Friday, April 20, 2012

Why Eat Kosher?

Parshat Shmini

by Rabbi Avi Billet

According to my Concordance, the root word "Kosher" appears three times in the Bible (in Esther and Ecclesiastes) – not once in the Torah. Ask anyone with a decent familiarity with the Torah how many times "the laws of Kosher" are discussed in the Torah, and you'll get a few different answers, ranging from three to close to ten.

As much as the word "Kosher" is not utilized in the Torah, the terms which are employed are "tumah" and "taharah" as well as the negative form of "not-tahor" – referring to all the different kinds of permutations of animals which are fit (literal meaning of "kosher") or unfit for Torah-abiding-consumption.

 In its discussion of these laws at the end of Parshat Shmini, the distinction between tameh (oft-translated as "spiritually impure") and tahor ("spiritually pure") is invoked, as a distinction is made between animals which are permitted to be consumed and animals which are forbidden to be eaten.

 In his commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has a 17-page essay (Feldheim edition) on the lessons and laws that are derived from these distinctions. He also makes reference to a similarly lengthy discussion on the subject in his book "Horeb" – Chapter 68, Forbidden Foods.

 In Horeb, Hirsch profoundly states that the dietary laws have nothing to do with health. In fact, he claims that if one ingests the "impure" foods, "you may be more nourished and better fed, but the animal instinct will be aroused more strongly within you, and your body becomes more blunted as an instrument of the spirit… You become 'tameh,' impure, less capable of your holy mission, and you should really be 'anshei kodesh,' [people] of sanctity, members of a great, holy institution."

 Along similar lines, his commentary on the Torah cries out that "the reason for these laws is not bodily health, but the moral integrity of our souls… to ensure the spiritual and moral health of our souls." Guarding what one eats doesn't assure a spiritual holiness, but it gives one the ability to attain it. "Tumah" – the spiritual impurity addressed by the Torah – is largely defined as death, and contact with death. But it is also an idea, notion, or conception (as Hirsch puts it) that is not something concrete, that is associated with certain living animals and creatures – the ones we would nowadays call "unkosher."

 In the Orthodox world, "Kosher" does not need much of a sales pitch. Efforts of the kashrus organizations have made accessibility to kosher foods in the United States a fairly easy endeavor. In the non-Orthodox world, there are many who only buy kosher, and there are also many who do not. Some claim it is too hard, some claim it is too expensive. These arguments are sometimes true and sometimes not true.

 At the same time, living in a society in which people are well aware of, and on top of outbreaks and scares associated with foodstuffs (including in vegetables), we can drop the notion that some people have that kosher is "healthier."

 With few exceptions, such as the process of manufacturing wine and the mixing of dairy and meat (and, of course, the proper preparation of the meat of "tahor" animals), "kosher" means that the ingredients do not include "tumah" animals or their byproducts, or that the food in question was not cooked or processed on machinery or in utensils in which the same animals or their byproducts were cooked or processed (unless the machines or utensils were kashered first).

 While some may claim to understand all the sentiments behind "tumah," most will readily admit they do not. At the same time, we are happy to add that if it is important enough for God to spend so much time in his Torah discussing these rules, they are clearly there for our benefit.

 And if, as Hirsch argues, ingesting only "tahor" animals and ingredients sets our bodies up for, and allows them to achieve a spirituality level that is impossible if we are fueled by "tameh" ingredients, those looking to achieve such a status – whatever it means and however it may be defined, will only view the kosher laws as a gift rather than a burden.

 This is a question of spiritual health and not physical health. And as true spirituality is more or less defined by the Torah, rather than an emotional feeling some people who are "spiritual" sometimes speak of, observance of these rules in nourishing the body is the first ticket towards achieving the Torah prescribed nourishment of the soul that we hopefully yearn to achieve in our lifetimes.

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