“Why Keep Kosher?”
By Dr. Marvin A. Sweeney, AJRCA Professor of Tanakh
Parshat Shemini presents Moses’ efforts to carry out the first offerings for G-d after having instructed Israel on the proper offerings to be presented at the altar (Leviticus 1-7) and the ordination of the Sons of Aaron as the priesthood of Israel (Leviticus 8). In Leviticus 9, Moses instructs Aaron, Aaron’s sons, and the elders of Israel to prepare a Hatta’t, or Sin Offering, and an Olah, or Whole Burnt Offering, to be followed by the offerings of the people of Israel, including another Olah, a Minha, or Grain Offering, and a Zebah Shelamim, or Peace Offering. This was the first time that such offerings were to be presented in Leviticus; the narrative functions as a means to teach the people what offerings were required on behalf of each group.
A problem emerges in Leviticus 10 when Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, present “strange fire” at the altar, i.e., they present an improper offering at the altar and they die as a result. Insofar as the names of Nadav and Abihu recall those of King Jeroboam ben Nebat of Northern Israel, the narrative may employ a northern Israelite model to illustrate improper worship that compromises the holiness of G-d. In any case, the narrative illustrates that improper worship in the Mishkan or Temple has its consequences.
Leviticus 11 then rounds out the Parshah with instruction as to what animals may be used for food by the people of Israel; this is based upon those animals that might be offered at the altar. As Israel is “a nation of priests and a holy nation” to G-d (Exodus 19:6), we are instructed to eat as if we are priests who served at the Temple altar. As such, Leviticus 11 provides one of the textual bases for instruction on keeping kosher.
Such a Parshah raises the question, ‘why keep kosher?’ The simplest answer, which I see on the website of my favorite kosher meat market and deli in St. Louis, is because G-d said so. Although this should be sufficient basis for any Jew, the fact of the matter is that in our Western culture, we now live in an environment that values freedom of choice by all. Since Napoleon Bonaparte in 1805 abolished the Kehillah system that had allowed Jews to live under the supervision of Rabbinic leadership, we have the freedom to choose whether to be Jewish or not. If we choose to be Jewish, we may also choose how to be Jewish, and there are many models for Jewish life in the world today, some of which involve observance of Kashrut and some of which do not.
In the contemporary world, we may choose to keep kosher, and many, even in the Reform tradition, have chosen to do so. I still remember Champagne, Illinois’ Papa Del’s sausage and mushroom deep-dish pizza as one of my favorite foods of all time from my days as an undergraduate student, prior to keeping kosher. I considered keeping kosher while in graduate school, but did not, largely because Riverside, CA, had no meaningful kosher food. When I moved to Miami and drove down the street for the first time, I saw a kosher butcher shop just a few blocks from my new home: the die was cast. But the question of ‘why?’ was still there. Some might argue that kosher food is healthier than treif food, and in some cases, that may be true. But kosher corned beef, pastrami, and hot dogs, while possibly better than their treif counterparts, are still not particularly good for you.
It’s not that kosher food is so much better for you; it’s that Kashrut represents a mode of Jewish holiness and identity. Keeping kosher requires us to think about what we eat, about how we relate to the world of creation, especially other forms of living beings, and how we conduct ourselves in eating, one of the most fundamental acts of living. It prompts us to consider the act of taking life, shedding blood, and recognizing that our lives are, in fact, dependent upon the passing of others. Kashrut demands that we think about our place in the world of creation, the limits of our own lives, and our relationship to other life forms and to G-d. In short, it demands that we conduct ourselves as holy priests at G-d’s altar when we eat, that we live as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.