The number of times someone has asked me, “Kayla, why do you keep Kosher?" or "What’s the purpose of Kashrut?” and I haven’t had a proper answer is insane. Sometimes I’ll mumble something along the lines of “Oh, it’s a Jewish tradition” or “I’ve just always done it because that’s how I’ve been raised” or “it’s cleaner”. Yet through the Jewish Learning Experience seminar I’ve attended over the past month, I’ve learned that the truth lies in ethics, deep beneath the surface.
When the rabbi leading the seminar explains a concept to us, he sandwiches stories and analogies within each other so that we’ll be better able to understand the why behind what happens in our world instead of just the what. He began the seminar with asking us about the definition of ethics and the purpose of having rules to follow in the name of being morally good people. Delving into the roots of Judaism, he asked us if we had ever heard of the Jews being the “Chosen People” and most of us nodded that we had. It is said in the Torah that the Jews “shall be a light unto the nations” for when the world had dissolved into crime. God picked the Jews, who had known the greatest hardship of being the lowest of the low -- slaves in Egypt -- as his Chosen ones. The Rabbi called the Jews the “purple jacket people”, mentors and role models for the other people, saying that the one thing that can really help people escape bad communities and lives of crime is a single mentor. And with this designation, Jews were supposed to be extremely compassionate people who should always do good. For example, in segregated America, Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish philanthropist, helped set up 5357 black schools in the south. Of course, this does not always occur, and such an occurrence creates problems for Jews, a different standard.
For while the Jews were intended to be compassionate and able to relate to all of these people, being Jewish comes with an additional responsibility. The rabbi gave us a hypothetical example, asking us what would happen if Trump’s campaign manager spent an evening in a nightclub and got too drunk or rowdy. The general consensus was that he would probably get fired. Like celebrities or politicians who are massively criticized when they commit both small and large mistakes, the Jewish people are put in a similar situation with being chosen. While this may seem elitist, perhaps we’re being held to a higher standard. This I would not believe if the recent past and my own present hadn’t confirmed it.
The Holocaust happened less than a century ago. The Jews were scapegoated because it was easy to blame them for financial and other difficulties in Germany, and the idea of reversing the tables on the supposed elitists was very attractive to many, both in Germany and in Europe, Asia, and many other places across the globe. And 10 years later, in the 1950s, Jews and blacks were not allowed to live in La Jolla, California. It wasn’t until Jonas Salk, a Jew whose lab was in La Jolla, found the polio vaccine that the city changed its law, allowing him to finally be able to live an apartment next to his lab and enabling blacks and other Jews to live there too. Yet this scapegoating doesn’t just lie within the past.
Israel today is the only democracy in the Middle East. Women have equal rights, people can vote, and people can practice whichever religion they would like freely. So it shocked me when I learned that from the years 2006 to 2012, there were 48 UN reports condemning Israel when only 9 condemned Syria, 3 condemned Iran, and many nations such as China were left untouched. And on March 24, 2016, the UN solely condemned Israel for violating women’s rights, citing mistreatment of Palestinian women. I was floored that the UN would criticize Israel more than Syria, a nation which has been undergoing brutal and bloody civil war for years and that no nation aside from Israel would be called out for violating women’s rights, not even nations such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Iraq. Israeli women and girls, amongst others, have been violently slaughtered on the streets of Israel, yet their plight was not condemned by the UN.
All I could ask myself was why. Why is it that Israel is criticized so often and so brutally when other nations, perhaps less humane nations if such an assessment is possible, are not?
Maybe it’s because the way we think of Israel and the way we think of other nations are not the same. Maybe it’s because the world holds Israel and the Jewish people to a higher standard. Such a phenomenon results from being in the spotlight, and for better or for worse, the Jews have certainly been in the spotlight throughout history. Even in my own discourse, I am constantly asked why the US should support Israel, why anyone should support Israel. People are always asking about Israel and critiquing its actions, and while I definitely don’t agree with all of Israel’s actions, I hadn’t understood until this seminar the reasoning behind the present reality, behind the UN, as one article cites, considering “the most evil country in the world today” to be Israel.
But this relates back to Kashrut, I promise. It it said that initially, Jews weren’t supposed to eat meat, but when corruption and crime happened in the world, God allowed them to eat meat. This is because, as the Rabbi says, “we [people] aren’t animals, we believe we have a higher cause," making a distinction between people and animals and stressing that this dietary change physically caused Jews to reevaluate what it means to be human. Once Jews began to eat meat, the rules of Kashrut (keeping Kosher) were constructed and they are explicit in the Torah. One rule is that Jews can only eat land animals that both chew their cud and have split hooves. The only animal that does one but not the other is the pig. Pigs have split hooves, but do not chew their cud (constantly regurgitate food over and over again). When they are sleeping, pigs put their hooves out in front of them to appear as though they are Kosher animals, an action which has caused them to be considered deceitful and two-faced and therefore unkosher. Another law of Kashrut is that Jews cannot “boil a kid in its mother’s milk”. While, taken literally, this seems horrific at the outset, there is a deeper meaning behind it. Meat symbolizes death and milk represents life, a mother’s milk sustaining babies with the perfect amount of nutrients throughout the nursing process in an incredible phenomenon that even modern technology cannot come close to replicating. Essentially, putting meat and milk (dairy) together is like mixing cruelty and compassion. To connect to the earlier Holocaust example, Hitler thought that what he was doing with murdering Jews and other people was best for Germany and the world. Yet his actions are largely considered to be inhumane in all regards and one of the worst things that has ever happened to humanity. The same problem exists with Syrian refugees today. Many nations, such as Israel wish to be compassionate and take them in, though they fear what cruelty and problems might ensue if they do. And in California, the Rabbi told us, PETA made a billboard putting a picture of Jews being murdered in the Holocaust side-by-side with a picture of animals being slaughtered. While I understand the rhetorical point that PETA was trying to make, comparing humans to animals, especially in such a dramatic way, is unthinkable to me.It is this principle of not mixing cruelty with compassion that makes us Jewish, which holds us to a different standard. It helps make us who we are as a people not just because of “Tradition!” [insert Fiddler on the Roof music here] but because it’s ethical. So, to all the people who have been asking me about why I keep Kosher and the people who, like me, have been blindly obeying the rule because the Torah says so, this is why I do it. Because when I go up to the burger station in the cafeteria and ask for a plain burger, no cheese, it’s because it simply seems to be the morally, ethically right thing to do.