Jews, and the acknowledgment of God's supreme mastery of all that there is, keeping kosher is a highly ethical system that leads to making one a more compassionate and better person. The strict regulations on the limited types of animals and method of slaughter for permitted meat leads to less and more humane killing of animals for human consumption. The kosher ritual slaughter of animals is a quick and less painful method of providing us with our meats as compared to methods used at today's corporate mass production meat and poultry operations. The limitation on the types of meats we can eat, to the exclusion of animals of prey, further reduces the killing and prohibits animals that kill other animals for their own food as unsuited for human food.

By separating milk from meat, we are symbolically recognizing the distinction between death and the joy of life. The meat we consume comes from a dead animal, whereas, our milk comes from an animal which is very much alive. Moses Maimonides, the great twelfth century Jewish sage, taught us that milk sustains and symbolizes life. It would be perverse to cook an animal we have slaughtered to consume in milk. The life sustaining and symbolic life attribute of milk, when viewed with this consciousness, makes it feel wrong to consume milk together with a meat product. By separating milk and meat, we give reverence to the sanctity of life and do not flaunt the fact that we kill animals to satisfy our desire to eat meat.

In an address titled A Story of Two Loves: Building Jewish Leadership and Jewish Community , Dr. Norman Lamm, President of Yeshiva University observed that "all of us are in search of something transcendent, something nobler, something exalting, to touch our lives, grab us, uplift us, fill the emptiness within us with new meaning and new insight." Rabbi Nathan Laufer teaches that "to be spiritual you can be anywhere; to be Jewish, you have to be with the Jewish people." I have found new meaning and a way to feel uplifted in the everyday experience of the new way in which I now eat. I have also, at the same time, found a way to be with and feel part of the Jewish people, both past and present, through the observance of the laws of kashrut.

I communicate with God by the ritual act of keeping kosher and following the over 3,000 year old dietary laws. My generation increasingly wants to feel engaged in our lives and connected

to meaning and purpose. For me the change in my eating practices in conformity with the laws of keeping kosher leaves me with an overwhelming sense of acknowledgment of God's presence, identifies me with my people, and makes me realize that we have an obligation to eat in an ethical and compassionate manner. I have finally discovered the why of keeping kosher.


from the January 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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