Keeping Kosher from a Contemporary Perspective
For a period when he was small, one of my children would regularly ask at mealtime, “What was this when it was alive?” His question expressed an attitude remarkably near that of ancient Israel’s priests about food that must be addressed in a life of faith.
Most people know that the Hebrew Bible imposes what seem to be rather arcane food prohibitions on the covenant people (Lev 11:2-47 parallel Deut 14:3-21). They may not consume pork, shellfish, or mixed meat and dairy products, to name probably the best-known of these kosher rules. Why not? Since at least the time of Jesus, even the rabbis debated whether these rules had any basis other than divine fiat. Did God issue these prohibitions simply as a test of Israel’s obedience? Some of the early rabbis and many biblical scholars since have posited a number of rationales ranging from comparative religion to food hygiene. The prohibited foods, all animals, some have argued, must have been sacred in the religions of Israel’s neighbors and therefore off-limits; in a day before refrigeration, pork would have been a source for trichinosis and shellfish would have gone “bad” quickly, so the rules functioned as protection against disease. All of these suggestions lack explanatory power, however. The bull was central in the worship of the Canaanite god Baal, a favorite target in biblical charges of apostasy, yet the bull is kosher; in a day before refrigeration, any food could easily spoil and cause disease.
In recent years, several scholars have employed the insights of cultural anthropology to elucidate the principles underlying the Bible’s kosher regulations. Foods that should not be eaten fall into general categories in a system that reflects ancient Israel’s belief that God ordered the world in creation and that human beings should cooperate with God in observing these ordering principles.
The largest group of foods to be avoided involves improper mixtures of characteristics. For example, ancient Israel had observed that animals in flocks and herds were typically ungulates, mammals with divided (cloven) hooves and that chew cuds. Animals with one of these characteristics but not the other cannot be neatly classified in the order of creation and, therefore, in the effort to cooperate with God’s ordering principle, must not be eaten. Fish live in water and have fins and scales; an animal the lives in water but does not have both fins and scales does not fit comfortably into the order of things. It should be avoided. A mother’s milk gives life and sustenance, therefore, it would disrespect God’s order of life to combine life-giving milk and the flesh of an animal that had been nurtured and sustained by milk. A second criterion also relates to the order of life: no flesh should be eaten unless it has been emptied of blood because “life is in the blood” (Gen 9:4) and life is from God. This criterion also explains why predators and scavengers make the list of animals prohibited as food. They do not observe the rule concerning the respect for the life in blood.
These principles appear in the Bible before Leviticus and Deuteronomy in contexts that suggest further that more is at stake than a test of obedience. According to Genesis 1, the grand Priestly account of God’s ordered creation, God also provided in an orderly fashion for the food requirements all the “living beings” (nafshot chayyot) God had created. To human kind, God said, “Look, I have given to you every seed-bearing herb on the face of the earth and every tree that produces fruit with seed. Let them be your food” (Gen 1:29, my trans.). Animals, “all life on earth, and every bird in the sky, and everything that creeps on the earth, in which is the breath of life,” on the other hand, God gave “all the green vegetation for food” (Gen 1:30). Three features of this provision stand out: (1) the demarcation of food sources appropriate to the two categories of “living being,” those bearing God’s image and all others; (2) the fact that, in God’s original intention, as the Priestly material in Genesis understood it, lions and tigers and wolves were supposed to eat grass; and, (3) the fact that, in God’s original intention, human kind was to be vegetarian. Why? The explanation may be found in a concession to the fallen state of creation, especially humankind, that God made to Noah after the Flood. God expanded the category of food permitted to humans to include “every living being on earth…every bird of the sky…everything that creeps on the earth…and every fish in the sea” (Gen 9:2, my trans.). The only restriction, which sheds light on the original vegetarian plan, concerns blood. Humankind may not consume flesh containing blood, because blood is life (Gen 9:4). Indeed, as (priestly) Leviticus says “the life of all flesh is its blood” (17:14, my trans.; cf. Deut 12:23).
Another of my children has become a vegan. The effort to find a diet that did not aggravate a digestive condition led this child to abandon the consumption of any animal or animal by-product. Along the way, health concerns came to include humanitarian concerns about the treatment of animals in modern agri-business models, environmental concerns about carbon footprints and methane gas, and spiritual concerns about the distance modern society puts between life and its sources.
Food, water, air, and shelter are the essentials of existence. They are also essential elements of God’s created order. Ancient Israel’s priests considered that order, as they understood it, and asserted the importance of honoring it and finding ourselves in harmony with it. They asserted, especially, that, while human life is precious, all life is sacred to God. They asserted that fidelity to the God of the covenant required that even one’s food be seen as a matter of one’s faith. To keep kosher means that one has to think about what is eating. What is it? How was it prepared? Is it in order?
What would my life be like if I were to take the time to think about how my dietary habits harmonize with the order of God’s creation? What would it be like if I were to consider that a carnivorous lifestyle means that other living beings die so that I can live? I should certainly be grateful, less wasteful, and more aware of my place in the natural order.
Moreover, my food choices affect eco-systems, economies, and workers in ways that I rarely stop to think about. What are the different environmental impacts of a gallon of whole milk, a gallon of soy milk, and a gallon of almond milk? This is not a rhetorical question. I know that there are surely differences, but I have never before considered them. I will.
God tasked newly created humankind with helping to manage that order, not with disrupting and damaging it. The child’s question about the identity of his food points to something fundamental after all – respect for life and for the wondrous order of God’s creation.