Keeping kosher is not a simple matter – particularly if you travel. A day of meetings fueled only by cups of coffee culminates in the airport with a bag of Market Fresh (or not so fresh) carrots. And so, stomach rumbling, you begin to reflect on why you adhere to this diet-constricting lifestyle.
There are those who maintain that the dietary laws of the Bible are essentially health related, a throwback to the days when eating pig meat could lead to trichinosis or some such disease. I think that approach misses a crucial central point, namely that kosher has little to do with the quality of particular foods per se. This fact highlights the difference between keeping kosher and other types of dietary restrictions that people adopt. Vegetarians and vegans, for example, believe that it is immoral to eat meat, as well as unhealthy. Health food devotees are convinced that fried foods, unsaturated fats, or processed sugar are bad for you, and they will scrupulously avoid those in their diet. But kosher food is no better or worse than non-kosher food; both may be delicious, nutritious and perfectly suitable according to the most rigorous of utilitarian ethics. For meat eaters there is nothing inherently more evil in horsemeat than in beef – Ikea diners in London take note. When it comes to kosher, however, the restriction applies to the person, not to the food. The dietary laws of Passover prove this point most emphatically. During that holiday, bread suddenly becomes non-kosher, though all year long it is the most basic of foods.
A different approach to understanding kosher laws focuses on the notion of self-discipline. We are urged to restrict what we eat in order to suppress gluttony and tendencies to self-indulgence and hedonism. One trip to a good kosher deli and a casual census of the corpulent clientele should be enough to challenge this line of reasoning.
Many, of course, maintain a vestigial connection to kosher observance; they refrain from pork or lobster, and eat only kosher at home but not outside. Others don’t buy into the whole idea of kosher and feel that it does not speak to them; they simply pay no special attention to the kosher status of any food. These people are basically just a-kosher, that is, they don’t keep kosher. But there is another small class of individuals that can be described not just as non-kosher but almost as anti-kosher, as resolutely avoiding any conventional food restrictions. Such people have undertaken the daunting task of eating everything, and this they do as a matter of principle. It has nothing to do with gluttony or lack of willpower. On the contrary, sometimes the utmost fortitude is required in order to quiet one’s queasiness and chomp on some pretty intimidating chow.
Take for example the culinary critic Jeffrey Steingarten, author of The Man Who Ate Everything. In order to truly understand food in all its varied forms and disparate cultural contexts, he set out to taste “everything that anyone anywhere has ever called ‘dinner’.” This was not a lapse into the self-indulgence of a glutton or gourmet, it was a gastronomic mission. But without a doubt, the high priest of food aficionados and devotees of the unusual was the 19th century paleontologist, The Very Reverend Dr. William Buckland. One of his goals in life was to experience the taste of everything, and to eat a specimen of every living creature. Once, the story is told, when he was shown the miraculous “martyr’s blood” on the floor of an Italian cathedral, he got down on his knees and tasted it, concluding with certainty that it was bat urine. Extreme eccentricity maybe, but such a lofty pursuit is hard to categorize as sin.
For over two thousand years, another idea relating to kosher has been espoused in countless sermons, namely, that what is truly important is what comes out of one’s mouth, not what goes into it. I certainly agree with this statement. Often, however, this credo is intended to minimize the importance of keeping kosher. But watching what goes into one’s mouth and what comes out of it are not mutually exclusive; the two in fact can reinforce each other. Keeping kosher and refraining from eating this or that tasty morsel can serve as an effective cue for guarding one’s tongue and watching one’s general behavior. The Passover holiday highlights this theme as well. Plain dough, puffed up by yeast and swollen into bread, is compared to a person’s inclination to haughtiness and a self-important disposition. Avoiding bread and making do with simple unleavened, flat pieces of matzah is meant to invoke some degree of introspection into one’s deeds and personality traits.
The Archbishop of York once showed Buckland his prize possession, the embalmed heart of Louis XVI. Buckland admired the priceless specimen, then deftly scooped it up and swallowed it, declaring that he had never eaten a king’s heart before. I like to think about this story when I am famished and keeping kosher is particularly inconvenient. It is the best way to remind myself to make sure that my words and actions don’t cause anyone to eat their heart out.