Starting to Stop

by Leon Adato
Originally posted on
Going Kosher

When you are driving along and come to a red light, when do you start to apply the brakes? In other words, when do you start to stop.

We all know that going through a red light is not only illegal, it’s dangerous.But you can’t just zoom up to a red light at full speed and then slam the brakes. There are other variables to consider: whether there are cars ahead of you or people in the cross walk; how fast you are going; whether the road is dry or icy; etc. All of that (and more) will affect when you begin to apply the brakes.

I’m finding that observing mitzvot (commandments) is very similar.

Of course, people argue that the mitzvot are arbitrary, optional aspects of our life. That they are something we do for our own personal satisfaction. They may very well be right.

But even in that case, nothing changes about this discussion. If you aren’t going to stop at the red light, then don’t. Barrel right on through. There are even cases where people who would normally stop at a light will argue it’s not necessary:  At 2am in a one-horse town, when you know there is nobody else around, you may decide that the red light is nothing but a social expectation and that sitting there waiting for an electronic timer to click is a foolish and sycophantic adherence to the letter of the law without recognition of the spirit and intent.

BUT… regardless of your view of obligatory nature of the commandments, IF you are going to observe them, you still must consider how you are going to do so. You are going to have to decide when you are going to slow down so that you don’t cross “that line” – the identified demarkation between observing the mitzvah and breaking it.

Some drivers really do race right to the very edge of the curb (or the bumper ahead of them) and then hit the brakes, while others ride the break from a half mile back. Still, everyone’s intention is the same: Don’t run into the cross walk.

The commandments expressed in Torah for keeping kosher state:

  • don’t eat blood
  • eat only certain animals
  • don’t boil a kid (goat) in the milk of its mother

Period. No mention of 2 sets of dishes. No injunction against cheeseburgers. No statement that you have to double-foil-wrap your potato in an unkosher oven.

So why do we do it?

The red light(s) above are very clear. What isn’t clear is what we need to do to avoid crossing that line. Some people are comfortable running right to the edge – no blood, no bacon wrapped shrimp, no goat chops in goat-milk-cream sauce. Everything else is fair game. Other people feel the need for two dishwashers, to carefully check produce for bugs, to learn as much as they can about how and where their food is produced.

Neither approach, in my opinion, is necessarily bad. Like driving, everyone has their style.

Of course, this analogy can only go so far on a single tank of metaphorical gas. Traffic laws are enforced by humans, and ultimately affect others in a very direct way. Kashrut is not “enforced” by anyone – you don’t get a treif ticket if you chow down on a shrimp eggroll. Nor is there any impact on the people around us for our own dietary observances, or lack thereof. Traffic laws are meant to be more logical than not. Kashrut, as I have mentioned before, is understood to be inherently non-logical (which is not to say it’s illogical, only that human logic can’t be brought to bear to understand why we ought to keep kosher. This is one of God’s “do it ’cause I said so” rules).

But in answer to the person who looks at another’s kashrut observance and thinks “why would they need to take it that far?!”, my answer is

“Because that’s where they are comfortable starting to stop.”

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2 Responses to “Starting to Stop”

  1. avatar

    Leon says, Nor is there any impact on the people around us for our own dietary observances, or lack thereof. Not so. As just one example, my friend who couldn’t care less about kashrut is impacted by her husband’s insistence on a kosher home.
    Nor do I agree that kashrut (which I do not observe) is inherently illogical. There is logic in the separatism it engenders; there is logic in reminding us that the table is an altar and that we should be mindful of what we eat.
    I do agree that we should not be judgmental about those whose practices are different from ours, whether in the direction of greater stringency or greater leniency. My favorite statement on the issue of religious tolerance:
    We all worship God in our own way — you in your way, and I in His.

  2. avatar
    Jordan Friedman Reply May 18, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    It is an extraordinarily common misconception that kashrut has no logical basis. In the absence of refrigeration, mixing meat and milk increases the chance of bacterial growth. In the absence of controlled farming and modern medicine, certain animals, pigs included, are more likely to carry parasites than others (think trychinosis). When wooden dishes are used, as in Biblical times, keeping meat and milk separate lessens the likelihood of residue from both seeping into the pores of the wood and mixing, which facilitates even more bacterial growth than residue from just one substance or the other. There are countless other reasons for the various laws of kashrut, and most of them made sense before refrigeration, pasteurization, and clean farming practices. The only one that’s truly a “chok” is the mandate to remove blood from meat. Blood is healthy and iron-filled, not to mention tasty when cooked.
    We must remember that people in Biblical times did not understand science, so it can be hypothesized that G-d influenced the development of these laws and had them committed to writing in order to protect people from food poisoning. Or, people could have realized somehow that making these changes to culinary practices reduced the occurrence of sickness. We will likely never know for sure. Whatever the case, there were, at one time, conditions that caused the inclusion of kashrut into the Torah, as it was being written by HUMAN hands. In the Reform movement, we recognize that the Bible was written by humans, and that parts of it may have been divinely inspired. Nevertheless, there may indeed be some parts that are purely invented by humans, and it is up to us to use the power of reason to separate the two. If something makes sense, it probably came from G-d. If not, it probably came from the imperfect and primitive minds of the ancient human authors of the text.
    In any case, we must look back to the words of the famous Columbus Platform of 1937 concerning the Torah:
    “Being products of historical processes, certain of its laws have lost their binding force with the passing of the conditions that called them forth.”
    The conditions that called forth kashrut were the absence of modern science and technology. Those conditions have largely passed. Nevertheless, I contend that the continued observance of kashrut is still a valid and respectable choice for Reform Jews to make. However, I also stipulate that the reasons for it are different in our age. It can no longer legitimately be done “just to please or obey G-d” because we realize that a truly omniscient being would never ask such a thing of us “just because”, and some of us don’t even believe in a personal G-d anymore (though I do). The only legitimate reason I see to keep kosher is to follow tradition as an end in itself, rather than as a means to the service of G-d. If you keep kosher, please do it for humanistic reasons such as keeping a family tradition alive, for solidarity with your ancestors and more observant Jews, or for some other reason that does not require you to pretend that G-d actually wants us to keep doing it in the age of refrigeration.

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