“I live in New York,” I said to myself. “It’s the easiest place in the world to keep kosher besides some cities in Israel.” Though I was just a high school student, and most of my family was not religious, I took it upon myself to keep kosher. Being Jewish – especially being Orthodox – is often about making an effort, even though things can be a little inconvenient or awkward at times. Especially for someone becoming religious, there can be strange conversations with friends and family about why you don’t want to eat in their home or favorite restaurant anymore. Still, I navigated these conversations as best I could, and – with two or three mistakes of food mislabelled and the like – I have been kosher ever since.
Despite this undertaking, I didn’t dive into the rationales behind this practice, and while I had heard the local rabbi discuss some justifications for this practice, I didn’t internalize any reasons as my own. Yet kashrut – the dietary law – is one of the most public features of Orthodox Jewish life, as anyone who has attended a non-Jewish college or worked in a non-Jewish firm can attest (though thank God, many institutions go out of their way to provide kosher food). Though that decision to keep kosher was many years ago, I only recently decided to assemble some of the more common explanations for why Jews keep kosher:
- Holiness. The Torah says that by keeping kosher, we will be holy: “For I the Lord am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44). By eating kosher food, the Jew not only avoids the risk of desecrating himself but actually sanctifies himself.
- Obedience. According to Rashi, the commandments have no reason (see Yoma 67b; Rashi, Ex. 15:26). By logical extension, there is no inherent reason to keep kosher, other than to show that we accept God as supreme guiding authority in our lives.
- Restraint. Philo of Alexandria suggests that we shouldn’t just eat whatever we want, whenever we want it. The kosher laws inculcate the virtues of temperance and self-control in a world dominated by pursuit of immediate gratification and pleasure-seeking (Special Laws, Book 4.)
- National Separation. God says that if we keep the dietary laws, we will be “holy to Me” – i.e., belonging to God (Lev. 20:26). What does it mean that Jews will be “holy to Me,” i.e., God? Rashi sets up a dichotomy: If we keep kosher, we will be with God, but if not, we will be with Nebuchadnezzar [the epitome of an evil non-Jewish ruler]. In other words, keeping kosher is a symbol of national separation. Perhaps this is why early Jewish Reformers attacked the kosher laws as one of the impediments that held Jews back from fully assimilating. For example, Abraham Geiger wrote, “It is precisely these dietary laws that are so void of rationale and at the same time such a hindrance to the development of social relationships” (emphasis added). While there is absolutely no issue with befriending people who are not Jewish, the kosher laws create a framework where the friendship should not lead to intimacy—primarily of a romantic nature. In a world where Jewish intermarriage surpasses fifty percent, this concern is understandable.
- Imitative Behavior. The kosher animals are all non-carnivorous. So while Jews are permitted to eat meat, they are not permitted to eat predatory animals (Maimonides, Maachalot Asurot 1:17; Ramban, Lev. 11:13).
- Physical Health. Maimonides writes, “I maintain that the food which is forbidden by the Law is unwholesome” (Guide for the Perplexed 3:48). It is also the opinion of Rashbam (Lev. 11:3). However, the 16th-century commentator Kli Yakar criticized this theory: “We know that all the nations of the world eat the flesh of the repulsive creatures and they are nonetheless healthy and fit” (on Lev. 11:1).
- Spiritual Health. This idea is based on a Hebrew idiosyncrasy. The word for “impure” is tamei, spelled tet, mem, alef, but in one place the Torah writes ve-nitmetim without the final alef, suggesting the root is tet, mem, which means “blocked, cut off.” Therefore, non-kosher food spiritually “cuts someone off” from God (see Yoma 39a; Sforno, Lev. 11:2; Chinuch 73; Kli Yakar, Lev. 11:1). Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto writes, “Forbidden foods carry uncleanliness itself into a person’s heart and soul until the holiness of the Presence of Blessed be He departs and withdraws from him” (Mesillat Yesharim, ch. 11). I concede that for a rationalist, this explanation is hard to – no pun intended – digest. Yet the prevalence of this opinion cannot be denied.
- Spiritual Elevation. But by way of introduction, most people believe that being human consists of something beyond the physical: the mind, heart, passions, emotions, or psyche. Jews refer to this as the “soul.” According to Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, there is an ascent of the soul that occurs when someone engages in a proper act of eating: “when the altar is in a rectified state, meaning when eating is performed properly, then the evil forces, which is foolishness, are subdued…. And so, by eating properly, foolishness is subdued and the intellect is elevated” (Likkutei Moharan 17:3).
- Fuel to Serve God. Maimonides explains that we use the energy in the food in order to serve God; the food becomes fuel to perform acts of piety like prayer and performing the commandments (Shemonah Perakim, ch. 5; Rabbi Shneur Zalman Liadi, Tanya, ch. 7).
- Appreciation of God. Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook quotes that the food-as-fuel level is not the highest level: “the righteous person does not eat in order to be able to learn Torah or pray or do mitzvot, etc., which is the intermediate level (middah beinonit), but rather his very eating and his very speech, his every motion and emotion, are full of holiness and light.” Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch of Zidichov, one of the great Chasidic masters, describes this as avodah tamah – something that has nothing after it; it is a complete act in and of itself, i.e., a complete religious service.
The idea of “complete service” is very close to the modern ideas of mindfulness. So many times, we eat as a means to an end: to satisfy our appetites or even to alleviate stress. But this is not mindful eating – it’s functional eating… or dysfunctional eating. The antidote is of course to be mindful of what we consume – to promote physical and spiritual health, as well as gratitude to God.
There isn’t “one right answer” to why we keep kosher, and the anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard points out that religious people can often differ as to why they engage in a practice, but what matters is that they all observe the tradition in the same way. This holds true even as fundamental as keeping kosher: this summary showcases literary, philosophical, and mystical explanations, and while people don’t always agree on the underlying rationale, they do agree that keeping kosher is a central religious value. The kosher practices are a cause for confusion, not only from the outside world, but also among ourselves.
I was once in an situation where co-workers invited me to a bagel shop and told me it was kosher, but I had heard that the supervision might be questionable, and it was quite awkward for me to decline the invitation, despite their protestations that I could eat there. I tried to be respectful – as well as playful – about the situation, but despite their enthusiasm and desire to accommodate, I had to very politely find a way to avoid going with them.
Kashrut can be a time-consuming mitzvah to keep, and since it is conspicuous, it can lead to some awkward interactions every now and then. Thank God we live in a world where most people are respectful, where even the awkwardness comes out of goodwill and not malice, and where every supermarket in the country carries food that is certified as kosher. In a place like to New York, there is an abundance of kosher restaurants. This is truly one of the easiest times in the history of world for a Jew to keep kosher: “those who seek the Lord lack no good thing” – even a gourmet dinner (Psalm 34:11).
By understanding the reasons why we do so a little more deeply, maybe we can appreciate that all of the effort involved in this commandment can be a source of meaning and inspiration.