Jewish Dietary Laws Reflect
Ethics, Not Health Concerns
Exodus 12:1-20; Ezekiel
of Egypt to be your God; you will there-
fore be holy because I am holy." The
apparent purpose is to achieve "holiness."
It has nothing to do with health or per-
sonal cleanliness, or with communal
methods of slaughtering and sanitation.
One of the more pragmatic explana-
tions for the dietary laws is that they sep-
arate us ("sanctify" us) from the non-
Jewish world. They keep us together, and
away from the attractions of a foreign
community. If we can't eat in their houses
it's difficult to establish relationships.
If the reasons for the inception of the
system are unclear, its effect and impact
within the history of our religious com-
munity is very clear. In following the
dietary laws, we come to
understand and establish a
certain reverence for life.
Kashrut becomes a moral
In the book Nine Questions
his week's Torah portion
declares which animals are
and which animals are not
permitted to be eaten.
Leviticus 11 is the primary source of
the vast literature of Jewish dietary
requirements. Beginning more than
2,000 years ago, the Pharisees and
the rabbis constructed a complex
system of dietary regulations called
the laws of kashrut.
As early as the 4th century
B.C.E., Cleachus, a pupil of
People Ask About Judaism
Aristotle, reported that his master
(Simon & Schuster; $13), the
had a conversation with a Jew, and
authors Dennis Prager and
came away from it deeply
Joseph Telushkin go so far as
impressed by two things: the Jew's
to say that "keeping kosher is
philosophy and the Jew's strict diet.
Judaism's compromise with
And still today, a good 2,500 years
vegetarianism [which is] the
since Aristotle, and more than
Special to the ideal." That is, a vegetarian
2,000 years since the Pharisees
obtains food without killing.
began to codify their system of
We were, after all, told in the
dietary laws, most non Jews know
something about "keeping kosher." From
Genesis account of the Garden of Eden
the Internet one can even access informa-
that humanity-was to be vegetarian.
tion from a kosher supplier in China,
Permission to eat meat was only granted
available in English or Chinese:
after the flood to Noah.
What does it mean then to use the
term kosher? Surely it transcends the san-
The very word kosher has entered our
English language with universal accept-
itary cleanliness of food, or the "purity"
ance. It is ubiquitous — appearing every-
of food products. Kosher does not mean
where from pickle labels to the
"clean," and certainly not "holy" or
Congressional Record. We freely use the
"blessed." It means "proper and appropri-
term in everyday English, though almost
ate," indeed even ethically and morally
always divorced from its religious and
proper and appropriate.
The purpose of the dietary laws of
Probably no other subject of Torah has
kashrut is to help us choose guidelines for
generated as much literature, discussion
right behavior. As living creatures, we
and speculative justifications as have the
interact in the natural world according to
our basic needs. But in so doing, we
From the Jewish philosopher Philo in
must remember that we are more than
first century Alexandria to contemporary
animals — that our humanity demands
religious apologists, we find volumes of
that we interact with righteousness and
theories to explain why the Jews say cat-
with respect for all life. I I
fish is not permitted and grasshoppers are.
Our Torah portion for this week
delineates acceptable and forbidden ani-
mals, fish, fowl and insects. The text,
How true is it that we "are what
however, gives no specific reason why one
we eat"? If our dietary laws are
animal is okay and the other not. We
rules to separate us from other ani-
have only the statement, found at the
and affirm our status as
end of this section of Leviticus 11:44-47:
and ethical beings, then
"For I am the Lord who brought you out
what other food restrictions should
Rabbi Joseph P. Klein is rabbi of
we be considering?
Temple Emanu-El. His e-mail is
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