I’d imagine that most Liberal Jewish converts consider the merits of Kashrut, or Kosher eating and living at some point in their early experiences.
Should I keep kosher? What’s involved? What about my other Jewish friends? What’s so wrong with shrimp?
My guess is that most converts – like most Jews – will opt to put kosher concerns aside. The vast majority of Jews do not keep kosher, or not strictly in any sense.
I’ve gone back and forth with my own observance. And I’d like to share some experiences and thoughts.
First, I’m a liberal Jew (Reform) and as such, I read the Torah/Talmud like most other Jews – it’s a product of human effort, it’s a record of our ancestors’ grappling with the divine and morality and meaning. It’s not God’s words in any literal or real sense. Therefore, the commandments are examples of wisdom, past experience – but are certainly not all binding. If I’m going to ignore issues of marrying my widowed brother’s wife, or other matters of ritual purity, I’m not going to find kosher dietary laws binding.
Second, while I don’t want to unfairly criticize others’ practice – observances such as glatt kosher or other extreme and excessive ways of keeping kosher seem legalistic, unhelpful, and unnecessary to me. I simply don’t get it. Often, it seems like those engaged in such are trying to out-do their neighbor in observance or legalism. I don’t find it healthy.
Third, I don’t worry much (at all?) about ceremonial or ritual cleanliness or purity. Reform Judaism focuses on the purity of heart, on love and justice, and an emphasis on the moral commandments. Kosher is not a moral issue. There’s nothing wrong morally with pork, shrimp, or a cheese burger per se.
So, is there any value to engaging kosher observance? I’d say, yes. It’s at least worth trying and engaging.
First, because it’s part of Jewish tradition and has some contemporary touch points that make it interesting and potentially useful in the spiritual life. How many people do we know who are concerned about fair trade, organic, clean, wild-caught, grass-fed food, and the humane treatment of animals we eat? Many of these concerns overlap or dovetail with Kosher and can inform a personalized way of living that is kosher, too.
Second, while many of the rules for kosher seem arbitrary, the point isn’t logic or rationality. The point is being different so as to remind yourself of the importance of kindness, justice, generosity, health, and ecology. Eating is a fundamental human activity. Change how you eat, and you’ll change yourself. Keep in front of you kosher rules as a way of keeping ever-mindful of kindness, love, compassion, the humane treatment of animals, environmental concern, and so on.
Third, make it your own. Personalize your practice. Want to keep kosher at home, but not while eating out? Find it meaningful to avoid pork, but silly to worry about mixing dairy and meat? Then, do what you find best and most meaningful. Incorporate your concerns, preferences, and mix and engage the tradition to the degree that observance makes you a better, more loving person. Above, avoid legalism and perfectionism.
That’s my take on Kosher observance. I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts.