The Hidden Meaning of Keeping Kosher? Parasha Shemini/5782


In one of our most beloved prayers at Friday night services, Ahavat Olam, we sing the following: “Torah u-mitzvoth, chukim u-mishpatim, otanu limadetah” – “You teach us torah, mitzvoth, chukim and mishpatim”. We all know what torah and mitzvoth are! “Torah” in this prayer stands for all of Jewish learning, not just Bible learning. Mitzvoth, of course, are the good deeds that govern our behavior. “Chukim” and “Mishpatim” are subsets of “Mitzvoth”. Mishpatim are the Mitzvoth for whose reasons are readily understood.  For example,“You shall not murder”, or mitzvoth that enjoin us to take care of the poor and needy in our society – without these “mishpatim”, these laws, society cannot function. “Chukim” are the laws that, as Rashi puts it, are like “decrees from a King”. No society would think to implement these laws unless they came from an absolute ruler. An example of this kind of law is found in this week’s Torah portion.

Without attempting to justify or elaborate, our parasha this week gives a lengthy list of foods which are Kosher and those which are not. Since very early in our history, Kashrut laws have been at the very center of our heritage.  The Rabbis classified these laws as “Chukim”, laws that had to be obeyed although they transcend human understanding. Why, for example, if G-d is the Creator of All, and pronounced all of Creation “good” does G-d prohibit Jews from eating some animals? God doesn’t want His people to enjoy shrimp? Can God not suffer the messiness of seeing His Chosen struggling to  extract lobster meat from its shell? The issue is complicated by the fact that the Torah gives no rational reason for the laws of Kashrut. It is like the decree of a King, or the rules of a parent to a toddler – “do it because I say so”. 

The fact that no reasons are given for the laws of kashrut has not stopped Jews throughout the ages from attempting to discover some rationale behind them. One method of understanding kashrut was to allegorize, or understand the kosher laws symbolically.  For example, the Torah only permits us to eat fish with scales and fins. The rabbis of the Talmud noted that scales protect the body of the fish. They are like the fish’s armor, so to speak.  Thus they represent the quality of integrity, that which keeps the human being from falling prey to the many moral pitfalls that life presents. 

The fins propel a fish forward. The fins represent the human drive for achievement, the impulse to make ourselves better, to build our lives, and to make a better world. 

Therefore, one way to understand the commandment to only eat fish with scales and fins is that God wants us to constantly be aware that integrity must always be paired with our drive to accomplish things in this world. A person with ambition but without integrity might become successful, but might achieve that success through “unkosher” ways. A person with integrity but without ambition will never reach their spiritual potential in this world.

To paraphrase  the English poet Samuel Johnson:

“Integrity without [ambition] is weak and useless, and [ambition] without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.”

One danger to this type of inquiry is that we might think that once we have understood the lesson that the law is trying to teach us, we no longer need to follow the law! In fact, one of the earliest Christian writings, the Epistle of Barnabus, concludes that the point of the dietary laws is not to refrain from eating certain foods, it is to teach us ethical and moral values. The laws were never meant to be observed literally, Barnabus claims. Therefore, those Jews who actually observe the laws are misguided.

Ultimately, Jews will choose to follow all of the laws of kashrut, some of the laws of kashrut, or none of the laws of kashrut for their own reasons and own rationales. It is interesting to note that the Torah provides only one reason for following the laws of Kashrut – “I am the Lord your God”. In the words of the 19th century German rabbi and thinker, Samson Raphael Hirsch, “You should observe the commandments of the Torah and have regard for its laws, because they are at God’s behest, not because you think them correct. Even those commandments whose reason you believe you have understood, you should not fulfill because of your understanding, for then you would be listening only to yourself, whereas you should listen to God [alone]”

Shabbat Shalom

Photo by Gregor Moser on Unsplash