I can almost see you shaking your head in puzzlement: “Has he gone meshugga, that rabbi, writing an article about not keeping kosher?” I can see you throwing up your hands in despair: “What use is a rabbi who tells you the reasons not to be kosher?” I can hear you muttering under your breath: “It doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe it’s all part of some sinister plot?”
But you see, dear reader, I have been around as a rabbi for quite a long time, and I know the community pretty well, and I have a fair understanding of people. So it’s no sinister plot. I really do know all the reasons for not keeping kosher. Indeed just in case I had forgotten one or two, people are good enough to keep on reminding me.
The reasons for kashrut are usually quite clearly imprinted on the minds and hearts of those for whom keeping kosher is axiomatic. And those who don’t keep kosher are also generally quite clear about their particular position, and as far as I can see they mean every word.
So what are the reasons for not keeping kosher? I’m going to tell you, of course, and if I miss out one or two I am sure people will write in and tell me. After all, every Jew is a greater expert on everything than the rabbi, and never backward in coming forward to say so in the Jewish press or at communal meetings…
Now why am I reminding myself as well as you of the arguments against kashrut? Like everyone, I’m a bit meshugga (and perhaps a bit more than most because I decided to be a rabbi – I could have been a good Jewish lawyer or doctor or accountant) but I’m not that meshugga that I don’t know that rabbis are in favour of kashrut, not against it.
No, I’m telling you the reasons why not to keep kosher so that you’ll feel good that the rabbi at last seems to understand you – and so you’ll feel even better when I gently suggest that maybe you’re wrong and maybe you’d do yourself a favour by going kosher after all.
Why do some people not keep kosher?
“Rabbi, it’s too expensive!”
Now it’s true: kosher does cost more. It’s a small market and a specialised product and there are extra costs of production and supervision. But just a minute; doesn’t being Jewish cost more in other ways too, like belonging to a synagogue, giving to Israel, supporting local charities, and buying the Jewish newspaper – and yet people rightly keep on spending on these things because they are expressions of Jewish identity, consciousness and commitment.
And don’t all your special hobbies and interests cost you extra, but you know you wouldn’t enjoy them as much if they went el-cheapo? The fact is that running a Jewish home and a Jewish life is always going to cost.
All right, you’re going to say, so why does kashrut have to be that expensive? Answer: let more Jews keep more kashrut and a bigger market will see savings. Don’t automatically blame the people who run the kosher shops: there’s no evidence of any big rip-off. And don’t mutter about the Beth Din and the Kashrut Authority: the few cents extra that cover kosher supervision make nobody a profit, but just cover the overheads.
“Rabbi, it’s too trivial and banal to be bothered about kosher. How can it matter to God, and how will it make the world a better place if Judaism worries so hard about butcher shops and pots and pans?”
True, there are such things as big issues and small issues, and a religion that concerns itself with the small issues (though be honest, and admit how much of Judaism deals with the cosmic and the universal too) may appear strange. But, you know, that’s part of the Jewish idea of holiness. Hallow every moment of every day, every tiny attitude and action (that’s what Judaism says), and out of the small acorns do the giant oaks grow.
What goes into your mouth helps to shape your ethical, spiritual and emotional self as well as your physical person. How you discipline your eating, and this is the most frequent personal challenge any of us faces, trains you in self-mastery and helps to fit you for life in family, community and society. Give way to every instinct all the time and the world will fall apart.
“Rabbi, its such a nuisance – all that running off to the Jewish suburbs to get kosher food, all that business of milk and meat, all the effort to prevent things getting mixed up by the cleaning woman (or the husband, or the children, or the mother-in-law…)”
Yes, I’ll grant you that it’s often a nuisance. If you live out of the Jewish suburbs it is a strain doing your shopping. But a bit of planning can help, and most people have freezers, and the kosher butchers do deliver, and more and more supermarkets and delis supply kosher foods. It’s also a bother to organise your kosher kitchen, though once you’ve got the system running it becomes simple and second nature. A few labels (“Milk!” “Meat!”) and some colour-coding, and you’ve got your system.
Let me tell you why it’s worthwhile. You are going the right thing by Judaism. You are training the family in a daily expression of Jewish identity. You are enlisting in the ranks of homes that have Jewish survival power. You are making it possible for any fellow Jew to feel at home at your table without embarrassment or compromise of conscience. No a bad list for starters…
“Rabbi, I just don’t like the taste of kosher food!”
Now this argument, I admit, does give me problems. Since all the food I eat is kosher I really have no means of comparison. But still I wonder. How come that Jewish food styles (which obviously came out of kitchens where they always kept kosher) seem to be rediscovered all the time, with appreciation, by those for whom taste means so much? How come that when you can’t cook properly, any food tastes poor – and when you can cook you can produce culinary delights even from kosher ingredients?
No: maybe what one has to say is not that kosher food tastes worse (that’s if it does, and as I have said I really don’t know) but that when you keep kosher and your heart and mind and conscience feel good for doing the right thing, the kosher food has a ta’am all of its own.
“Rabbi, I really can’t be bothered!”
Now this comment really worries me. Being Jewish always was an excitement, a challenge, an adventure. Jews always got more out of it than they put into it. It gave them identity, security, reassurance, inspiration, fascination, colour, richness, poetry, philosophy, community, destiny. Without Jewishness, Jews lacked mooring, they lacked meaning. Culturally, emotionally, their life was drab, colourless, threadbare.
A Jew who can’t be bothered with kashrut perhaps can’t be bothered with a few other colours of the Jewish kaleidoscope. If only they would bother a little more, they would find it absorbing, exhilarating, and more than satisfying for the body and soul!
“The truth is, Rabbi, I simply don’t believe in it!”
You know, the Jewish way was never to say that opinions or beliefs were static and immutable. Life has a funny habit of affecting the way you think. Jews must see their Jewishness as a dynamic, not a static dimension of their being. Their Jewishness must be a growing thing. When they say, “I don’t keep kosher”, they really should add, “…yet!”. When they say, “I don’t believe in kashrut“, they should also say, “…yet!”
More thinking, more study, more arguing with the rabbi – all can reveal new meaning in concepts and commitments that so far lacked conviction in your life.
You don’t believe in it? Come, let’s explore it together!