Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Can there be Judaism without Kosher?

The Omaha Jewish Press recently printed a piece called "Can There Be Judaism Without God?"  The editor received positive feedback and asked me if I would write a similar piece tackling the question of whether there could be Judaism without Kosher.  It sounded like a good project so here is what I wrote:

Can There Be Judaism Without Kosher?

I sometimes imagine myself in a world where I do not have to keep kosher. In that world I weigh 700 lbs. and I am flat broke. Omaha has the distinction of having more restaurants per capita than any city in America and is probably the hardest city in the world to keep kosher in. Living here is like being confined to the fate of Tantalus of Greek mythology. (Big difference being that the Underworld didn't have a great kosher bagel place and a kosher deli on Fridays)

I must admit, there are days that I imagine what the world would be like if for just one day, from sunrise to sunset, the laws of kosher would be suspended like some alternate side of the street parking rule.

I see myself like Homer (not of Greek mythology) Simpson in his day dream about the land of chocolate, frolicking through the streets eating everything that stayed still long enough for him to take a bite.

In my mind I have already charted a map and a complete schedule of every non-kosher restaurant in Omaha that I would visit on non-kosher day accounting for time and distance (strangely I would still do dairy in the a.m. and meat in the p.m. Some habits are hard to break).

Does my attitude seem sacrilegious? Is my dreaming of a treif free pass somehow indicative of a spiritual deficiency? Not according to Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah.

He said that a person should not say, "Pork disgusts me" rather one should say, "if only I could eat pork, but alas, what can I do, my father in heaven forbade it to me!"

According to some commentators the Torah’s dietary laws were prescribed for reasons of physical health. Long before Phil Sokolof got us to make healthy food choices (look him up non-Omahans) his great great ancestors were already instructed by the Torah to watch what they ate. Kosher food was all about healthy eating.

But that cannot be the whole story. If it were Jews would be the most physically fit people on the planet. Further, things like schmaltz, bagels, cream cheese, knishes, blintzes, potato kugel, and just about every Jewish staple would be on the unapproved list.

So what is kosher?

Although we have come to generally associate the word kosher with food, the concept can be applied in a much broader sense. When Queen Esther pleaded with king Achashveirosh to spare the Jewish people from the decree of Haman she said, "Let it be 'kosher' in the eyes of the king." The targum translation translates the word 'kosher' with the Aramaic word 'takin' - the same root as 'tikun' - to make straight, firm, right.

Kosher means so much more than just fit for consumption. In modern parlance it implies that something is done properly, ethically, and with integrity. As in, “that business deal was totally kosher!” Or at times, “something here just doesn’t seem kosher.”

The reason for the dietary laws is explicit in the Torah. “To differentiate between the pure and the impure.”

When you think about it, isn’t that the reason for all mitzvot?

Isn’t that the reason for the entire Torah? To differentiate between the pure and impure. Between holy and profane. Between light and darkness. Between right and wrong. Between good and evil.

Every day we make countless choices; whether about what we choose to eat, how we choose to dress, how we choose to speak, and how we choose to act. In every one of those scenarios there are right choices and wrong choices.

When we eat, the Torah warns us that everything that goes into our mouths must be kosher. And when we speak the Torah instructs us that everything that comes out of our mouths must be kosher as well.

The kosher choice is often the harder choice, but with adversity always comes reward. Life would be easier if I could eat whatever I wanted. But what can I do, my father in Heaven has forbidden it to me.  Following the rules of the Torah is not always easy, but it nourishes my soul - a sensation substantially more rewarding then nourishing my taste buds.

At its very foundation Judaism stands on the principle that there is right and wrong. Kosher, in all of its manifestations, is emblematic of that basic ethical concept. Judaism may be able to exist somehow without it, but what use would such a Judaism be?

Whenever we eat kosher, speak kosher, or act kosher we nourish our souls.  Sometimes the price is high, but the payoff is always worth it.

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