Read an Excerpt
Why is food such a big deal?
So much of Judaism, both religious and secular, is focused around the kitchen table and the stomach that you may have heard the following joke:
How can you sum up many Jewish holidays in four sentences?
1.They tried to kill us.
Name the Jewish holiday and the first thing that comes to mind is food. Chanukah—latkes; Rosh Hashanah—apples and honey; Pesach—matzoh brei; Purim—hamentashen; Shabbos—gefilte fish and kugel. Even some secular Jews refer to themselves with pride as “bagel and lox” Jews; they have shunned any form of religiosity, but they display their ethnic pride through what they consider one of the best parts of being a Jew—the food!
Food is often at the center of a family’s life together, and anything that threatens a family’s ability to eat together is seen as tearing apart the fabric of family life. Telling your mother you can’t eat the food she has lovingly prepared for you in her kitchen may devastate the woman who has been feeding you from the day you were born.
It is estimated that only 10 percent of American Jews keep kosher today—all Orthodox Jews, some Conservative Jews, and a smaller percentage of Reform and Reconstructionist Jews. Even within that 10 percent, there are varying levels of kashrus observance in and out of the home. If your family’s level of kashrus observance is not identical to yours and you don’t take the time to prepare your family for your kashrus requirements, you will encounter dismay and confusion when you attempt to eat together.
Let’s start by helping your family understand the philosophical underpinnings of keeping kosher. You will have to be able to explain to your family why you keep kosher and what keeping kosher actually entails. Your family may have only a cursory knowledge of kashrus and may hold some negative assumptions, which may lead to misunderstandings that can fuel unnecessary arguments. This can be especially tricky if your family does keep kosher, but not the same way that you do. So let’s try to answer the first basic question.
Why keep Kosher? How some nonobservant Jews view Kashrus
Many nonobservant Jews will acknowledge that, if they go back enough generations, they will come upon an ancestor who kept kosher. They will usually give one or more of the following explanations for why they do not believe it is necessary to continue this practice:
•Keeping kosher is no longer necessary or practical in modern-day, assimilated America.
•Keeping kosher separates observant Jews from nonobservant family members, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. It also makes them appear elitist, i.e., too good to eat the food of a decent fellow Jew or of anyone else with a clean kitchen and a good heart.
•The laws of kashrus were probably invented to protect Jews from unsanitary food preparation practices, but this is no longer necessary in today’s highly regulated food-processing environment.
•Kosher food is expensive, and buying and preparing it is inconvenient. Keeping kosher unnecessarily limits what kinds of food can be consumed in a country where we are fortunate enough to enjoy a high standard of living and in a world where we have a bountiful variety of foods from which to choose.
•Keeping kosher makes it nearly impossible to go out to eat, unless you happen to live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood where there are kosher restaurants.
•Keeping kosher creates big headaches at family gatherings and celebrations, when the focus should be on enjoying oneself and not on worrying about whether the hot dogs are kosher.
•If God is the master of the universe, it doesn’t make sense that He would care about whether a piece of cheese touches a hamburger.
During the course of a conversation about kashrus with nonobservant family members, you may hear some of the following:
•“What about respecting your parents and your family? Isn’t that more important than keeping kosher?”
•“What could be nonkosher about a leaf of lettuce? Let’s not get silly about this!”
•“My chicken-soup pot has only had chicken and vegetables in it! It’s never even seen a pork chop!”
•“Will anything I do ever be good enough for you?”
•“Just because you want to keep kosher, does everyone else in the family have to be like you?”
•“I haven’t been kosher a day in my life and God hasn’t struck me down yet.”
•“This is just the beginning. Next week you’re going to grow side curls and a long beard and look like one of those Hasidim from Brooklyn.”
You may also encounter family members of varying degrees of observance who feel that they do keep kosher. But their standards of kashrus are, for whatever reason, not the same as yours. In which case you may hear some of the following:
•“I’ve kept kosher longer than you’ve been alive!”
•“Uncle Harvey is kosher and he eats in our house!”
•“If it doesn’t say ‘pure vegetable oil’ on the label, I won’t bring it into the house. Why isn’t that kosher enough for you?”
A good thing to keep in mind is that many family objections reflect the fear that you have made religion, including keeping kosher, more important than caring about your family. This is something you will want to address whenever you think it has become an issue for your family.
So, why do observant Jews keep the laws of kashrus? Here’s one way of explaining it.
Why keep kosher? how the observant Jew views Kashrus
Although your relatives may believe that this is a very complex subject, and of course in some ways it is, here’s the bottom-line answer to this question that really explains it best: “Because God told us to.” For family members who want to understand more about this, we’ll expand that thought with a bit more detail.
The observant Jew believes that Torah is the word of God, transmitted—at first directly, and then via Moses—by God to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai more than 3,300 years ago. If you believe in the divinity of God and in the revelation at Mount Sinai, you are obligated to follow the laws contained within the Torah for all eternity, as the Torah itself dictates.
Unless they are atheists or agnostics, most Jews believe that some sort of divine “being” or “essence” was responsible for creating the world. The primary difference between traditionally Torah-observant Jews and Jews who are not traditionally observant is in the degree to which each believes in the Torah as the blueprint for how you must (not “should” or “might want to”) live your life.
If the Torah is the revealed word of God, and your goal in life is to live according to the way that God has outlined for you in His “book,” everything contained in that book must be taken seriously—the parts that tell you to honor your parents and not commit adultery, and the parts that tell you which animals are okay to eat and which are not. Is it sometimes hard to understand exactly what the Torah is trying to say to us? Yes, of course. Must we then rely on people who are steeped in Torah knowledge to help us understand what the Torah means and how it applies to us in today’s world? Yes, certainly. But this is the key point that is difficult for many nonobservant family members to understand: For the observant Jew, any debate on the importance of kashrus—or any other laws and precepts for that matter—is pointless. The only meaningful question is, “Did God give us the Torah?” If the absolute, undeniable answer to this question is “Yes!” then it is utterly logical for such a person to be completely committed to keeping kosher. It has absolutely nothing to do with how much you do or don’t love the nonobservant members of your family.
On a personal note
Early on in my marriage to my husband Stephen (we’ve now been married for twelve years), when I begrudgingly agreed to keep a kosher home, I still ate nonkosher food outside of the home and fought like heck the concept that an all-knowing, all-powerful being could be watching to see whether or not a pork chop touched my lips—and if indeed He saw such a thing, that He would care. Having been on more than my share of diets over the years, this felt like just another diet that I was trying to keep for the sake of peace in my home.
For the purposes of family harmony, as I explained in detail in my book Two Jews Can Still Be a Mixed Marriage, Stephen and I settled on keeping an “almost” strictly kosher home, which meant that I sometimes purchased foods that did not have actual kosher certification as long as they did not contain any actual nonkosher ingredients. I learned about keeping separate sets of dishes for meat and dairy, keeping separate sets for Passover use, and keeping meat and dairy products separate. I purchased my meat only from a kosher butcher and my children were raised kosher from birth, so they never knew what a cheeseburger tasted like.
For a number of years I kept kosher for several reasons, none of them really having to do with “because God said so.” Aside from accommodating my husband’s wishes as to how he wanted our home to be run and our children to be educated, I viewed it as an opportunity to learn self- discipline (a practice I didn’t always welcome). I loved the self-control I witnessed developing in my children. How many other children in a supermarket, having been told that a tempting piece of candy is “not kosher,” would simply shrug and say, “Okay, Mama!” I found it compelling to infuse my day with a dose of Jewish identity every time I picked up a piece of food, first to say a blessing, and then with the understanding that what I was eating was in accordance with Jewish law.
After about four years I started feeling weird when I grabbed some French fries at Burger King. (I had long since given up eating nonkosher meat outside my home, but somehow I justified the French fries to myself as nothing but potatoes and oil.) But the main reason I stopped eating nonkosher outside my home was so that my three young children would receive a clear, consistent message about our family practice—we keep kosher, in and out of the house. Although I acted as if I believed that keeping kosher was important to God and I was at that time engaged in the study of Torah with rabbis and teachers, I was still keeping kosher only for the sake of my family. Although I would occasionally resent the restrictions, that was a good enough reason for me at that time in my life.
I will never forget the day that I lost all of my resistance to keeping strictly kosher. My husband and I, along with our children, were attending a weekend retreat sponsored by a Jewish outreach organization (Gateways) whose goal was a simple one: to convince everyone in attendance, regardless of their level of Jewish observance when they arrived, that it was God who wrote the Torah and that everything in it is as binding on us now as it was on the day it was given to the Children of Israel.
One lecture on kashrus changed my perspective forever. I would not be able to do it justice by paraphrasing it here. I’ll just say that the rabbi thoroughly convinced me (and I’d say just about every person in the room) that it had to be God—and not assorted well-meaning human beings—who wrote the Torah and created the rules of kashrus. Once I believed this with both my heart and my mind, I could no longer eat in nonkosher restaurants or buy packaged food without kosher certification. All my former reasons for keeping kosher were still there, but they moved to the background. Along with my fellow observant Jews throughout history, I was finally able to feel (after six years of keeping kosher for other reasons) that I keep kosher because God wrote the Torah, and it says in the Torah that I must keep kosher.
Although I left the weekend retreat with a new commitment to kashrus and a more complete conviction that God was the One who came up with this idea of keeping kosher, a dissenting inner voice still nagged at me. What if all of this kashrus business was meant only for an earlier time in our history? Many Jews believe today that we must adjust our beliefs to new, more enlightened and welcoming surroundings. Can’t the laws of kashrus be modified, even slightly, to accommodate a changing world?
If you, as a newly observant Jew, have never had this question run through your mind, I’d be surprised. I can practically guarantee that your family will raise it, if you haven’t yourself. Here are some ways you might respond.
The unchanging Torah
The short answer is, these laws can’t be modified, even if we think they should be and even if we’ve justified to ourselves all kinds of important reasons for doing so. If your relatives would be interested in seeing some text from Torah that explains why, this passage from Deuteronomy 5:29 pretty much sums it up: “Be careful, then, to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. Do not turn aside to the right or to the left: Follow only the path that the Lord your God has enjoined upon you, so that you may thrive and that it may go well with you. . . .”
And then there’s Deuteronomy 4:2. “You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it. . . .” These verses are traditionally interpreted to mean that the laws of kashrus (and all other laws in the Torah, for that matter) that were given to us thousands of years ago are as applicable today as they were then. There are laws we don’t observe now because we literally can’t—laws having to do with Temple rituals and laws applicable only to self-governing peoples, for example—but there’s no getting out of observing the rest of them, including kashrus.
Your family will fight this concept; I certainly wrestled with it for a long time. Our culture is accustomed to evaluating time-honored practices and tossing out what is no longer relevant or what we now, in hindsight and/or after much soul-searching, feel was wrong or ill conceived. Jews who consider the Torah a well-intentioned guidebook to ethical and moral living feel free to do the same thing with everything contained within it. If it no longer makes “sense,” we can dispense with it.
Observant Jews disagree. There are two types of laws in the Torah. Mishpatim are laws whose purpose is readily understandable in any civilized society—thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, etc. Chukim are laws with no discernible practical reason—for example, you can’t wear garments made of a mixture of linen and wool, and you can’t eat any of the animals that are listed as prohibited in the Book of Leviticus.
If you believe that the Torah was written by some well-meaning men and women over the course of several hundred years to establish law and order over warrior tribes, of course you will choose to ignore the laws that don’t seem necessary or applicable today. But if you believe that all these laws came from God, the fact that we don’t understand the “why” behind some of them does not lessen our obligation to observe them. It just means that God chooses, in those instances, not to share His reasons for these laws with us. Do we know why God says it’s okay to eat a veal chop but not a pork chop (as long as the veal was prepared according to the laws of kashrus)? No, we don’t. Someday we may. But until we find out, we still can’t eat the pork chop. Or I suppose we can, but we choose not to.
The secular Jew’s goal is to adapt Jewish practices to allow him or her to function unimpeded in the world at large while still identifying as a Jew. Secular Jews have been astonishingly successful in achieving this goal, and they may rightfully balk at any approach to life that would undermine this accomplishment. Here’s one of the defining differences between an observant Jew and a nonobservant Jew: The observant Jew’s goal is to adapt himself to fit the laws of Torah, never to adapt the Torah to fit his ways of doing things. Even though performing some mitzvos, such as doing acts of kindness for others, might make us “feel good,” that is never seen as the primary reason for doing them. If that were the case, we would feel justified in discarding the mitzvos that no longer make us “feel good.” And that is something observant Jews would never do.
During my first few years of keeping kosher, I approached the laws of kashrus as if they were mishpatim. I searched for the reasons, and when they made sense to me, I complied. I was very surprised to discover that keeping kosher falls in the category of chukim—laws given to us by God for reasons only God knows. We may assume we know some of the reasons God wants Jews to keep kosher, and we may believe that we understand the wisdom of these laws and what they are meant to accomplish. But the fact is, we really don’t know and we keep kosher, anyway. Why? Because God tells us to!
From the Hardcover edition.