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What is the kosher food system?

THE other day someone stopped me and asked if I can explain kosher to them.

“Whenever I order protein shakes there is a choice of shakes that are kosher. What exactly does that mean?”

Another time, a store I lived above was owned by a very health conscious Indian man who made sure to eat well. He took out a hummus package and showed me the list of artificial ingredients on the label and proceeded to ask me in frustration, “so tell me, how is this kosher?”

Then, recently a vegetarian I know was trying to explain the ayurvedic food system when she commented, “you know I really respect the kosher way of living, the ancient parve system.” For a moment I was perplexed. Then I realized that many of the products this woman, as a vegetarian, purchases are marked pareve. I didn’t disabuse her of her notion of the kosher food system because the way she put it sounded so much more sophisticated and developed than how kashrut is often perceived or lived by.

I had never quite thought of kashrut as a food system. But in reality, that is precisely what it is. In today’s age of environmentalism, sustainable eating, non-toxic farming and eco-eating, kashrut fits right in. As that woman said, kashrut is in fact an ancient Jewish food system. Just like the ayurvedic one she was explaining to me.

GROWING up, kashrut was simply kashrut. That was how we ate.

The Torah does not give a reason for this commandment. It is meant to be observed out of loyalty and surrender to G-d’s will. And since I don’t live on a farm, but have always been a part of urban life, kashrut in practice was about separating meat and dairy, cleaning fruits and vegetables to remove insects, and checking labels to be sure the products were kosher. Is it kosher? is the mantra of the observant Jew. Kosher means appropriate or fit. So, is it kosher means is it fit to eat?

I knew the basic laws of shechita, ritual slaughter — the swiftness with which an animal is killed so that it has a painless death. I knew it is a requirement for animals to rest on Shabbat, and knew the prohibition against burden them a load too heavy for them.

The Torah wants us to be compassionate toward pain-sensitive living creatures.

With fowl as well, there is that motif, as the common denominator among the non-kosher birds listed in the Torah is that they are predatory.

Yet I hadn’t really thought of kashrut as a system fitting in with modern day food sensibility.

In the past, and sometimes still today, there is a kashrut mythology, a “halo” around kosher meat and kosher eating, that its purpose it to eat healthier and to prevent disease. That might be a side benefit of eating kosher. For example, salting the beef and chicken to draw out the blood as part of the “kashering” process might prevent bacteria from being harbored (the blood is drawn out because it is forbidden to eat the life force of an animal). But then, think of all the sodium. Plus, as any kosher observant Jew knows, you can eat kosher and have your insides lined with neon blue and yellow from kosher candies. Let’s not even get into rich East European Jewish foods such as cholent or kishka.

In other words, kashrut is not a health food system. That is a myth.

What it is, is a spiritual food system.

EVEN if the Torah didn’t give us the reason for this ancient food system, it gave us a way to structure our approach to food, to sanctify it, when sitting down to a meal.

The scrutiny alone that goes a processed food product before we purchase it means an extra set of eyes making sure that the product was created in a way that was faithful to certain rules. This scrutiny slows down the process of eating just a bit. There is a sense of the food going into our mouths being watched. Eating requires a sense of preparation. Kashrut teaches the idea of pausing before putting food into our mouths.

Another myth shattered: The supervising rabbi does not bless the food. He is there as a personal representative — a proxy of sorts — to guarantee that a food product or dish is prepared according to the kashrut laws that many live by. There is an element of trust, of ne’emanut, that is relied upon when eating a certified kosher product or dish not prepared by yourself for yourself.

In the US, kashrut was once viewed by many in the Jewish community as anachronistic and thereby neglected, left to the strictly Orthodox.

But today kashrut observance is undergoing a reawakening.

Because there is ancient Jewish wisdom in eating kosher.

When sitting down for a meal, even before a biteful is eaten, a blessing is uttered (this is not specifically a kosher issue, but a Jewish way of eating). Many traditions require a blessing before eating, but Judaism has many specific blessings, depending on the source of the food. There are separate blessing for food derived from land, grain or trees. This way of approaching eating raises awareness, tying one to the source of his or her food.

Then there is the process of preparation: separating the meat from the dairy; paying attention to where food comes from; not consuming everything just because it is there, being conscious of the time required between eating meat and dairy.

Whether the Torah intended it to be so, the discipline of eating Jewishly (“keeping kosher”) makes us more aware of our food sources, of the process of food’s preparation from its rawest form to its meal form, and of the gifts of the earth’s bounty.

In a word: mindfulness.

Call it what you want. Kashrut. Jewish food mindfulness. Eating mindfully.

I think my friend was on to something with the “ancient parve system.”

Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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