Kosher dietary laws are foundational to Jewish identity. Overwhelmingly, “identified” Jews, of varying levels of religious observance, maintain some degree of kashrut observance.
The laws of kashrut are divinely installed, and immutable. However, the experience of keeping kosher does shift, as our food culture and food production methods change, and as the layouts of our home kitchens are modified.
The details of the dietary laws remain one of the great mysteries of the Halacha. A comprehensive system of laws strictly governs which animals we eat, how the meat is processed, and how we prepare our food. Non-Jews are often astonished at the degree of complexity of our dietary laws.
Unlike many rational divine commandments, though, kosher guidelines appear illogical and even arbitrary. Why should an animal with split hoofs be permissible, while one with uncleft feet is prohibited? Does eating an animal that chews its cud provide healthful benefits over other forms of meat? Is mixing meat and milk toxic? In keeping kosher, we stand before God, blindly submitting to these indecipherable laws which govern our most basic function of life. There is nothing more visceral than laws that regulate eating.
If the specific details of kashrut laws appear illogical, the overall concept of limiting our food intake is eminently reasonable and absolutely critical to a life of spirituality. Judaism doesn’t endorse asceticism or extreme self-deprivation but instead encourages healthy and balanced living and responsible enjoyment of the pleasures of God’s world. By reciting a blessing before and after eating, we demonstrate that enjoyment of food is consistent with God’s will.
Though we enjoy this world, we don’t overindulge in it, and we refuse to mindlessly follow our physical desires or our raging hormones. Religion demands self-discipline and healthy regulation of physical pleasure. We are larger than our physical desires, and we impose our will on our stomachs. By limiting our choice of permissible foods, kosher laws provide a built-in disciplining mechanism to control our eating habits. By eating deliberately and discriminatingly, we avoid rapacious gluttony and unrestrained gorging. If we think about what we eat, we also think before we eat.
While the specific laws of kashrut are mysterious, the broader notion of regulating our diet is obvious. Kosher dietary laws always forged Jewish identity.
The culture of food
Traditionally, keeping kosher provided an additional communal benefit. Though we don’t withdraw from general society, we are meant to preserve some degree of cultural insularity. This was true when we inhabited our homeland, and it became even more important once we were evicted into exile, living among foreign nations. Lacking a common homeland or any other unifying cultural symbol, we relied heavily on kosher laws to preserve national identity. Eating is always a social event, and the restrictions of kosher food provided social distancing and checked cultural erosion.
In addition, we also developed a culture of Jewish food. Each Jewish community developed its own distinctly Jewish food, and these ethnic cuisines preserved Jewish identity. Today, many Jews who do not practice any kosher observance are still drawn to kosher cuisine as a major anchor of their Jewish identity. For many, matzah ball soup and gefilte fish are more compelling than matzah and lulav. Food, identity, and community were always intricately intertwined.
The impact of kosher food on identity and Jewish culture was demonstrated by the prophet Daniel, during his bold stand against cultural assimilation. Along with other up-and-coming young Jewish leaders, he was exiled to Babylonia, appointed to the king’s court, educated in Babylonian culture, and was expected to help acclimate the newly arrived Jewish refugees to their new environment. Defiantly, he refused the fancy palace meals he was served, choosing instead to smuggle in simple beans and seeds. Though the palace breads he was served were likely kosher, Daniel refused to consume them, reasoning correctly that food shapes identity. Facing the pressures of exile, he stoutly preserved his Jewish identity by not submitting to Babylonian food.
Based on his precedent, Jewish law expanded biblical dietary laws to prohibit several gentile-manufactured products. Bans against gentile-produced bread or gentile-manufactured wine were instituted to distance us from gentile society and culture by clearly demarcating between Jewish tables and non-Jewish tables.
Traditionally, the experience of eating kosher served two functions: it helped discipline our appetites, and it strengthened our communal bonds in the face of external cultural pressures.
Over the past two centuries, kosher experience has undergone radical transformations. Mass production of food has relocated kashrut supervision from the kitchen to large food-producing factories. Shechita (halachic slaughter of animals for food) inspections no longer take place in neighborhood butchers but in large meat processing plants. Once personal, kashrut supervision has now become institutionalized and industrialized. This has greatly expanded the availability of kosher food in Israel and in large Jewish population centers. For most Jews, kashrut regulations rarely limit food options. For most, their only struggle to keep kosher occurs when vacationing in non-Jewish destinations. And even then, Chabad is only a phone call away with hot kosher food.
Similar changes have altered the kashrut experience of our homes. Modern kitchens are spacious, offering us the luxury of separate areas for meat and milk. Separate sinks, ovens, and sets of kitchen utensils have all made meat and dairy separation almost effortless.
Whereas in past generations kashrut adherence was a bold sacrifice that defined Jewish identity, keeping kosher in the modern world is more seamless and therefore less identity-shaping. For most modern Jews, the drama of kashrut adherence has subsided, as keeping kosher has become second nature. Keeping kosher is nothing more than checking kashrut certification and glancing at your watch as six hours (or less) count down, permitting the resumption of eating dairy.
Whereas the personal kashrut experience has lost much of its drama, collectivist kashrut experience has become more intriguing. As many Jews no longer adhere to classic halachic observance, there are fewer rituals that unite us. Yet, despite this gap, many Jews still find themselves sharing kosher observance, even if their standards are different. In many Jewish cities across the Diaspora, the only time that Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews come into contact is in the kosher aisles of supermarkets or in kosher butcher shops. Kashrut, as it always did, still bonds Jewish communities. In a world in which our communities are farther apart, the unifying effect of kashrut is even more substantial.
In Israel, national kashrut plays a different role. We struggle to infuse the public sector with Jewish religious spirit while not coercing secular or traditional Israelis who do not agree to all halachic guidelines. Full religious coercion never ends well. Arguably, kashrut is the most elegant and least inconveniencing manner of introducing national religious observance. Extending basic kashrut across Israel rarely inconveniences the nonobservant, though, admittedly, it does raise certain food prices such as kosher meats. National kashrut is so important that Orthodox Jews are willing to relax certain stringencies of kashrut law, which we otherwise adopt in our own kitchens. At a national level, the compromises are well worth it, to unify our country through this basic Jewish identifier.
Modern kashrut is less formative for the individual but far more resonant for our communities and for our country.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.