The Torah portion this week (Shemini II) teaches us which foods are permitted (kosher) and which are not. They are very clear to understand. They are very easy to follow. And, they are utterly confusing!
Let’s start with seafood – appropriate since we live by the ocean. The Torah teaches that only fish that have fins and scales are permitted and that shellfish are not. Why? There are lots of explanations including the ones you have probably heard or maybe even repeated. ‘The shellfish are bottom dwellers and what they eat is disgusting.’ Halibut are bottom dwellers, as are grouper and so many other kosher species of fish. So the law can’t have anything to do with that. So why have the law? Before I answer that, let’s look at kosher land animals.
For a land animal to be kosher (I am not describing the way it was slaughtered, even though that has enormous impact on its kashrut status) it has to chew its cud and have cloven hooves. That is why a horse is treif as well as a dog and a pig. Again the explanation many hold to seems to be that the prohibition was out of the health concerns. This makes no sense, either since many Jewish scholars have pointed out that if that was the case wouldn’t all the non-Jews who ate the same meat get sick when clearly they did not?
So why the food laws?
I think these laws were intended as steps toward holiness, nothing more or less. There is no magical quality about kosher food or evil quality about that which is treif. The distinctions of all these foods were arbitrary classes that were gradually decided upon by an ancient Jewish community. Perhaps the forbidden food was eaten by the Canaanites and that is why certain things are prohibited but, if that is the case, didn’t the Canaanites eat kosher food, as well? I truly believe that the kosher food laws were created for one thing: turning the most animalistic impulse we have – the need to feed – into an act that turned us from animals to holy human beings.
Without discussing only the kosher food laws, imagine what it would be like if everything we did was preceded by thought, ‘how can I make this act holy?’ I think the difference in the world would be profound. Such a way of acting in the world would go way beyond whether or not we should eat a cheeseburger. But by simply opening ourselves to the question of creating a little slice of holiness in each moment we have moved beyond the simplistic following of the Torah law to understanding a deeper meaning of Torah law. And, when we do that, laws that seem of so little use and necessity will, in an instant, become the foundation of how we carry Torah.