THE Jewish comedian Jackie Mason likes to tell audiences what's
special about his co-religionists: at night, he explains, when
theatres disgorge their audiences, and most people ask their
friends, "Would you like to go for a drink?", Jewish theatre-goers
are the ones asking instead, "Have you eaten?"
It is no secret that food is important to Jews. This goes beyond
cultural stereotypes: the crucial role of food is woven into the
very fabric of the Jewish religion. Each time we eat, the Torah
teaches, we make a choice: whether to use this opportunity to
elevate ourselves, or to become degraded. With each meal, we have
the chance once again to decide whether to allow G-d to dwell in
greater measure in this world, or - G-d forbid - the opposite.
To understand how food gives us such power, it helps to look
first at how Judaism views holiness. Rather than existing in a
specific location or time, Judaism teaches that holiness can infuse
our every action, our every moment, if only we learn how to use our
seemingly mundane activities to channel these divine sparks.
The great Rabbi Menachem Mendel (1787-1859) - the "Kostker
Rebbe" - was once asked by one of his students, "Where can G-d be
found?" As the rebbe prepared to answer, his other students
gathered round. One was certain the rabbi would answer that G-d can
be found in heaven. Others were sure the rabbi would say that G-d
could be found in the synagogue, or the study hall; perhaps in the
homes of the very pious . . .
Finally, the Kostker Rebbe cleared his throat and declared: "G-d
can be found wherever we let Him in."
EATING - the act of sacrificing another life, whether plant or
animal, for our own - is especially fraught with meaning: through
this act, we can choose to be animalistic and callous, or, if we
choose, we can use it instead to transcend our animal nature. The
laws of keeping kosher, or kashrus, give us a key: a
unique opportunity to use our actions for good, as a way of
channelling holiness into our everyday lives.
Much of the Torah is concerned with instructions on how to treat
animals without cruelty. We mustn't yoke a stronger animal with a
weaker one (Deuteronomy 22.10); we're commanded to chase away a
mother bird before taking her eggs (Deuteronomy 22.6-7); we're not
to muzzle an ox while it is treading out corn (Deuteronomy 25.4).
The Talmud goes further, instructing that we feed our animals
before satisfying ourselves (Berachot 40a).
When it comes to viewing animals as food, kashrus also
tries to minimise suffering. We're forbidden to boil a calf in the
milk of its own mother (Deuteronomy 14.21); animals cannot be
slaughtered in view of others. Only specially trained rabbis can
kill a kosher animal: they are forbidden from being paid by the
animal, lest they are tempted to rush; and kosher slaughter is
performed as humanely as possible, by severing the ceratoid artery
with a knife that is sharpened between each slaughter.
These rules are important in maintaining humane conditions for
animals. But the safeguards of kashrus are designed not
only for animals, but for us, to instil in us an extra sensitivity
to the feelings of others.
Take the biblical injunction not to cook a kid in its mother's
milk: it is needlessly cruel, the Rabbis maintain, to make the
source of an animal's nourishment an instrument of its death.
Though this commandment does safeguard animals, its real object is
to teach us to feel for everyone; to consider the feelings of
others, from the most exalted to the lowly - even to the animals
that we eat.
The prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother's milk was
actually expanded by the rabbis, who forbade all milk and meat
products from ever mixing. Kosher-keeping Jews thus today eat
either "meat" meals containing no dairy products, or "dairy" meals
containing no meat; even kosher restaurants are designated as
"meat" or "dairy". In this way, with every meal - with each bite -
kashrus reminds us to see the big picture: to remember
that our actions have consequences, and that, each time we act, we
can choose to be heedless, or to be kind.
Kashrus reminds us that we each live in two worlds: the
physical and the spiritual. Rather than try to banish our physical
urges, Judaism urges us to exalt them instead: to put our basest
desires to holy ends. Kashrus gives us a beautiful vehicle
for this, allowing us to turn the physical act of eating into a
manifestation of G-d's will and kindness.
Yvette Alt Miller is the author of Angels at the Table:
A practical guide to celebrating Shabbat.