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Kashrut as a Metaphor

By Rabbi Marcelo R. Bronstein | Issue Date: June 2000

I think it was Robert DeNiro in one of his latest gangsters movies who, when ready to shoot the partner he thought had betrayed him, asked the victim to face him because he could not kill him as he was. The victim asks why not and DeNiro tells him “it is not kosher to kill from the back.”

It was clear to me that everybody in the audience understood what he meant. It is not appropriate, right, fit, correct. Even for a gangster, there are norms of what is appropriate and what is not. Hence kosher has become another term like hutzpah that people of all backgrounds use, with an accepted definition.

According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, the “term was originally used in the Bible in the sense of fit or proper and later in rabbinic literature exclusively for objects that are ritually correct and faultless. Most often it denotes food that is permitted in contrast to that which is not kosher.”

In a way, DeNiro follows the original Biblical usage of the word. The question is to match the “sense of fit” with the standards of the situation. In the gangsters’ world, this means that their actions must fit what, even there, is the code of behavior. If we use that definition with regard to experiences closer to us, we could call that behavior which is commonly accepted by the majority of a determined society, “kosher.”

We could say that in our days, being a workaholic is appropriate even if it means that parents see very little of their kids because they have to work like beasts to stay competitive in the market place. It is appropriate that children grow up and cannot take care of their aging parents. It is appropriate that our society taxes the poor more that the rich. It is appropriate to bomb other countries if we believe that our national interests are at stake. We can go on and on.

The issue of kashrut is not about fitness or appropriateness, but about the standards by which we measure our lives. If our standards merely equal the common denominator, our soul is doomed to being compromised. This applies even for religious behavior. If the common ethos of a group is “I am holier that thou” and whoever is not like me is non-kosher, this one becomes the “other”; this “other” is non-kosher and could be seen as the cause of my defilement. And if this is the case, in the most extreme cases within ultra-orthodoxy, it could lead even to murder.

Dayan Grunfeld, in his book The Jewish Dietary Laws, says “The dietary laws are a fundamental part of the divine legislation for the people of God and this observance has decisively molded the collective character of our nation.” So for Grunfeld, the common denominator has nothing to do with declaring something kosher and this should apply even for any religious practice. Not everything that has a kosher seal is kosher if it doesn’t tolerate the challenge of a divine intention.

Grunfeld goes even further when he says that the aim of kosher “is the complete self mastery of men” (women too, and this is mine). Hence kashrut is a mida, a concept by which we measure ourselves.

For Samson Raphael Hirsch the reason is plain and clear: “the causa causarum of the laws of nature as well as the laws of the Torah is God.” We do not perform this mitzvah for the sake of being proper but for the sake of D’veikut, cleaving to that mystery which we call God. On the other hand when Mordechai Kaplan defines Judaism as an evolving civilization, kashrut becomes that which sustains our sense of peoplehood, our sense of belonging.

I remember Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer’s righteous indignation when, in the midst of the disappearances in Argentina, some of the rabbinical students challenged him, asking why he would never talk about kashrut. Why would he talk only about human rights? He would say, “What is there to talk about kashrut? You know it, you observe it and that is the end of the discussion.” He would refuse to let Judaism become a voice only about religious behaviorism instead of being a force for the transformation of this world to a more just place. Following Marshall’s challenge we would decree kosher and non-kosher corporations according to the distribution of wealth and the respect for the environment; kosher and un-kosher judicial systems. In a sense, to reduce kashrut only to that which we put in our mouth becomes a way of self-indulgence.

We eat kosher because it is part of our tradition, part of being Jewish, part of that which was revealed to us through the ages as a way to improve ourselves in the eyes of the divine. Kashrut is about “midat gevurah,” the discipline to watch that which enters and exits our souls. But the standard is not the accepted value of the given culture, even a religious one. Kashrut is always counterculture.

Many of the ways we accept to live our lives today are “proper” ways for the “normal” status quo and only when we measure them with a higher value do they become non-kosher or treyf. Therefore, I would say to Robert DeNiro, “You are right according to the standards of the ‘cosa nostra‘ that the only ‘proper’ way to kill someone is facing them. But I am sorry that while it may be accepted, it is not kosher.”