Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Why Go Kosher?


Why Go Kosher? An inspired essay encouraging observance of the Torah's kosher guidelines

The world of kosher encompasses the history of a people and enriches countless Jewish homes around the globe. The mitzvah of kosher transforms food into a vehicle for holiness, making the kitchen the spiritual hub of the home.

The laws of kosher detail the permitted and forbidden animals, fish, and fowl, and describe the separation of dairy and meat. A significant part of Jewish observance is associated with food, from the dietary laws to the saying of blessings before and after eating, from the celebration of holidays to the agricultural laws governing food from Israel. Kosher is an all-encompassing way of life, whether at home, on the job, or eating out. Through kosher observance, every activity associated with food becomes an opportunity for spiritual refinement.

Not too long ago, nearly all Jews adhered to the dietary laws without ever asking, “Why keep kosher?” It was the Jewish thing to do. Only those who deliberately rebelled against the ways of their parents and grandparents would have eaten traif, non-kosher food. Today the situation has largely reversed, in that Jews who have no thought of rebellion and even identify proudly as Jews eat every kind of non-kosher food. It requires thought and effort to keep kosher.

Our thinking has changed to the extent that we no longer know why Judaism places such emphasis on eating and drinking, basic necessities shared not only by all mankind but by animals as well. We ask, “Does G-d really care what I eat?” Without a satisfactory explanation for kosher and without the simple faith based on Torah values that characterized former generations, many Jews conclude that keeping kosher is simply obsolete – that it is based upon ancient health precautions which no longer apply to modern life.

We therefore offer some of the insights into the mitzvah of kosher provided by Jewish tradition. These insights satisfy our need for understanding and motivate us to keep the mitzvoth of the Torah in the face of opposing values from contemporary culture. Nevertheless, it should be understood that the commandments are Divine in origin and can never be fully comprehended by human intellect. We keep the mitzvoth because they are G-d’s gift to the Jewish people.

“Religion,” as everyone knows, deals with prayer, meditation, charity, ethics and sometimes various forms of self-denial. Judaism, however, encompasses every aspect of life. Our most ordinary daily activities become imbued with holiness when we follow the Torah dictum to “know Him in all your ways.” (Proverbs 3:6)

Kosher represents the meeting of body and soul. The Torah tells us not to reject the physical but rather to sanctify it. We sanctify the act of eating with kosher food and blessings before and after eating. Kosher food is the diet of spiritual nutrition for the Jewish neshamah, (soul). It is designed to bring refinement and purification to the Jewish people.

What does this mean? Modern nutritional science recognizes what Judaism has always taught that to a large extent we are what we eat. We know that the food we eat is absorbed into our flesh and blood. Forbidden foods are referred to in the Torah as abominations to the G-dly soul, elements that detract from our spiritual sensitivity. Birds of prey and carnivorous animals, having the power to influence the eater with aggressive attributes, are among the foods that are forbidden. For a Jew, all non-kosher food diminishes one’s spiritual sensitivity, reducing the ability to absorb concepts of Torah and mitzvoth. Both mind and heart are affected.

It is easy to see why kosher is often considered the most far-reaching of all the mitzvoth. History demonstrates that when kosher observance is strong, Jewish identity remains strong.

To explain the power of kosher food, we must turn to Chassidic teachings based upon the mysticism of the Ari-Zal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria). The Ari-Zal gave a literal interpretation of the verse, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by the word of G-d” (Deuteronomy 8:3). He explained that it is not the food itself that gives life but rather the spark of G-dliness – the “word of G-d” – that is in the food. All matter has within it some aspect of the “G-dly sparks” that give life and existence to the world. When we eat, the digestive system extracts the nutrients while the neshamah extracts the G-dly spark found in nature.

The Divine energy in the food is thus the actual source of its ability to sustain and nourish the body. Kosher food has a powerful energy that gives spiritual, intellectual and emotional strength to the Jewish neshamah, while non-kosher food does the opposite. The kosher diet is truly the health-food diet for the soul, containing the spiritual nutrition necessary for Jewish survival.


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