In Times of Difficulty: A Question of Meaning, a Meditation on Kashrut

These are difficult times.

Editorial pages, news and financial reporters bemoan the dramatic loss of wealth in the country and around the world. Trillions of dollars of net worth – lost. Homes – foreclosed. Businesses – shut down. Charities – struggling. Unemployment nearing record levels. Even those who have secure employment feel the anxiety.

There is a sense that nothing is certain.

Difficult times indeed.

At times like these, it might seem like a luxury to speak about a desire for security and meaning. After all, there is food to be put on the table! Ironically, it is often when the going gets rough that our vision is sharpest; and our ability to evaluate what is really important is at its keenest. There might be a sense that nothing is certain but, in fact, what is most certain is what has always been most certain. Those who placed their faith exclusively in relying on ever-expanding stock markets and home mortgages simply placed their faith in the wrong place.

Which begs the question, does the current, historic loss of wealth suggest that material worth is ephemeral and therefore meaningless? Or does it demonstrate that, in fact, material well-being is essential to our lives?

According to Judaism, the answer is… both and neither.

Judaism suggests that the “either/or” implied in the two questions is, in fact, a false choice. Judaism does not embrace the physical rather than the spiritual nor does it reject the physical in favor of the spiritual. God has instructed us that we are both physical and spiritual and that it is in recognizing this that we most fully find meaning and honor the Creator of the Universe.

Our physical form and nature was taken from the “dust of the ground.” We are physical beings. To deny that would be to deny something essential and important, indeed something spiritual, about who we are. As Jews, we are taught to embrace the physical. To do anything less would be to question the wisdom and sanctity of God’s creation.

Life is good. Creation is good. The physical world is good.

We share physicality with every living thing in creation but we are not the same as every living thing. Far from it. We are not only the physical form that we inhabit.

“And the Lord God formed Adam of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and Adam became a living soul.”

We have body and a soul. Man has a purpose in life. Not in spite of life, but because of it. The question then is, once again, What is the purpose of life?

Judaism teaches that we must be engaged with and in the world. Nothing brings home this teaching so clearly as our need to nourish ourselves, to eat.

Hunger is an essential drive of all living things. But like all essential drives, unless it is satisfied in a way that is both permissible and holy, it is impossible to enjoy a truly spiritual life. But how do we turn hunger, or any essential physical drive, into something holy?

Each of us has before us a choice in everything we do. There is the right way, and the wrong way. (Certainly the poor example set by many, many in the financial world has made that lesson clear!) We can satisfy our hunger drive as every other animal in creation or we can find the holiness in this physical activity and have it become a mirror of the Divine. After all, we all must eat. Still, from a Jewish perspective the adage, “you are what you eat” is not a comment on physical well-being but a comment on spiritual well-being and goes to not only what we eat but how we eat, when we eat, where we eat and why we eat.

We know that Adam fell by eating forbidden food. Certainly, there was nothing intrinsically wrong with his eating an apple. His health did not fail because of his choice. The lesson here is that – from the very beginning – health issues are not elemental to the eating of forbidden food. No, the reason that Adam fell was because he did what was forbidden by God. In doing so, he removed himself from that which is holy. He ate because he was hungry. Or because the food seemed attractive and tasty. Or simply because his “dining partner” – Eve – wanted him to. In other words, he ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree for all the same reasons that many people eat.

They are hungry.

The food appears appetizing.

Someone suggests that they “try it, you’ll like it.”

But in Judaism, it is not enough to be sated. The goal is to be holy. Ultimately, these three words captures what it means to be Jewish. We are to be holy because our God is holy. We keep God before us in everything we do; we recite blessings and we perform mitzvot and, in doing so, we remain closer to our goal of holiness.

The laws of kashrut define the way God would have us eat. The fundamental basic-ness of eating makes it essential to our ability to distinguish and discriminate. In Judaism, laws and rules of conduct rarely concern themselves with that which is function of our “higher natures.” Our higher natures are capable of taking care of themselves just fine. It is our baser instincts and needs that offer the challenge. Certainly, that is the case in the financial world. Money – our need for it, our desire for it – brings us face to face with some of our most base motivations and gives us the chance to either reduce ourselves or enlighten ourselves.

As Jews, we do not seek separation from our essential natures, our basest wants and desires. We recognize that anything that God created is necessarily good. It is by our relation with each part of creation that we affirm its goodness and holiness.

Kashrut, by focusing on our universal, animal need to eat, affirms the connection, the absolute kesher between the physical and the spiritual. Our discipline, our discrimination – our separation – is a discipline which reminds us of the holiness of creation, our own role and our relationship with our creator.

Kashrut teaches us that the Jewish view of holiness and spiritually is intimately related to the physical substance of life. It is impossible to divorce oneself from the world and the physical reality of life and be in pursuit of genuine holiness and spirituality.

We bring the holy to the non-holy by blessings. For example, is not enough to eat kosher food to “be” kosher, to avoid treif in favor of kosher. All of our behaviors – no matter how noble or base – are made spiritual by our conscious recognition and articulation that they are done because of and for God. That is why we say a blessing before we eat. In doing so, we acknowledge that it is God who “brings forth the bread from the earth.” We focus our trust and faith on the One who is most trustworthy.

Giving blessing is particularly important for the act of eating. Our rabbis teach that if three people enjoy a feast, a brilliant banquet!, yet words of Torah are not discussed, it is as if they had engaged in something prohibited and repulsive.

Without a meal, we cannot recite Kiddush. The rabbis have interpreted this to mean that there can be no kedusha (holiness) in the absence of a meal. No holiness except when we eat! What greater statement can there be that the spiritual and material are wed. However, food only affords us the possibility of kedusha. We must recite brachot (blessings) both before and after we eat to render our “base” behavior spiritual and true. Our blessings wed the body with the soul. They turn our attention from our temporal and physical existence to the eternal bond we have with God.

Blessings enable material experiences to be elevated to spiritual heights. In the Talmud it is written, “It is forbidden for man to enjoy anything of this world without a blessing, and if anyone enjoys anything of this world without a blessing, he commits sacrilege.”

To bless is to be fully aware – of the pleasure of the material, yes, but more importantly of the spiritual One who is beyond this world.
Kashrut affords us insight into our desire to find meaning during these difficult times. Seeking wealth might appear to be a function of greed but it need not necessarily be. The wealthy are the ones who provide heat for the synagogue and food for the wayfarer. The desire for wealth is not necessarily a bad thing. Seeking wealth to the exclusion of caring about our fellows is. It is in our choices and our engagement with the world that we engage God; that we become Holy.

It would seem that those who rose most high only to fall the farthest did seek or find blessing in their material enterprise. They certainly did not understand that the true worth of their endeavors was in their seeking the kashrut of it. No meal, no wealth, can have real meaning or pleasure without blessing. And, when we trust God, even modest meals and material wealth are worth more than a king’s feast and kingdom.

OU Kosher Staff