“Kashrut: What Its All About” by Lauren Shaps
Do you remember Joey Chestnut and Sonya Thomas? A few years back they were the winners of the men's and women's divisions at the annual Nathan's hot dog-eating contest held in Coney Island, New York. Joey downed 68 hot dogs with buns in 10 minutes, matching his personal best. Sonya reached her goal of eating 45, equaling her age. Quoted in Huffington Post, she shared that she started to feel sick while eating but kept pushing so she could win the title.
While Joey and Sonya certainly made headlines, somehow that accomplishment is not on my bucket list. It seems that modern society's definition of success is whatever puts you on the front page, even if it is only your Facebook page. My life goals are a bit different. I'd much prefer to have a healthy relationship with food, with my body and of course with my Creator and Sustainer.
There are many practices that distinguish Jews from others. Probably the best known is the practice of kashrut. This week's Torah reading, Parashat Re'eh, lays out some of the basic parameters of kashrut. The Torah describes the animals, fish and birds we may eat and those we may not. It forbids us from eating blood or from eating mixtures of meat and milk.
There are many misconceptions about kashrut. Some think kashrut is all about good hygiene and, thus, now that we have easy access to hot water and refrigeration, it no longer applies. I once called a company to ask whether their product had kosher supervision. The kind receptionist told me, "Yes, the rabbi comes regularly to bless the food." My brother-in-law, Rabbi Mordechai Grunberg, is a kashrut supervisor who travels regularly to factories in the outposts of China. He isn't blessing the food. He is checking to determine if the product can indeed be certified as kosher. He needs to be sure that the ingredients on the product label are truly the only ingredients, and that there isn't horse meat, beetle juice, bugs or any other delicious, nutritious but non-kosher addition to the recipe.
Kashrut is a mitzvah that enhances our lives on so many levels. It teaches us self-discipline and deferred gratification. It reminds us we are not animals and should therefore not eat like animals. By setting limits on what we can eat, kashrut reminds us there is a G-d to Whom we are ultimately accountable. If I can learn to eat according to rules set forth by G-d, then perhaps I can also learn to accept limits in other areas of life. I would be able to turn away money that does not belong in my pocket as quickly as I'd turn down a savoury lobster. I could censor an unkind story coming from my mouth the same way I'd never let a chicken parmesan or a cheesesteak sandwich enter my mouth.
When families keep kosher their children learn from an early age that life has boundaries and limits. When I would take my kids to the grocery story, they would whine until I bought the kosher candy or sugar cereals. If I told them it wasn't kosher, they immediately gave up the battle. They knew this was a non-negotiable limit. No amount of whining would get me to cave in. They understood that dairy ice cream right after chicken isn't allowed. Not because it's bad, but simply because we wait between eating meat and dairy.
In a famous research study, a 3-year-old was given a marshmallow and told if they didn't eat it until the researcher came back into the room, the child would get a second marshmallow. The children were watched on a hidden camera. Some could not wait and scarfed the marshmallow. Many others used different strategies, such as closing their eyes, singing a song or turning around to face the wall to avoid eating the marshmallow until the researcher returned. Those kids were rewarded with a second marshmallow. The children were then tracked into adolescence. Those who were able to keep from eating the marshmallow showed greater success in elementary school and high school than those who could not. From an early age they had integrated impulse control and the ability to defer gratification, which served them well later in life.
Every human being must eat in order to survive. We teach our children table manners, to use a fork and knife, to chew with their mouths closed. We tell them "don't eat like an animal." How I eat, when I eat and what I eat all make a difference in the person I am now and who I can become. Not only does kashrut teach us self-discipline, limits and deferred gratification, all while connecting us to our Creator and Sustainer, but it makes eating an act of holiness.
I'm not sure what Joey Chestnut's mother taught him or how he might have done in the marshmallow study. But I'd choose wisdom, health and holiness over a Nathan's hot dog-eating contest any day. What's your take on kosher? Think about it and then perhaps ramp it up a notch to take the next step on your Jewish journey.