Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger
Former Shaliach in Boca Raton (1999-2007)
Currently Executive Director and Community Rabbinic Scholar of Dallas Kollel
Not Just the Tuba, the Full Orchestra
Unbeknownst to me, the girl I asked to my senior prom was an observer of the laws of kashrut. I was quite taken aback when she revealed this to me – I don’t think that at that point in my life I had every met anyone, with the exception of the rabbi, who kept kosher – and I asked why she would so restrict herself. The answer she gave me – something about it teaching self-control and discipline – did not satisfy me, but I took her to the prom anyway, and afterward we separated from our friends to dine in an upscale kosher restaurant in New York City. That was probably the first time in my life that I set foot in a kosher eating establishment.
The response proffered by my date did not satisfy me then, and neither would it completely satisfy me today. Indeed, I can think of no single completely satisfying answer to the challenge of why keep kosher in the modern world.
Yes, it is true that many of us live as if there are no boundaries and have never learned to rule over our desires and to direct our bodies only according to the dictates of the soul and of reason. Kashrut is most certainly a regimen that requires a fair amount of discipline, but it is also most certainly not the only way and not necessarily the best way to learn self-control.
Even a cursory reading of the section of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shmini, that deals with the laws of kosher food, gives the clear impression that most of the forbidden fowl are predators or carnivores, meaning that the kosher birds do not kill in order to maintain themselves. The same distinction between the permitted and the forbidden applies as well to the land animals – by and large it is only the herbivores that may be consumed for food. There may be a powerful ethical message here hinting to an ideal preference for a vegetarian diet. Still, animal lovers may find better ways to express their solidarity with God’s creatures than by adhering to a kosher diet, and there may be equally efficacious ways to engender moral sensitivity among the masses.
The laws of kashrut carry with them a number of overt and subliminal messages – some of which we just enumerated – and indeed keeping kashrut may edify and sensitize those who are open to its lessons. But after all is said and done, none of these messages on their own can provide a persuasive answer to the question of why keep kosher.
Perhaps “why keep kosher,” is not the right question to ask. Isolated from the system of which it is part, kashrut is robbed of its full meaning. If one wishes to embrace Judaism with all his heart and all his soul, then he takes upon himself its ancient yet ever vibrant way of life, he buys into it and becomes part of it. It is an all-encompassing way of life that molds who were are on so many different levels.
In the best case scenario, we don’t choose one element and reject another; it is rather a package deal. The integrity of the system is called into question when we pick and choose, and the separate elements suffer when isolated from the whole. It’s like the tuba in the orchestra: a tuba solo is rarely the most inspiring of music but take the tuba out of the orchestra and something is sorely missing. At certain times the piecemeal approach may indeed have value, but the music is so much sweeter when you hear the full orchestra.
Part of the grand meaning of Judaism is precisely in the fact that we don’t chose individual pieces but rather accept upon ourselves the entire package, and are thereby elevated to something beyond ourselves. The self is expanded as it becomes part of a grand tapestry made up of thousands of knots and stitches, all indispensable for the whole.
I wonder if that girl I took to the prom still keeps kosher, for what she held on to was just one piece of the puzzle, and if you don’t fit that piece in with the others, well, it runs the risk of being tragically perceived as meaningless clutter that you just tend to toss away as the years go by. From my present vantage point, I would advise her: Not just the tuba, the whole orchestra!