Q. Why all the emphasis on what a Jew eats? Isn’t enough for us to feel as a Jew, to think as a Jew, to pray as a Jew and to be a mensch?
The popular theory is that the kosher laws are aids to health.
Now good health certainly matters to Judaism: the healthy mind needs a healthy body, and over the centuries the dietary laws, as well as taharat hamishpachah (the laws of family purity), washing the hands before meals, and a generally careful lifestyle did mean that Jews were relatively healthier than other peoples.
But the Torah does not give physical health as the reason for kashrut; it speaks instead of holiness.
The Jewish way to holiness is not that of monk-like withdrawal from the affairs and activities of the world, but of remaining fully within the world and sanctifying it.
To sanctify the world means to try to eradicate the baser, more questionable traits and to endow and enrich every moment of existence with moral quality.
The laws relating to kosher meat help to tame our more violent instincts and to cause the least possible pain to the animal.
The separation of meat and milk is explained by many as promoting compassion towards the mother and her young. To “seethe a kid in its mother’s milk” has a repugnant sound about it.
Keeping kosher trains the character and creates self-discipline. As the rabbis put it, a Jew does not say: “Forbidden food does not tempt me at all”, but, more realistically, “Forbidden food does have its temptation, but I know my Father in Heaven has commanded me not to eat it”.
What we eat, and how we eat, affects our character and soul.
Kashrut also significantly advances the preservation of Jewish identity and commitment.
Knowing that every time we eat we are showing our loyalty to our Jewishness ensures that the meal table is not only a “miniature altar”, but also a recognisable unit of the Jewish community and people.
To have to eat at home with the family more often than others may do, is good for the home, good for the family, and good for Judaism whose centre is not merely the synagogue but even more the Jewish household.
Jewish identity entails the ability to know how far one can and cannot go in mixing with the environment. The distinctive values and patterns of the Jewish heritage require that we stand by them as a matter of proud principle, even if it means drawing lines of demarcation between the Jewish and non-Jewish world.
It is not that we are in some way exclusive and superior, but our heritage is precious and beautiful, and if we fail to cherish it, no-one else will.
Max Routtenberg is right when he says: it’s truly kosher to be kosher!