How Keeping Kosher Changes the Human Personality
Adapted from Parasha U’Likcha by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
“And the hare, for it brings up its cud, but its hoof is not split – it is unclean to you; and the pig, for its hoof is split... but it does not chew its cud – it is unclean to you. You shall not eat of their flesh...” (Leviticus 11:6-8)
These are only three verses of many in Parashas Shemini mapping out animal life through the lens of those permitted and forbidden for Jewish consumption. These verses lay the foundations for the mitzvah known to us as keeping kosher.
Many appreciate how Judaism betters its adherents moral growth. Concepts of equality before the law, the inherent worth and potential of every human being, and humble gratitude for the pleasures and privileges God showers us with daily – these are only a few of the revolutionary ideas Torah introduced and continues to spearhead to this day.
But keeping kosher? Today many question how eating kosher food could possibly be important for building a sensitive and refined personality. What do things like avoiding pig and how we slaughter our meat have to do with lofty goals like spiritual growth and self actualization?
This is not a new question. In fact, Jewish sages of the Midrash (Midrash Tanchuma, Shemini, 7) asked it hundreds of years ago: “What does God care if Israel eats without shechita (kosher slaughter)?” It’s hard to put it more plainly then that.
Before we answer the question, though, let’s note an interesting detail. Reading through the verses, we find that every time the Torah mentions keeping kosher, it also mentions concepts like “holiness”, “spiritual elevation”, and other similar ideas. The Torah indicates a relationship between what we put in our bodies and the development of our personalities. Immediately following the discussion of the animals, birds, and insects we are permitted and forbidden to consume, the Torah concludes the topic by stating, “For I am Hashem Who elevates you from the land of Egypt to be a God unto you; you shall be holy, for I am holy” (ibid 11:45).
Rashi adds, “[Why is it that] everywhere [where the exodus from Egypt is mentioned] it says ‘Who brought you out’ whereas here it writes ‘Who elevates you’? Rebbe Yishmael explains: If I had not elevated Israel from Egypt for any purpose but for them not to become unclean like other nations – it would have been enough.”
Let’s examine a verse describing another identifying characteristic of the mitzvah of keeping kosher: “To distinguish between the contaminated and the pure, and between the creature that may be eaten and the creature that may not be eaten” (ibid 47).
A theme arises – elevation, distinguishment – that seems to imply that keeping kosher is not just an aid, but an absolutely critical step towards personal growth.
So, “what does God care if Israel eats without shechita (kosher slaughter)?” The Midrash answers, “[Keeping kosher is important] in order to bring the creations together.” How does keeping kosher bring the creations together?
The separation between kosher animals and forbidden animals is not arbitrary. With a few exceptions in unique cases, the quality separating the two categories of animals is cruelty. Split-hoofed animals that chew their cud are generally omnivorous. They do not attack and kill other creatures for sport or for food. The same is generally true of the birds and fish Jews are permitted to eat. They are not carnivores. They do not hurt others as a way of life. The very need to make this distinction in what we allow in our mouths forces us to ingrain the importance of non-violence.
Moreover, Jewish slaughter requires a knife so sharp, and inserted at so precise a location on the neck, that the animal loses consciousness immediately, before any suffering may take place. If the knife is not quite that sharp, or is inserted a fraction of an inch imprecisely on the animal’s neck, then the animal is not kosher for Jewish consumption, regardless of how much money the owner is losing. The fact that we may not eat animals that have been slaughtered by bombs inserted in their skulls, hunted, poisoned, or otherwise made to suffer before death forces us to consider the creature whose flesh we are about to eat with compassion.
Of course Torah demands compassion and sensitivity in areas of life where it would be expected, such as charity for the poor and kindness to orphans and widows. The real test of a sensitive, refined person is whether he or she remains compassionate and sensitive even when engaged in behaviours where compassion would normally be the farthest thing from his or her mind.
It’s easy to think, “Well, this cow will be dead in a few seconds anyway, so what does it matter how I kill her?” It is much easier to think that when slaughtering livestock than to walk by a poor orphan on the street without compassion, but the same callousness would drive both. A person who has fully integrated the qualities of compassion, refinement, and sensitivity carries them through no matter what the situation.
Keeping kosher teaches that even when we are permitted to indulge our own physical needs and desires, we are not permitted to leave compassion and sensitivity at the door. We may never lose ourselves in self-serving pleasures or pursuits, even when those pursuits are permitted or encouraged by Torah. That’s the real trick – staying sensitive even in the midst of enjoyment. Staying compassionate even in how we slaughter an animal for food.
That is the kind of person that keeping kosher trains us to become.