Teaching Kashrut

May 6, 2010
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Yonah Bookstein

When I was studying for smikha, I asked my mentor, Rabbi Haskel Besser, “Why do I spend years studying the laws of kashrut? After all, most Jews don’t salt and soak their own meat anymore. And when did someone recently use a dried udder to make cheese? Shouldn’t I spend time on more relevant areas of Jewish life?”

Besser answered, “Above all, a rabbi needs to know the difference between what is kosher and what is treif.” In other words, an awareness and knowledge in the realm of kashrut are much more than knowing facts about forbidden mixtures of milk and meat. Keeping kosher is also about how food is made, where it is made, and who is making it. Kashrut can be a means to a Jewish life with ethical and moral considerations.

Keeping kosher, I tell people here in California, is an alternative diet and lifestyle adopted several thousands of years ago by our Israelite ancestors. Since alternative diets are cool, this gets their attention.

Kashrut continues to evolve and change, but it basically sticks to a set of principles adopted in the desert three millennia ago. Kashrut informs us first and foremost that there are things that I should and should not eat out of spiritual considerations. Kashrut was the original, “You are what you eat” movement. A kosher diet is part of a Jewish spiritual path. It’s a way of being in the world that transcends where we live, what we do professionally and what language we speak.

As a rabbi, I teach people what I consider to be the benefits, joys, and beauty of the tradition; then I let them decide what they are going to do. If they choose to start keeping kosher, I encourage them to move slowly and not “bite off” more than they can chew. I also spend time dispelling “kosher nostra” conspiracies and misconceptions about kashrut, such as: Rabbis do not bless food to make it kosher; they supervise the food preparation and ingredients.

Is all kosher food healthier, safer, or more ethical? Not yet. Ideally, kashrut will also result in the humane treatment of animals and an ethical, local food system. But right now, kosher supervision is concerned foremost with determining if food is allowed to be eaten by Jews.

Not long ago, all Jews were locavores, people who ate food grown or produced locally. We knew which farm the food came from, whose cow was being milked. Today, scholars and kashrut experts are only beginning to address the religious, ethical, and moral issues that surface as a result of kosher food being mass-produced. Recent scandals have forced the issue to the forefront.

Because I work primarily with young people, I encourage them to think about the food they eat, and I show them that their interest in food issues is part of their Jewish DNA. It’s the culmination of thousands of years of culture telling them to think about their food.

Years ago, we brought a slaughtered chicken to the rabbi to determine whether it was kosher. Today, I field some of those questions from young people via Facebook, Twitter, and text messages. Students send me cellphone snapshots of unfamiliar kosher symbols, asking for my opinion.

I pray that kashrut will some day be the gold standard of supervision, and a certification of kashrut will include spiritual, environmental, ethical, and health considerations. That certainly will be possible when the young people I work with have a say in the matter.

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Rabbi Yonah Bookstein is executive director of JConnect, a Jewish experience organization that powers Jewlicious Festivals, the Shabbat Tent, the New Moon Century, and other programs. He is also kashrut supervisor for CalKosher, which specializes in local, artisanal products. He can be reached at www.facebook.com/rabbiyonah.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing this piece, Rabbi. You capture beautifully what I think is one of the most often overlooked aspects of taking on observance in general and of kashrut in particular: the individual details are important, but what is most important is how increased observance connects us more deeply to who we are as Jews. While all of the laws of kashrut may not make obvious “sense” to Jews (whether or not they keep kosher already…), keeping them is a very powerful way to tap into Jewishness. It is a powerful means of maintaining a Jewish identity and a very tangible expression of our connection to God as members of the people Israel.
    Thanks again!
    kol tuv,

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