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Kashrut – An Insight into Human Psychology

Parashat Shemini introduces us to the laws of kashrut. Chapter 11 in Sefer Vayikrah, Leviticus, sets out the distinguishing characteristics of the animals we can and cannot eat. Mammals must have a completely split hoofs and chew their cud. Fish must have both fins and scales for their entire life. As for fowl, an extensive list of prohibited birds is given. Other species of prohibited animals are also listed such as mice, snails, and lizards. While there is no positive command to eat meat (other than an ounce of roasted lamb at the Seder or to fulfill other sacrificial requirements), fish or birds, there are a number of negative commands, prohibitions, with regard to the consumption of these foods. Simply put, if you wish to eat something other than fruits or vegetables, it must meet the standards mentioned here in the Torah.

The question arises, why isn’t it enough for the Torah just to tell us the positive signs necessary for birds, mammals and fish? Why does the Torah need to express the negative as well? Once we are told the characteristics of what is permissible to eat, don’t we then know what foods are unacceptable?

The realm of Kashrut, our system of dietary laws, is widely misunderstood. People attribute all kinds of mystical reasons and explanations to them. Religious leaders attribute some kind corrupting harm to a person physically or spiritually by the consumption of non-kosher foods. I wish it was so, but I don’t get a discount on my medical plan because I keep kosher. The Talmud makes clear that, “Everything God created is good and we should acknowledge their goodness. Only the Holy One blessed be He commanded us not to eat them.” Of course the question is why?

My mentor and Rosh HaYeshiva, Rabbi Israel Chait, pointed out a Rashi found earlier in the Torah, Shemot, 19:24. Concerning the event at Mt. Sinai, Moshe warns the people twice not to ascend the mountain. Rashi there explains, “A person should be warned before the activity and warned again during the activity.” Why should a person be warned twice? What is the concern? If the concern is that a person will forget, just issue the warning before the activity.

Rabbi Chait elucidated the idea behind this Rashi. When a person is warned before the activity, he isn’t in the situation or throws of the event yet. There is the opportunity for the person to internalize the message and consider its significance and its implications without any emotional charge. Giving a second warning at time of the activity allows the person to maintain focus while in the midst of the event. Every teacher, for example, warns his students to take good notes, and review every night in preparation for the assessment that will take place at the end of the unit. However, the teacher also issues a warning to prepare the day before the test as well to help the student refocus on the importance of the next day’s assessment.

This idea can be applied to our issue of Kashrut as well. The Torah was written for both the scholar and the ordinary person. Many times when we are asked or told to do something, a resistance comes to the fore. That is why the Talmud concludes, “It is greater to do a mitzvah that you are commanded to do rather than to do a mitzvah voluntarily.” Overcoming the natural resistance is part of the perfection in the idea of mitzvah, “command.”

With Kashrut the command and prohibitions are also hitting up against our most basic human instinct and desire, both the need and desire for food. The answer to why God would impose such restrictions on us is to understand the Torah’s approach to life. We are to be the masters of our instinctual/emotional nature as well as our social, moral and intellectual natures. Understanding this idea is at the root of the Torah’s concept of “Kedushah,” holiness or uniqueness. This status only emerges out of proper self-control brought about by the human mind and its capacity to engage in free will.

When resistances are present, the ability for human rationalization and distortion are not far behind. For example, we notice that the Torah doesn’t give an example of animals with no signs. In that situation a person could not rationalize. But if the Torah only gave both signs, a person may distort and say the Torah meant as long as it had one of the signs it is OK to eat. The Torah was only telling us the acceptable signs but not that you require both to be kosher. Therefore the Torah specifically mentions those animals with one sign are not kosher.

We see today that segments of our people distort more open passages of the Torah, such as in the case of marriage. The Rambam writes that the early Christians took the first sentence of the Shema, “Hear Israel, Hashem, the Lord our God, Hashem is one,” to be an open reference to the trinity. This notion is a serious distortion of the true understanding of “God is one.” His oneness is not like anything we can conceive or comprehend.

Rabbi Chait explained that by first stating Kashrut in the positive, the right attitude toward eating is established. Not that the other objects that follow are bad. Rather, they all comprise a system of living intended to properly direct a person toward human perfection. Through the system of Kashrut, eating becomes a different activity. That is the perfection. The Torah then gives specific prohibitions in this powerful instinctual/emotional realm in order to remove the opportunity for human distortion. They keep us focused on the goal of coming closer to Hashem via the unique approach to life described in the Torah. A life of the mind where our most powerful desires are satisfied but not in control. Then, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priest and a holy (unique) nation.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan