Friday, April 14, 2017

Kosher thoughts

Pesach leads to much conversation about kashrut. How many calories are expended in considering which calories to intake?  It borders on an infinite number.  Yet, many non Jews (and some Jews) are not completely aware how complex kosher can get and how much it affects food choices.

On the surface level, kashrut involves the manner of slaughtering animals, the prohibition of certain foods (pork and shellfish, notably) and prohibition of mixing diary and meat. Yet, it also takes into account the preparation or storage of the foods.  For example, traditional wooden wine kegs use a mixture of flour and water as glue, making the wine stored in them unsuitable for Pesach. Likewise, gelatin is commercially made from animal fat, pig or otherwise, affecting its use with dairy products or use in general.  Since a restaurant that is open on Friday night cannot by definition be kosher, an observant Jew must not eat there even during the week. At Pesach, more prohibitions come into play, including most if not all grains (rice is a matter of contention). This is not even the tip of the iceberg.  Kashrut rules make inheritance laws look like child’s play.

The truly controversial issue is the raison d’être of this corpus of religious laws.  Some justify the logic in terms of health or ancient methods of preservation (or lack thereof). Yet, even if kashrut were unhealthy or completely irrelevant in terms of food safety, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Jews would continue to keep it. Fundamentally, the observant perceive kashrut as a basis of Jewish life (not necessarily identity). To openly reject it is to betray the religion, no more, no less. (Maimodides named it as one of the pillars of Judaism) In other words, to embrace God, you have to embrace his rules and limitations. 

Of course, many Jews in Israel and abroad do not keep kosher to one degree or another. The expressions of rejection include eating pork and cheeseburgers to only eating “traff” (non-kosher food) in restaurants while keeping the house kosher, to name just a few.  To a large degree, this refusal is an ideological choice in the same way compliance is a matter of faith.

In the meantime, many Jews are putting up with matzo and its companying stomach effects until Tuesday while quite a few others found the ceremonial matzo on the night of the Seder more than enough for their religious conscience. In my case, I have no problem living without bread and beer for a week. I give up those foods not as a matter of principle but as a practical means to keep my wife happy.

In terms of the importance of keeping kosher, two bits of philosophy come in mind. Sartre said that a Jew is a Jew because the world views his/her to be such while Bob Marley said “don’t worry, be happy.” In other words, to the outside world, keeping kosher is of little importance but, if it makes you feel truly Jewish, enjoy.  In the meantime, I’ll have some gefilte fish with homemade khreyn (horseradish). It helps clean the sinuses. Oh, the joy of Pesach!

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