In this country, people normally eat cows. But in India, one would sooner eat their brother-in-law than eat a cow. Here they eat Kentucky Fried Chicken; in France they eat Kentucky Fried Frogs. The Chinese have as many recipes for cats and rats as your Bubbie has for eggplant. When we find a bug in our bedroom, we have to call daddy to kill it and remove its carcass; in some places, that insect would be added to the salad for dinner.
Insects, reptiles and rodents are disgusting; kittens and calves are cute. There is little logical reason for that. What we think is okay to touch or eat is a cultural aesthetic deeply ingrained in our psyche.
As relatively sophisticated middle-class Americans, we are almost unique in the world in that we feel comparatively comfortable accommodating and tolerating other people’s dietary patterns. If you had a seder with your extended family or guests, you no doubt had at least one diner demanding a low sodium, diabetic, vegetarian, low-cholesterol, lactose-intolerant, or low-calorie diet. Twenty years ago it was a big deal if a dinner guest had some special needs; today we take it in stride.
But in most of the world, if you live among a certain people and don’t eat their food, you won’t fit in. If you are served rat in Rangoon and you refuse, your hosts will be deeply offended. If the French farmer offers fresh frog legs and you refuse, you will not be offered dessert. People are really touchy if you don’t eat their food.
And if you offer the wrong rations to a guest, you can also get in trouble. Don’t serve beef to a Hindu, pig to a Muslim, shrimp to a Jew, or cat to an Egyptian. It is not a way to make your guest feel welcomed.
Kashrut (keeping kosher) is an aesthetic for eating. And the aesthetic of kashrut is one of the seven reasons why a Jew should keep kosher.
The Torah itself indicates that kashrut is a matter of aesthetics. After a list of animals we are forbidden to eat, the Torah says, “They are detestable to you, and you shall not eat of their flesh, and their carcasses shall be disgusting to you.”
Why does the Torah have to tell us that eating these certain things is disgusting? Either you feel disgusted or you don’t. How can the Torah tell us it’s disgusting? Not every individual will feel disgust at crab or pork. And so the Torah speaks not about an individual Jew, but about Jews in general: Jews find these treif (non-kosher) foods disgusting! So be aware of that! Don’t give beef to a Hindu, don’t give rats to an American, and don’t give crab to a Jew. That’s what the Torah is telling us.
And so the Torah says, “to you.” These things are impure to you, these things are disgusting to you. The Torah says “to you” because these things are not impure or disgusting in any absolute or objective sense; rather, they are defined as impure and disgusting to us.
Recognizing this disgust gives us an insight into the partially non-logical world of keeping kosher. Why do dishes and pots and pans have to be kosher? After all, we know from science that if you wash a surface thoroughly in hot water, there is virtually no residue. Why isn’t that good enough?
Logic dictates that it is clean enough, but aesthetics insist it is unclean. Let’s say, God forbid, and I mean God forbid, you find a dead mouse in a pot in your kitchen. Many people would not want to eat food cooked in that pot, even if it were washed thoroughly. The question of kashering pots and pans is, what would you have to do to that pot so you’d feel comfortable eating from it? It’s not just a matter of logic, it’s a matter of aesthetics, at least in part.
People joke about it, but food is a very important part of defining a culture. It says who you are, where you fit in. Food rules touch a very elemental part of our psyche known as the stomach.
To be Jewish we have to step inside the circle, the circle of Jewish aesthetics, the circle of the Mitzva System. We have to say that some things are not for us. We have to feel confident enough to say to someone, “I don’t eat that because I’m Jewish.”
The aesthetics of kashrut is the fourth of seven reasons for keeping kosher. Our Jewish way of eating shapes our souls at the deepest level and identifies us as a distinct people. Leaving aside other ethical or religious considerations, eating the Jewish way defines us as and makes us Jews.
The majority of BEKI households observe kashrut in some degree (like most mitzvot, keeping kosher is not an “all or nothing” observance). In the past few years, many of our families have accepted the appellation “Chews by Choice” and converted their kitchens to kosher. We applaud them in their effort to sanctify their lives through upholding the Jewish dietary laws.