KASHRUT VS. UNIVERSALISM

Two weeks ago, my friend, Ellen, delivered a drash (mini-sermon) during Friday-night Shabbat services. She proposed that kashrut (Jewish dietary law) divides people at a time when globalism seeks to unite humanity. Meals bring people together. But strictly kosher Jews don’t go to non-kosher restaurants and avoid eating in non-kosher homes.

Ellen’s is the position Reform Judaism took two hundred years ago. The chukim—the Torah’s non-ethical commandments for which no rational explanation is given—were considered irrelevant to (newly) modern Jews. Why no pork or shellfish? Why no mixing meat with dairy? Theories abound from disease prevention to separation from polytheists, but no one knows.

Orthodox Jews keep kosher because this represents God’s will. Kashrut remains the standard for the Conservative movement but is not widely practiced among its members. Some Reform Jews like me eat kosher-style. We avoid forbidden foods (treif) and separate meat from dairy but don’t buy meat from a kosher butcher or have separate dishes for meat and dairy meals.

Kosher-style eating enables non-Orthodox and “post-denominational” Jews to make dietary practices a conscious part of their lives and still dine with others. In restaurants, I skip shellfish and eat fish with fins and scales. Pork, including ham and bacon, often fill the menu. I choose chicken, beef or lamb. Do mashed potatoes with butter or milk come as a side? I ask for extra vegetables. And I can always order a salad. True, I find restaurant menus limiting. But when I eat out with friends, I always enjoy what’s most important—their company.

Admittedly, I sometimes ask: Why set myself apart? That leads me to ask: Why do others set themselves apart from me? Why do they eat pork and shellfish? Why do they eat cheeseburgers? And more important, why do they think I should?

People worldwide have distinct dietary practices. Muslims don’t eat pork but do mix meat and dairy. Some eat shellfish, some don’t. Hindus refrain from beef. Then there are vegetarians, vegans and a complex number of allied groups.

Should we all have the same diet? If so, who creates the menu? And what other practices should be recognized not as preferences but as law? Before I retired, did I induce conflict by not working on Friday night and Saturday? Do I fracture the global society by attending Shabbat services and Torah Study? Do I create civil disorder by being in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

If peace depends on foregoing “tribalism” and adopting universalism, whose is the default position? Will those who claim it cling to or cast off Christmas trees and Easter bunnies? Will San Francisco see the last of parades on St. Patrick’s Day and Chinese New Year?

At the end of her drash, Ellen invited anyone to join her for lunch while she eats a BLT. “You can have a tuna sandwich,” she added. She was referring—jokingly—to me. And that’s just the point. We can keep to ourselves, because that’s our right. Or we can eat as we wish and still sit at the same table, which Carolyn and I did with Ellen and her husband, David, last night.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of The Boy Walker, at davidperlstein.com. Order in soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com or iUniverse.com. Check out Green Apple Books and Books, Inc. in Laurel Village. 

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3 Comments


  1. Tracy
    Apr 04, 2014

    Distinctions are what make us Jews (and others Muslims, Christians, atheists, and vegetarians). The whole point, it seems to me, is to create meaning within the actions we do (or don’t) take. For myself, I do eat the occasional cheeseburger and once a year (NYE) I eat traif. Those are MY distinctions and may not work for others. Rabbi Erin Polansky (Neshamah Congreation of York) was one of my mentors several years ago and she taught me something that has always stuck with me.

    She explained that the mitzvot (Torah’s commandments) are like clothing. That is, some (don’t kill, honor parents, welcome the stranger) are like gotkas (underwear) –they’re mandatory. Others (like not eating pork, wearing tzitzit (fringes on undershirt), fasting on Tish B’Av) are like a coat — optional. BUT, she taught, we actually should try on the coat to see if it fits instead of simply looking at it on the rack and deciding no.

    Shabbat shalom.


  2. Bruce Abramson
    Apr 04, 2014

    Great piece, David. It nails the essence of the contemporary debate pitting nonconformity against the collective welfare.


  3. Carolyn Perlstein
    Apr 04, 2014

    I always enjoyed people at the bungalow colony eating Kosher at home but never if it was Chinese. And those same people saying someone else wasn’t Jewish enough. We are what we eat.

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