When I once read that a rabbinical court in Boston had declared grapes picked by Chicano workers to be non-kosher (literally, “not appropriate” or “unfit”; in the context of food, not permitted under Judaism’s dietary laws), I wondered how this was possible. Afterall, all vegetables are – by definition – kosher. Later, I was informed that certain rabbinical personalities had declared specific shoes and other items made of leather to be “non-kosher”. And then l read about a deeply religious young man who refused to wear kosher Tefillin (phylacteries) since they are made of leather.
When I considered these incidents more carefully, I realized that the reason why the grapes were not to be kosher was because the Chicano workers were mistreated and underpaid. In the case of the leather shoes, it became clear that these shoes were made of baby seals who were clubbed to death, and that the deeply religious young man refused to wear the Tefillin because they had been made from leather from animals that had been slaughtered. He requested Tefillin made from the skin of kosher animals that had died naturally.
Suddenly it appeared to me that the legend as told by Cleachus, pupil of the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle, that his teacher had great respect for the Jewish tradition and especially for its strict diet, has a much more profound meaning than I ever imagined (see Torah Today, Pinchas H. Peli, B’nai Berith Books, Washington, 1987).
“Kosher”, which is most recognized within the context of Judaism’s dietary laws has gained international renown. The word appears in nearly all dictionaries; one can request kosher food on any airplane – whether flying to Beijing, Tokyo or Dubai. I even know of non-Jews who eat only kosher! I once suggested to them that they should propose to their gentile friends to also start asking for kosher meat, out of protest against several countries who tried to ban the sale of kosher meat and poultry, claiming Jewish slaughter (shechita) is cruel. Shechita is by far the most painless and most humane method of animal slaughter! A worldwide protest against attempts to ban shechita would probably have some positive effect.
And yet, I continued asking myself: Why do we, Jews need to eat kosher? Why does the Torah not instruct the gentile world to do the same? In the past I had been told that the reason for eating kosher is because it is healthier. While this may be the case, it only strengthens the question – why are non-Jews not obligated to maintain the kosher dietary laws in their entirety?
The issue is that the reason for solely eating kosher does not appear anywhere in the Torah. The only “justification” provided is that we are to be holy since God is holy (Vayikra 11:45,46).
What is “holiness”? As far as I understand, it is a word used to express a higher form of spiritual, moral living in which the mundane is not rejected but elevated to a refined form of ethical living.
In the case of kashrut (the entire sphere of the dietary laws) holiness means that by refusing to eat the flesh of certain animals, fowl, or fish, one distances oneself from certain “low” characteristics symbolized by certain animals, such as animals who are carnivorous, aggressive and kill. Some commentators, take this literarily: Der Mensch is was er est, human beings are what they eat. In other words: nurture shapes nature, while others see it as symbolic.
It suddenly appeared to me that eating kosher food is not good enough but only a step in the right direction.
According to the Torah, human beings were originally told not to consume any meat. Only vegetables were permitted. Animals were created for their beauty and to assist human beings; not for consumption. This was the original divine plan.
Permission to consume meat was only granted to Noah after the flood and humankind had become more corrupt. Due to the enormous changes in the weather conditions after the flood and the general physical condition of man, human beings started to crave more substantial food and Divine permission to consume food was granted. (Instead of human beings living as much as 800-900 years, now they would generally live no longer than 120 years.)
This means, then, that the permission to eat meat was a compromise owing to the spiritual weakness of man. Humans had fallen from their high moral refined standards before the flood and they were no longer able to live without the consumption of meat.
However, the animals were to be slaughtered in a manner that is as painless as possible, and the consumption of an animal’s blood remained entirely forbidden as before.
Thus, all living flesh — whether from animals, fish or fowl — that we are allowed to consume is in fact “semi-kosher” because such consumption is really a compromise on the real idea of kosher, which is only vegetarian consumption! ( “Kosher” is “fit” or “fitting” as above, hence, vegetarian consumption would be the “entirely” fitting and correct behavior.)
After the flood, all human beings were permitted to eat all kinds of meat without exception, as long as the above conditions, no blood and as painless as possible, were met.
However, after God chose Avraham (Abraham) to restart a movement of ethical behavior and to attempt to re-educate humankind; God told the offspring of Avraham, the Jewish people, at the revelation at Sinai, that a slow process should be introduced to move humankind back to its original high ethical standard prior to the flood. This was the purpose of the Giving of the Torah at Sinai – the Torah is not the end of the road of monotheistic ethics , but a first step.
Thus, a people with this ethical mission was created – the Jewish People, to help humankind to return to the original divine plan. One of the ways to do so was to tell the Jews that they had to set an example of higher ethical standards, including the manner of meat consumption, and further that constitute the dietary laws. But that is only the first step, for all these laws are but a compromise in relation to the ultimate goal: vegetarianism as in the days before Noah.
The concept is to re-educate all of humankind to full vegetarianism. Jews were obligated to observe these dietary laws and at the same time educate all of humankind to voluntarily undertake these Laws until full vegetarianism would be accomplished. After all, it was an absolute prohibition for all of humankind to eat any meat until the days of Noah when this law was changed. The ideal, however, is to return to this original state.
Thus, the dietary laws form a “ladder” of ethical improvement.
Therefore, the consumption of kosher meat today is merely a step in the right direction; such consumption is not yet “fully kosher”, “fully fitting”. It is a compromise between full “dishonorable” consumption of food and truly kosher, vegetarian, food. For the meantime, this “food of compromise” is still permitted.
For how long, now that animals that have been slaughtered as the law requires are often mistreated and it becomes more and more difficult to handle these animals with care now that the meat industry has grown to such proportions that animals are not handled as demanded by Jewish Law? Now that we are able to create artificial meat, it may well be the time that we become vegetarians as God originally instructed Adam and Chava (Eve) prior to the flood of Noah. This will not be an easy transition, however one that is highly necessary. *
Kashrut is a process of moving from a lower level of refinement to a higher level. Thus, when we claim that we are eating in a kosher manner we should not claim that we are holy or have the ultimate aim. It is only one step in the right direction – for we have yet to achieve the true and complete “kosher”!
* I myself do no longer eat any meat but only humanely handled and carefully slaughtered chicken, so as not to make it too difficult on my dear wife by becoming a complete vegetarian. I am waiting for the day that artificial meat will be available everywhere.