Thursday, 28 Mar 2019

Written by Anthony Lazarus Magrill

We learn in the Gemara (Chullin 63b), in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak, that in the case of great uncertainty as to whether a certain bird is kosher or non-kosher – prohibited or permitted according to this week’s Torah portion – we may nonetheless rely on a masoret– an unwritten tradition, passed faithfully down the generations. Indeed: ne’eman haTziyad, the hunter is trustworthy when he says that his teacher told him that a particular bird was tahor (pure) and not tamei (impure).  There are several things we learn from this. In matters of that which is permitted and that which is prohibited, we live in a Jewish legal universe constructed by a tradition which requires sustenance and responsibility. If a tradition dies out, it may be unrecoverable: if a hunter lacks a tradition, the bird is simply prohibited through doubt. We cannot resurrect traditions which have been left by the wayside. Additionally, ours is a tradition which places great faith and responsibility in our teachers, the guardians of our masorah. If the hunter ceases to be trusted or trustworthy, the system breaks down; and when legal meaning, as-such, is compromised, chaos ensues.

In our Torah portion these stakes are shown to be high, just look at the language of our closing verses:

You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves

You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy…

I H’ am the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy for I am holy

These are the instructions […] for distinguishing between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten.

 The Torah takes kashrut very, very seriously. Essential to our aspiration to be Godly is the instruction that we shall sanctify ourselves: through the food we eat, the manner of its slaughter, the means of its preparation and the manner of its consumption. We are enjoined to say berachot before and after the eating because our meal times are a scene of essential connection to the earth from which we come and to which we will return. Judaism obligates us to take these moments of encounter seriously, to care about the stuff which sustains us, and to be mindful that each one of us stands in debt for that which keeps us standing.

And yet.  Our progressive communities have articulated forcefully and repeatedly our ethical, reasoned, and pragmatic concerns with much of what today masquerades as ‘kasher’. We have insisted that animals produced with disregard for tza’ar ba’alei chayim (the Torah’s prohibition against causing gratuitous suffering to living beings) are certainly beyond the spirit of the law, whatever their status with regard to the letter. We have lamented the monopolization of kashrut certification to the great financial benefit of the few, and the financial or religious disadvantage of the many. We have forcefully asserted that our obligations towards the environment, our reciprocal relationship with our surroundings, must factor into a new understanding of what is, and is not, ‘kasher’.

Of the pesukim I brought above, it seems to me that such calls for a modern or an ecological ‘kashrut’ do indeed satisfy several of the Torah’s demands: we may find ourselves elevated to sanctity, holiness and some measure of Godliness when we make ourselves attentive to the ethical responsibilities involved in our eating. There is another aspect of kashrut, though, which may be being substantially neglected even amongst those most conscientious and virtuous amongst the progressive call for an ethical kashrut.  We are, after all, enjoined lehavdil; to distinguish, to differentiate. Do we adequately satisfy this demand by the simple commitment to distance ourselves from unethical patterns of consumption and production?

One aspect of the laws of kashrut which requires close attention is the extent to which, from the Torah and throughout the halakhic literature, they are given to the Jewish people as a commandment to separate themselves, to distinguish themselves, from the communities around them. At their most problematic and distasteful, these halakhot of Havdalah crudely separate us from our neighbours on some racist fantasy of superiority and inferiority, purity and impurity. At their best, though, the hilkhot kashrut are an all-embracing, legislatively maximalist endeavour to create a positive community of Jews who regularly meet each other over the deep, natural, human encounter of a mealtime.  Since we are enjoined lehavdil -to distinguish between Jews and non-Jews through our observance of kashrut – it may then be the responsibility of progressive Jews to elevate these troubling laws from their racist deployment, and bring to them a more solemn task; a more positive expression of being Jewish.

We are commanded to sanctify ourselves through the mindfulness of our encounter with the world around us. The laws of kashrut are often cited amongst the hukkim – the laws for which there is no known rational basis, social or personal. Indeed, it is precisely this irrationality which constitutes the thorough discipline of kashrut. It is a means of organizing ourselves; organizing ourselves as individuals in relationship to a wider Jewish community of obligation. This being commanded organizes us in relation to our peers, and in relation to a line of tradition which stretches behind us and beyond us; and states that the principle of that organization shall be in relationship to the world which sustains us. Ne’eman haTziyad: the hunter is trustworthy because he and we are invested in a mutual discourse about how we construct a community of consumption, sustenance and preservation. If we reject the discourse, then either it perishes or we do.  Perhaps, then, it is the very irrationality, the arbitrariness, of kashrut that makes it such a crucial site for the construction of our quasi-legal normative community.  These are the instructions […] for distinguishing between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten.

 You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy…

Anthony Lazarus Magrill LBC rabbinic student


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.