Everyone eats. Every man, woman, child. Thief, sinner, or saint.
Everything eats. Every beast of the field. Every insect. Every fish swarming the seas and oceans, lakes and rivers.
To eat is to live, to maintain contact with corporeal existence. To keep the body alive. For without the body, there is nothing. No experience. No memory. No joy, no hardship. No soul.
Unlike animals and insects, people eat to live and for enjoyment. Once beyond the barest of caloric needs, everyone develops personal routines surrounding eating to make the act more enjoyable. We honor world-renown chefs. Cookbooks proliferate. Glossy magazines are dedicated to the joy of eating. We love food.
So how is a Jew to respond when challenged as to why he imposes upon himself not ceremonies dedicated solely to the enjoyment of eating, but rather strict limitations on what he can eat?
Of course, this is a false question. Understanding the rules of kashrut (kosher) as a restriction is to miss the essential nature of creation and of our relationships with G-d and what it means to truly enjoy partaking of creation.
Jewish tradition holds that if three people feast where no words of Torah are discussed, it is as if they are partaking of a dead offering. What gives life to food – no matter how beautiful the “presentation” – is the presence of G-d and Torah. Our rabbis have taught that it is forbidden to enjoy anything of this world without a blessing. That is, to fail to engage the connection between the physical and the spiritual, the created to the Creator, is to reduce the experience of eating to mere consumption, the behavior of a physical animal.
Judaism holds that we are more than physical beings. Our bodies, our physical selves, are only the temporary shelters for our most precious souls. That said, G-d, who created man “of the dust of the earth,” recognizes that man must eat to sustain his physical well-being. G-d created a biological being, one in need of physical nourishment.
In the Garden, Adam was given the right to eat vegetation but not meat. To eat meat was to take a life and in Eden, he could not take a life. Ramban suggests this restriction was due to the close kinship between man and beast, and that, according to the original design of creation, the beast was to serve and assist man, but not serve as his meal.
But then Adam sinned. He fell. With that trespass, the original reason for his creation became moot. From that moment on, there was a constant decline in man’s moral standard. After that time, G-d allowed man to eat meat, if only to blunt his blood lust against his fellow. After Noah emerged from the Ark, G-d said, “Every moving thing that lives shall be to you as food….”
G-d is only too aware of Man’s fundamental weakness and fragility; only too aware of his tendency to err and sin. So G-d approaches man with a spirit of forgiveness and concession. In the ideal, meat would not be eaten. But in man’s fallen state, such a concession is given. However, man must still recognize the soul that is within him. Man could eat meat but conditional on the prohibition of the blood. Blood is life.
Even in our fallen state, life must be respected and hallowed.
The laws of kashrut are restrictions but only in the sense that they are restrictions which enlarge us. Despite the weakness of our natures; despite our propensity for evil, there remains within us the possibility of redemption and renewal, of teshuvah. The laws of kashrut define G-d’s master plan of fusing body and soul within the reality of corporeal existence. At Sinai, the Jewish nation was born. Beyond the seven Noahide laws, 613 mitzvot (commandments) were given to purify an otherwise base and physical creature.
Through these mitzvot, mundane, everyday activities, activities shared with every other living thing, are transformed into expressions of spiritual ideals. Meals become halachic performances on Shabbat, yamim tovim (holidays), and seudot mitzvah (obligatory festive meal). The table upon which man eats becomes something more, something elevated. It becomes a mizbe’ach, an altar, upon which a spiritual and noble task is accomplished.
The laws of kashrut allow the Jew to eat meat and enjoy it. So long as the meat we eat is perfectly kosher as defined by Torah law, we may eat it heartily. We have not retrieved our dominion over the animal kingdom that we possessed before the Flood. However, we have been given license and freedom to slaughter animals for consumption so long as it is done in strict accordance with His regulations.
Eating is truly an expression of our essential natures. Our physical natures and our spiritual natures. Only when we embrace both can eating be truly and completely ennobling.
One day, Isaiah’s prophecy will come to pass, that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn the arts of war anymore.” Man’s urge to kill, in full bloom since Adam fell in the Garden, will dissipate. It will no longer be necessary to kill animals to eat so that our desire for blood is blunted. When that day comes, “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”
Man will be both fully physical and fully spiritual. Until then, the adherence to the laws of kashrut keep our thoughts on what we can be rather than what we are.
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Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing.