I recently read about the 'kosher chicken' scandal on the East Coast. It seems that a supermarket had been re-packaging non-kosher chicken as kosher for quite some time. Community members are beyond furious. Is it really such a tragedy to eat a non-kosher chicken? I don't understand what the big deal is ' I thought all chicken was kosher. Finally, as someone who does not keep kosher I was raised to believe that the laws are archaic now that we have quality control and health standards.
I too have read about the very disturbing non-kosher chicken fraud. My reaction was somewhat different than yours. I felt great sympathy for those who had been deceived, and no small degree of revile for the perpetrator.
Keeping kosher is a noble, demanding discipline, a way of life, and an incredible sacrifice for the many Jews who choose to practice its set of laws. The observance of kashrut entails trusting many entrepreneurs and authorities along the way. To be betrayed by a dishonest, despicable deceiver posing as dependable is deeply disturbing. I understand their distress.
So much for the debacle ' let's address your issues around keeping kosher. Though the laws of kashrut involve meticulous painstaking attention to seemingly irrational particulars, they also reflect lofty ideals that drive its observance and imbue a simple meal with a splendid transcendence. I therefore offer you Kashrut 101: The laws and the logic.
There are three categories of kosher restrictions: forbidden animals, the ban on the consumption of blood, and the prohibition of mixing milk with meat. Though not necessarily spelled out in full detail in the Torah, theories of the 'whys' behind all of these details have been put forth over the ages. But first the basics:
The category of forbidden animals itself can be split in three: land, sea and air. The framework for the specifications regarding the land creatures is fairly simple. Animals that have split hooves and chew their cud are kosher; those that don't are not. Birds listed as not kosher in Leviticus, chapter 11 are forbidden, all others with a tradition of acceptance are permitted. No birds of prey are allowed. In the sea domain, fish with fins and scales are permitted, seafood without are off-limits.
Early on, animals were not permitted for human consumption. The first humans in the Garden of Eden were given the fruits of the trees for food. It was not until after the flood that people were permitted to consume animal products. Some say this was to distinguish humans from animals and in recognition of humans ' Noah and his family ' that had saved the animals by gathering them on to the ark. Though animals are permitted caveats were attached, which brings us to the next category: the prohibition of blood.
Despite the fact that living creatures are permitted, we are enjoined to remove the blood from the creature, in that 'blood is the soul' of the animal. Before any meat or fowl is consumed it must be slaughtered ritually, salted and soaked, these practices effecting the removal of the blood.
Hence, though a chicken is kosher it must be prepared by having been slaughtered, salted and soaked according to Jewish law. Thus you are correct in saying that chickens are kosher, but there is more to it than pedigree. The chickens sold as kosher in this case were not slaughtered correctly or soaked and salted.
The restriction of combining milk and meat is the final category, and precludes the ingestion of the pervasive all-American cheeseburger. Here, the reason is poignant. Think about it: the milk that you would combine together with the flesh is the precise substance that was meant to offer life to the creature plated before you. How cruel to take the very elixir of life for that being and to cook it together with it!
There are additional commandments in the Torah about living things that reflect our commitment to becoming a merciful nation made up of merciful individuals. We are expected to send away a mother bird before taking its young, and to never kill a mother and its young on the same day. Both of these teach us to be merciful to animals and hopefully, by extension, to humans.
One might suggest that if the Torah was so adamant in its pursuit of mercy to animals it would expect all of us to be embrace a vegetarian lifestyle. Indeed, it is clear that the preference was for humans to reach for an ideal of limiting their consumption to vegetation.
This would not be the first and only instance where the human tendencies fall short. It was the Israelites in the desert who demanded the right to consume meat aside from sacrifice, and it was the Almighty who acquiesced. Sometimes we fall short of perfection.
However, the Torah expects us to be deliberate in practice, human though we are, to extract from our daily mundane lives moments of meaning. We are asked to be mindful in what has become a mindless act. Mindful in that everything that we put in our mouths reflects deep ideas and disciplines ' nothing cavalier here.
Jewish thinkers have set forth an array of ideas about the practice of keeping kosher. Keeping these rules reminds us of our Maker and prevents exaggerated notions of grandeur and feelings of arrogance.
Adherence encourages restraint and devotion to the Almighty and leads one on a path of holiness and separateness. Limitations remind us that not everything in this world is for human consumption, a sense of humility ensues ' others are on this planet aside from me.
There is a wide spectrum of keeping kosher, with lots of folks doing the best they can. Being somewhere on that spectrum is being a part of a people whose discipline has set them apart from others and bound them together with a unique legacy.
The story of the chicken fraud is appalling on so many levels, but if the report gets folks thinking about why it would so rattle those duped consumers to the degree that it does, it may very well get others thinking, 'Hey, what is this kosher thing all about?' and that is a very good thing.
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that's been tickling your brain, send Rivy an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.