Rabbi Geffen sounds like a great man who understood the importance of maintaining tradition while adapting to new cultures. To me that’s being Jewish is all about.
I actually do eat corn during Passover, and I don’t see the problem. Corn is not a grain and is not leavened in any case. Ashkenazim don’t eat corn (along with beans, rice, and other similar plants), but Sephardim do. In fact, I believe the Ashkenazi understanding of “grains” is wrong and should be consciously repudiated. It’s a silly rule. I would even eat barley and oats as long as they are not leavened, which means cooked for more than eighteen minutes. This putting “a hedge around the Torah” business sometimes gets ridiculous, obsessive, and comical.
See Laurence H. Kant, “A Personal View of Kashrut,” Opinion, Shalom, September, 2010, p. 11: Kashrut2
A PERSONAL VIEW OF KASHRUT
Laurence H. Kant
Kosher observance entails many things. Each Jew who considers himself or herself to be “observant” calibrates the areas and degrees of that observance.
There are many theories about kashrut’s origins—anthropological, sociological, moral, health-related. Torah doesn’t offer any explicit reason other than God’s command. Presumably, there are many factors. I’m more interested, however, in the outcomes of the practice than its origins.
“Keeping kosher” is commonly associated with not eating pork and shellfish, but it was my evangelical Christian naturopath who convinced me to avoid both pigs and shellfish because they have inefficient digestive systems and retain toxins and allergens. I realized that kosher observance may have given Jews an adaptive advantage in terms of well-being and longevity, since our circulatory, neural, lymphatic, and digestive systems are healthier than those of others who eat toxin-filled foods.
There may be health reasons for separating meat and dairy, too. Vegans don’t consume dairy products (along with meat), and there are naturopathic reasons for avoiding dairy, particularly homogenized/pasteurized milk products. Many naturopaths believe that the process of producing dairy products damages the food, making people less able to absorb nutrients. There’s also a view that eating meat and dairy together makes our bodies less able to break down foods in our digestion than if we ate them separately, clogging our systems and raising cholesterol levels.
Beyond health, there are other reasons for maintaining kosher awareness. For one thing, it makes consumers and eaters more conscious of what they ingest. (My wife has long quipped that “organic” is the New Age “kosher.”)
Keeping kosher is what Jews have always done and are commanded to do. While that’s not enough for me, I originally stopped eating pork in order to maintain my connection to my ancestors and my tradition. I think there’s value in doing so.
There’s another reason that’s difficult for non-Jews to understand. Kosher and Sabbath observance have always distinguished Jews from others. Being different is part of what it means to be Jewish. Jews are, frankly, notoriously contrarian (even enjoying breaking their own rules) and don’t follow the crowd. The Jewish path is a less traveled one.
This “otherness” gives us a different perspective and allows us to see connections others don’t. It’s what has allowed Jews to help make the world a better place. Look at the Jewish Nobel prizewinners, artists, and humanitarians—well beyond the miniscule percentage of Jews in the population. Sadly, this very habit of life and mind that has advanced the world is what offends non-Jews and makes non-Jews suspicious of us. Despite this, Jews (religious and secular) continue to live distinctively, often without realizing they’re doing so.
I don’t view Judaism as solely a religion, but rather as a way and philosophy of life that has made one people take an “alternate route” for three millennia. For me, what distinguishes Jews isn’t the obvious, but an array of things that most don’t notice. These include non-religious elements, such as pursuit of learning, challenging authority, taking pleasure in debate, love of good food, and humor. Jews have, and will, adopt the cultural influences around us. One of the distinctive characteristics of Jews has been our capacity to adapt what it means to be Jewish and still remain Jews. We’re protean, able to take on different roles and appearances, but still keep a Jewish perspective and way of life, wherever we go. That’s what continues to make me Jewish—not dietary law, per se.
I value thinking about food and believe that kashrut encourages this. My personal understanding of kashrut isn’t very traditional. For me, kosher dietary practice means being conscious of food, how it’s grown, raised, and prepared, and where it comes from. It also includes the humane treatment of animals. Organic practices are a form of kashrut for me, and I consider free-range/non-hormonal chickens more truly kosher than chickens prepared according to rabbinical standards. If I could easily obtain and afford kosher/free range/non-hormonal chickens, I would prefer them.
That’s my highly idiosyncratic understanding of kashrut: it preserves ancient traditions that possess great wisdom, and, together with modern organic foods, it makes sense to me.
Published in Shalom, September, 2010, p. 11
© Laurence H. Kant 2010
This article makes me hungry.
This is in response to a group discussion in our congregation on organic foods.
Something positive and good has come out of this discussion of chickens. We have learned that people are deeply responsive to the issue of meat consumption. Unlike abortion, stem cells, capital punishment, even war, this topic strikes all of us at a gut, personal level. We may not all have the unfortunate experience of dealing with a murderer or an unwanted pregnancy, but obviously we all to have to eat on a regular basis. So this is a dilemma we cannot avoid facing. And nobody wants to feel like a bad person; we all want to think we’re good, decent, nice people.
Yet, the reality is that we are all–everyone of us–implicated in the cultural activities of the broader society in which we live. There is no getting around that. Torah has long explained that every Jew sins not just as an individual, but as part of the greater Jewish and human community. No matter what we do, we are engaged in activities that are harmful to other beings and to the earth itself. That’s simply the nature of humanness. What we should do, I think, is not try to be perfect (that’s plainly impossible), but to try to reduce the harm we do and to transform negative actions into positive ones.
Historically, laws of kashrut slaughtering were much more humane than slaughtering practices found in neighboring cultures. And part of the motivation (though not all) for these laws probably stemmed from concern for the well-being of animals. But times have changed, and we live in a different world since the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. Like others today, kosher butchers engage in the factory industry of chicken slaughtering (though kosher butchers are more humane than the large corporate industry giants). It is this assembly-line, industrial system that has caused new, inhumane practices to be adopted by most large slaughtering houses. Our dilemma is: Do we pay more for humane slaughtering practices, or do we pay the lowest possible price? Of course, we all have to make that decision for ourselves, and no one is wrong who decides to pay a lower price. Every day we make these kinds of decisions in countless, little ways, and I imagine that each one of us comes to different conclusions, depending on the issue.
For me eating free-range chickens means that we are inflicting less pain and suffering on other sentient beings. We are also forcing poultry producers to adopt more humane and healthy practices. This is tikkun olam. Do I always do this? Honestly, no. Do I try to? Yes. Why? Because it is the right thing to do. We all do the best we can, knowing that we can still cause harm. That’s the complexity of our human existence.
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