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Food for remembering together

28 March 2013

Irene Lancaster, an Orthodox Jew, reflects on the challenges and joys of keeping kosher



Ritualised: a shochet, a learned

man specially trained in the process of killing animals. He uses an extremely sharp knife

Ritualised: a shochet, a learned

man specially trained in the process of killing animals. He uses an extremely sharp knife

"Keeping kosher" is a basic tenet of Orthodox Judaism. Adherence to its principles is growing, helped by modern advances in food technology.

It is important, because it involves obedience to divine command. Orthodox Judaism is a religion based on law. The "Written Law", "Torah", or Pentateuch (the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is regarded as the divine word, mediated through the "Oral Law", which established a covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people.

Orthodox Jews believe that the Written Law (Torah) needed interpreting from the outset. Interpretation was known as Oral Law, but was then written down. We believe that there are "gaps in the text" that need learned people to interpret: the food laws are an example of Written and Oral Law working together. These learned people (later known as rabbis) have interpreted the Written Law of the Pentateuch through the Oral Law, paying attention to practicalities of life, as lived by the Jewish communities, and adapting these laws to the needs of the age.

There are 613 mitzvot (commandments) laid down in the Torah. Among these, the practice of keeping kosher belongs with belief in one God, circumcision of males, and the keeping of Shabbat, which are essential to the Orthodox Jewish way of life - so much so that Jews have sacrificed their lives in order to keep these precepts. Just as there are various denominations in Christianity, there are other Jewish groups, such as Reform, who hold different views on these matters, but I do not claim to present their opinions.

The adjective "kosher", as well as the noun "kashrut", imply "fitness". Kosher food is food that is deemed "fit" for the Jewish community to eat. It does not imply holiness, good health, hygiene, superiority, or salvation.

A friend of mine commented: "Some of us love the smell of bacon. We are sure it is a great food. We would love to eat it, but unfor- tunately God won't let us!" This was also the opinion of one of the greatest medieval Jewish philosophers and legal authorities, Maimonides.

By this, he means that we do not believe that kosher food is superior, nor will it necessarily make us healthier. People who are not Jewish and consume bacon, shellfish, and other non-kosher foods are not deemed inferior to members of the Jewish community. Perhaps the best way to look at it is as if the Jewish people have taken a vow to observe it - analogous, say, to the Trappist vow of silence.

We Jews do not know why we have been enjoined to keep many of the laws, which may appear to be irrational. For us, it is a part of our covenant with God. For Orthodox Jews, religion is not a lifestyle choice, but a discipline, aimed at sanctifying the mundane through obedience to God - what my rabbi calls "spiritual aspiration".

To many, Orthodox Judaism, which is now growing as never before, appears counter-intuitive. Our behaviour may appear peculiar and anachronistic, but, like the belief in one God, Shabbat, and circumcision, these strange customs have kept us together as a community for far longer than most other religions, including Christianity, have been in existence. As the French philosopher Pascal is quoted as saying, the continued existence of the Jewish people, against all rational considerations, is perhaps the best proof of the existence of God.

As I take time out from the labour of cleaning for Pesach (Passover), in order to write this, I think of the huge effort Jewish men and women have made down the millennia to keep all the laws, including the food laws, especially at this time of year, when we remember our Exodus as slaves from Egypt.

When I feel exhausted, having climbed up the step-ladder to the top of my cupboards for the umpteenth time to make sure that every iota of "chametz" (leaven) is removed in time for Passover, I remember that I was once a slave in Egypt, just like my ancestors - just like my parents, who escaped the "Egypt" of Poland during the Holocaust: my father through Siberia, Japan, and Canada, where he joined the Black Watch and arrived in Scotland; my mother through Paris and Nice, where she was hunted down like an animal, but was saved by others at risk to their own lives.

My daughter emailed out of the blue from Israel to say that she was coming to England for Pesach, asking me to keep some rice for my two-year-old granddaughter (thus further complicating the clean-up programme). I rejoice in the fact that all these little challenges are there to remind us that Judaism was never meant to be easy, that God knows what He is doing and that we, in our small way, are playing our tiny part in his plan.

Our prayer states: "Our God and God of our Parents and Ancestors", meaning: we have to make the God of our ancestors meaningful to us here and now in the modern world, as it is, warts and all.

Never did I imagine that I would be feeding rice to my Israeli granddaughter, just before Pesach, at a time when all such foods should be disposed of. This is the true miracle of Judaism: it is very ancient and it is very modern. It remembers the past, but in ways that are relevant to us now. The Exodus from Egypt has inspired so many other peoples and continues to do so.

the term kashrut covers a variety of food stuffs, including meat, fish, wine, bread, and dairy produce. At Passover, which runs this week, from last Monday night until next Tuesday, the stringencies are even greater, and involve the non- consumption of any form of leaven.

 Generally, the principle for meat is that the animal must have cloven hooves and chew the cud. Fish must have both fins and scales.

The process of killing animals for consumption is known as shechitah, and the person who carries out this operation is known as a shochet. The position of shochet is awarded only to learned men who are specially trained in this process. The new Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, for instance, is both a shochet and a mohel (circumciser).

The purpose of shechitah is to drain the animal of blood, "for blood is the life" (Deuteronomy 12.23-25; see also Leviticus 17.10-14 and Leviticus 3.17). This must be done by cutting the throat with an extremely sharp knife. As a result, the blood supply to the brain ceases almost immediately, certainly before the animal can become aware of any pain.

The Written Torah states: "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk" (Exodus 23.19, 34.26, and Deuteronomy 14.21). In order to safeguard this commandment, a period of time is necessary before the consumption of dairy produce after the consumption of meat. Some communities wait for six hours, and some for three. In order to further the differentiation between meat and milk, separate utensils are used throughout the process, including storage.

People who wish to discriminate against Jews have used the banning of shechitah as an efficient way of doing so. One of Hitler's first enactments when he came to power in 1933 was to ban shechitah.

Other Western countries that have banned shechitah in recent years, often under the banner of animal protection, are Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Finland, and, very recently, New Zealand. The Netherlands threatened to ban it, but has allowed a reprieve, and, in December, Poland also threatened to ban it (the last is the supplier of a great deal of kosher meat).

The effect of this type of discrimination is demoralisation, depression, and hiked prices, which can lead to emigration from the countries affected.

The good news is that the rules surrounding the consumption of dairy produce after a meat meal have been altered by the use of dairy substitutes, such as soya, nut, and oat milks. It is now possible for Orthodox Jews to take almond milk in their coffee after a meal of roast chicken, for instance, or for a child to enjoy rice pudding made with soya milk, after eating cholent (a meat and bean stew).

Some of the meetings I have attended between Christians and Jews (mainly run by Anglicans) have, although only on request, promised a "kosher option". Sadly, however, on arrival, the kosher option has frequently turned out to be a couple of wilting sandwiches, which are often eaten by others who are not Jewish. There are even snide remarks about food issues, and contemptuous statements about non-progressive Judaism, which can extend to personal attacks on Orthodox Judaism.

The Muslim community seems to understand food laws much better. A few years ago, I was the first woman and the first Jew to be invited to address the Christian-Muslim Forum in north Manchester. There was respect all around, except for one Anglican woman priest, who insisted on telling me how terrible Israel was. The Muslims present, on the other hand, were appreciative of all that Israel was doing to integrate the Muslim community at university level.

To my amazement, at the end of my talk, I was offered a kosher meal, supplied from Jewish shops from my area, which was a good distance from the mosque that had hosted the event. This was much appreciated.

There are signs of hope, however. Last month, when my friend the Revd Lisa Battye was licensed as Area Dean of Salford, she wanted to invite all her Jewish friends to a reception after the church service (Real Life, 22 February). She made sure the catering at the event was kosher by buying the food herself from local Jewish shops (which also supported the community).

For this, she gained the respect and admiration of members of the Orthodox Jewish community who attended such a gathering for the first time ever, and felt welcome.

AT THIS time of Passover and Easter, both Jews and Christians celebrate with eggs. The egg has the same symbolism of rebirth for both. For the Jews, however, eggs are hard-boiled, and consumed in salt water at the beginning of the festive meal.

Eggs are one of the few foods that become harder the longer they are cooked. This reminds us of the Jewish people, who have suffered for more than 3000 years because of their stubborn adherence to their peculiar practices. Nevertheless, the more we suffer, the stubborner we be­come. Adversity has toughened us, and rendered us resistant. Per­haps this being a "stiff-necked people" is the secret of our survival.

So, when you tuck into your Easter eggs, please remember the origin of this food, and Chris­tianity's own origins in a far older religion, which has suffered much in order to survive.

Dr Irene Lancaster FRSA is a former lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Liverpool University, and of Jewish History at Manchester University. She is the author of Deconstructing the Bible (Rout­ledge, 2007).

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