Chosen People – Chosen Food
The second half of this week’s parsha, Shmini, deals with the laws of kashrut, the dietary laws. The Torah itself does not explicitly give a reason for these laws and much literature exists offering rationale and reasons for kashrut. One of the those is sociological and involves maintaining Jewish identity through Jewish eating.
Kashrut has contributed very significantly to our survival as a distinct nation. Jews all over the world have common dietary patterns. I can be confident that the curried hamin of the Calcutta Jews has no milk and meat mixed together in its ingredients. When I eat kosher French cuisine in Montreal I know that the meat is not pork and that the animals have been slaughtered according to Jewish law. Jews meet each other at the local kosher bakery; they shop at the same grocery and patronize kosher butchers and restaurants. Secular Israelis often gather at local kosher Israeli grills and backpackers on their post-army trecks can often be seen at Chabad house kosher eateries in Thailand, Vietnam and India. These laws are a major force in maintaining Jewish unity, and act as a social barrier against assimilation by creating a feeling of community among the Jewish people. This effect of the dietary laws, is, in fact, alluded to in the Torah itself:
You shall distinguish between the clean animal and the unclean and between the clean bird and the unclean… You shall be holy for Me, for I, Hashem, am Holy; and I have separated you from the peoples to be Mine.
These verses suggest that there is a link between observing the laws of Kashrut and maintaining our identity as a distinct and unique people among the nations of the world.
When my sister and I were teenagers, we once traveled by bus from Miami to Disneyworld in Florida. It was a long trip and the bus stopped at a restaurant for supper. We could not eat there since the food was not kosher, so we went into the game room to play pinball instead. The manager came over to us from behind his desk and whispered, “I can see that you’re not eating because our food isn’t kosher. Listen, I’m also Jewish — here, play as many games as you want for free.” He then took out a key and set the machine for free play. Our observance of Kashrut and his respect for Kashrut had created this feeling of kinship between two religious Australian Jews and a secular American Jew on the outskirts of Orlando.
The outside world has often identified Jews by their diet. The Cherokee Indians for example, called Jewish peddlers “egg eaters” because they did not eat the food offered to them. (It had obviously not been prepared according to Jewish dietary laws.) Instead, the peddlers asked for (chicken) eggs, and subsisted on a diet of eggs and vegetables until they returned to their kosher homes.
The laws of Kashrut also serve to remind the Jewish people themselves that they are different and distinct. Every time we eat, every time we go grocery shopping, or to a restaurant, these laws remind us that we have special obligations, a unique identity and a national mission.