Monday, September 14, 2009

On Keeping Kosher

By Susan Esther Barnes

I’ve heard a lot of people who are not Jewish say they know very little about Judaism, but one thing they do know is we have dietary laws that say, among other things, that we can’t eat pork. When we follow these laws (kashrut in Hebrew), it is said we are “keeping kosher.” (I don’t know why it’s called “keeping” kosher instead of “eating kosher,” but that’s a matter to explore at another time).

The ironic thing about this being one of the few things people know about Jews is that most of the Jews I know don’t make any attempt to keep kosher. I certainly didn’t, until just over two years ago. I didn’t have any intention to start, either, but one day I was standing in line at a Mexican restaurant, and I thought, “I can have cheese on this, but if skip the cheese, it will be kosher.”

Technically, an Orthodox Jew would still not call it kosher, for a whole list of reasons which I won’t go into here. With apologies to those who disagree, I’m going to refer to “keeping kosher” in this discussion as following the basic dietary rules laid out in the Torah (the Hebrew Bible). Namely, eating only those animals that have hooves and chew their cud, eating only those fish with fins and scales, and not eating pork. And for good measure, I’ll even throw in not eating meat or fowl together with dairy, although this strikes me as being a big stretch from the admonition in the Torah to not “boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Especially since no fowl’s mother has milk.

So I was standing in line, thinking “If I don’t have cheese on this, it will be kosher,” and I ordered my lunch without cheese. Later that day when I was deciding what to have for dinner, it occurred to me that I had the same choice to make: For this meal, will it be kosher or not? Once again, I chose, for that one meal, to go with kosher. I made this same choice, one meal after the next, until, after a week or so, I decided it was enough of a pattern that it was time to tell my husband what I was doing.

I never made a commitment to keep eating kosher, and I still haven’t. I may keep doing it for decades without ever making a long-term commitment to it. But at some point over the last couple of years it changed from a whim, to an experiment, to a mild annoyance, to a habit.

Often, people around me have no idea I’m keeping kosher. It’s easy to order kosher food at a restaurant or to make kosher choices at a buffet without mentioning what I’m doing. When in doubt, vegetarian fare fits the bill without raising eyebrows.

When the subject of me keeping kosher does come up, I have received two kinds of responses. The first, from Jews and non-Jews alike, is curiosity. The two most common questions I get are, “Why are you doing this?” and “How does it feel?” I still don’t have a good answer to either question. To the former, I generally shrug and say something like, “I was standing in line at a Mexican food joint and I decided to give it a try.” To the latter, I generally say, “Not as annoying as it did in the beginning.”

I find the question about how it feels to be an intriguing one. Why do people think it would feel different? I suppose some people think it’s healthier, so perhaps they think I’ll say I feel more energetic or something. I don’t. Cutting out unhealthy foods like bacon and sausages still leaves plenty of room for potato chips, pie, cake, and other yummy, fatty, unhealthy foods. Maybe they think it would make me feel closer to the Jewish people, but it doesn’t. More on that later. Maybe they think it would make me feel closer to God, but there are a lot of other things that make me feel close to God with a lot less effort.

The second kind of response I get when I mention I’m keeping kosher is one I have received so far only from other Jews. It is open hostility. This is why keeping kosher definitely does not make me feel closer to the Jewish people. Rather, it distances me from some of them. I don’t know where this hostility comes from, but it must be from baggage these folks are carrying around from earlier in life, most likely from their childhood. Whatever the cause, even though I make it a policy not to even suggest that anyone other than myself ought to keep kosher, there are those who seem to respond to any mention of keeping kosher as if it were a personal attack.

So we are left with the question of why am I still doing this, more than two years later, if it doesn’t make me feel any different, and if it sometimes upsets other people. At this point, the only explanation I can offer is this: Keeping kosher is a mitzvah, a commandment. There are many other commandments that I keep. Every other commandment I do, be it giving money to a homeless person, observing Shabbat, or visiting someone in the hospital, makes me feel good. Therefore, to some extent, I do these things in order to feel good. Keeping kosher doesn’t make me feel good; most of the time it doesn’t make me feel anything at all. And that’s how I know it’s the only mitzvah I do only for God.

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