I recently came across a monograph on the life of the 15th Century Rabbi, Don Isaac Abrabanel, in which a couple of paragraphs summarizing his opinion on the laws of kashrut caught my eye. The Torah, he maintains, prohibits the consumption of the flesh of certain animals in order to protect the well-being of the soul and not because of any concerns about the transmission of disease. The forbidden foodstuffs, he observes, result in “an abomination in the pure soul of man by generating in him an unclean spirit which in turn defiles his thoughts and deeds and drives out from him the spirit of holiness.”
This contradicts the story I was told by my parents, which was that there was an ancient wisdom informing kashrut, grounded in a prescient knowledge of animal-borne diseases. The need to safeguard spiritual purity might have come into it as well, but if it did, it made no impression on me as a child, while the disease hypothesis at least sounded plausible.
There was a fairly rapid falling away from Orthodoxy in my family, beginning with my parents. Both my grandfathers were known for their scrupulous observance of Jewish rituals and customs. My paternal grandfather’s first job after immigrating to South Africa was that of a shochet – a ritual slaughterer – for a small Jewish congregation near Johannesburg, and my maternal grandfather, also an immigrant from Lithuania, did his best to inculcate Orthodox Jewish practice into his seven children. He was only partially successful – just one of his children embraced the Orthodox lifestyle and her children were the only ones of the next generation to continue in that way of life.
For reasons best known to themselves, my parents were half-hearted in their observance of Jewish laws, including kashrut. The meat of the pig never darkened our refrigerator door but when we were away from home, on holiday, for example, they never sought out a kosher kitchen or restaurant.
A lightbulb moment occurred for me when I was about six or seven, travelling on the overnight train between Johannesburg and Capetown. The breakfast served up by the South African Railways steward consisted of bacon and eggs, and when I searched my mother’s face for a response she invited me to go ahead and eat the bacon, telling me that it was permissible to eat any food if the alternative was to starve. In this way she imparted to the crisp, savoury strips of bacon a medicinal, even life-saving quality which I was quite happy to accept. A taboo had crashed. I abandoned the world of kashrut and no longer worried about which kind of meat entered my digestive tract.
In my later years I have become aware of the social implications of kashrut. Eating together is an important learning experience across the cultural divide. But for those who are outside the pale – Jews like myself who have left Orthodoxy behind – and for folks of different faiths and persuasions, kashrut sets up an impermeable barrier. No non-Jewish family can host an Orthodox Jewish family because no non-Jewish family can meet Orthodox dietary and culinary requirements. By the same token, no Jewish child can visit the home of a non-Jewish friend where there is the possibility of partaking of refreshments which contravene the laws of kashrut.
Children who are unable to visit one another’s homes because they are unable to to eat together are also unable to play together or develop friendships, or indeed learn about one another’s cultures. They become strangers to one another, with all the misapprehensions and misperceptions which stem from that. I return to Rabbi Abrabanel’s stern injunction that observance of the laws of kashrut is the pathway to spiritual purification. And I dare to ask, at what price?