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Kosher by Design

How Michael Wyschogrod taught me to eat like a Jew

David P. Goldman
September 14, 2010
(Will Deutsch)
(Will Deutsch)

“Dad,” insisted my younger daughter, “we really must do something about this.” I was about to get the sort of talking-to we dreaded from our parents and dread even more from our children. We were going to talk about food.

Why didn’t we eat at home the way her Hebrew School teachers had told her Jews should eat? And what did Jewish law have to do with her adolescent concern for the welfare of animals? The grandchild remembers what the son never learned, says a Yiddish proverb. “I wasn’t raised that way,” I told my daughter. “I don’t have a good answer. But here’s something that might help.” We sat down together to read Michael Wyschogrod’s essay “The Revenge of the Animals.”

That was before I met Michael in 2007 and well before I had the honor to edit his contributions to the monthly journal First Things. Lord Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, told me that Wyschogrod had produced “the closest thing we have to a systematic theology.” Born in Berlin in 1928 to Hungarian-Jewish parents, Wyschogrod and his family escaped Nazi Germany in 1939, fleeing to New York, where he attended an Orthodox yeshiva, Torah Vodaath. He studied Talmud with the great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, while writing a dissertation on Kierkegaard and Heidegger at Columbia University. He is one of the last of the great European-Jewish scholars who mastered both the Jewish religious sources and the corpus of Western philosophy. What mattered to me at the moment, though, was his little midrash on Genesis.

Kashrut is a stumbling block for modern Jews. Rational defenses of the dietary laws ring hollow—for example Maimonides’ claim that kashrut promotes health (“Anyone who thinks that kosher food is healthy has never had Shabbat dinner at my mother’s house,” said Harlan Wechsler, the rabbi at Congregation Or Zarua in Manhattan). I was too modern to observe mitzvot simply because the Torah said so—like the German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig, about whom I had published several essays, my attitude toward much of observance was, “Not yet.”

Rational argument about kashrut falls short, but I was ready to hear a biblical argument, especially now that my daughter had called me on the carpet. And so we read Wyschogrod’s commentary together. Christians saw the serpent in the Garden of Eden as Satan, he began, but that never occurred to the rabbis of antiquity. The snake was only the cleverest animal of the many God made to try to keep man company, for, as it says in Genesis 2, “it is not good for man to be alone.” But “for Adam no fitting helper was found.” And then God made Eve. “Only woman is the proper companion of man,” Wyschogrod argued, but “animals are also companions although less than fully satisfactory ones.”

“What does that have to do with eating animals?” my daughter interrupted. That was where Wyschogrod was heading. Genesis tells us that even if the animals are not as close to God as are we, neither are they so far from him. The Torah is the first document in history to evince concern for the welfare as well as the sentiments of animals; domestic animals must rest on the Sabbath, and an ox must be allowed to eat the grain that it threshes. To kill and eat them is a grave matter; we have no rational calculus by which to weigh the human requirement for nutrition against the trace of the divine in animal life. That is why Jews may consume meat only with supernatural sanction, under restrictions imposed by God himself. God, Wyschogrod offers as an afterthought, probably would prefer us to be vegetarians.

My daughter and I agreed that we would consume no more non-kosher meat, and we would separate it from dairy. Some months passed before it dawned on me that I had migrated to the inside of Judaism, rather than pressing my nose against the window and looking in. I did not take the leap of faith across the chasm toward Jewish observance, to be sure: I was pushed by a stern-faced 14-year-old. Still, the world felt different afterward: I ate meat less frequently, and with a sense of awe at the God who rules over life and death. First one does, then one understands. The hard part is to understand enough to start doing.

Judaism is a religion of the body, Wyschogrod teaches. God chose Abraham and his descendants in the flesh, and it is in the sanctification of the body of Israel that God finds a home on earth, he wrote in his masterwork The Body of Faith. In his most controversial argument, he draws a parallel between our belief that God’s indwelling (Shekhinah) resides in the flesh-and-blood people of Israel, and the Christian idea of incarnation—the belief in “the indwelling of God in Israel by concentrating that indwelling in one Jew rather than leaving it diffused in the people of Jesus as a whole.” This raised eyebrows in some parts of the Orthodox Jewish world, for the idea that something like incarnation is found in Judaism is an uncomfortable thought.

By the late 1980s, Wyschogrod had become an important figure in Jewish-Christian relations. Against the prevailing sentiment in the Orthodox world, he argued forcefully for a theological dialogue with Christians, not only because he respected his Christian counterparts—above all the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth—but also because he believed that understanding the Christian belief in incarnation cast a clarifying light on the sanctity of the physical, bodily Jewish people. He became something of a cult figure among young Christian theologians, but he remained somewhat remote from the Orthodox Jewish mainstream. He is now appreciated as one of Orthodoxy’s most important and original thinkers.

By uncovering this parallel between Judaism and Christianity, Wyschogrod drew the line of division all the more brightly. Christians believe that God was present in the flesh of a single Jew; Jews sanctify their flesh through the mitzvot. It is the act of sanctification, not the belief, that defines our practice. As Franz Rosenzweig said, Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead, but they cannot know it for sure; but the existence of the people of Israel is a physical fact.

Jews who undertake a return to Jewish observance begin with a spiritual hunger and—if they succeed—arrive at the practice of Judaism. We do not return to Judaism from nowhere, but rather from the ambient Christian culture in which we live. The centrality of belief and the sovereignty of conscience are the hallmarks of this culture, and Jews who grew up at a distance from Judaism inevitably look at Judaism through a Christian lens.

Wo es sich christelt, da judelt es sich auch, in Heinrich Heine’s word-play: It says more or less, “Where Christians do something, Jews do the same,” but with the onomatopoetic sense in German of “tinkling” (christeln) versus “doodling” (judeln). A rationalized rather than a lived Judaism comes down to doodling. Judaism that emphasizes “ethical monotheism” against “ritual observance,” and rejects or qualifies the chosenness of Israel, really is mainline Protestantism with a tallis.

Judaism without commandments never made sense to me. If you observe the injunction to “love thy neighbor as thyself” because it comes from God, why not also observe the commandment in the next verse not to wear cloth woven of two kinds of material? And if these don’t come from God, where do they come from? No surviving school of philosophy claims to derive any system of ethics—let alone “love thy neighbor”—from reason. Even if we think that ethics can be deduced from reason, why do we need the Torah? Or if we believe that altruism is an evolutionary adaptation, why should ethics have anything to do with Judaism? If “love thy neighbor” is not a divine commandment, and if it is not a logical deduction, then what is it? For semi-affiliated Jews, it’s the residue of a faith to which formerly observant Jews of an older generation have a sentimental attachment.

There is a great gulf fixed between “ethical monotheism” and traditional Jewish observance, which demands that we accept God’s will rather than our own criteria of judgment. As Wyschogrod notes, just that was the sin of Eve and Adam, who ate the forbidden fruit in order to acquire autonomous knowledge of good and evil. Such knowledge is what the philosophers promised from Plato to Kant, but failed to deliver; philosophy walked out on ethics in the 19th century and never looked back.

The trouble is that Jews who grew up surrounded by Christian culture do not know any way to act except according to their own autonomous criteria of judgment, yet the exercise of autonomous choice undermines the spirit of Jewish observance. How do we get there from here? One answer is Chabad-style outreach: Just perform one mitzvah, then another. We won’t harangue you; little by little, you’ll get to like it. I respect this approach, but it would not have reached me.

Wyschogrod reaches out in a different way.

Conscience, he explains, is not historically a Jewish concept. Conscience can tell us to do precisely what we shouldn’t. Christians place great emphasis on conscience, but that can lead to perverse results; he cites the dictate of St. Thomas Aquinas that if a man believes that “to omit fornication is a mortal sin, when he chooses not to fornicate, he sins mortally.” The secular reading of conscience is even more troubling. Heidegger tells us that conscience has nothing to do with ethics in the first place; it is our inner voice telling us to be authentic (which might explain why Heidegger’s Nazi party membership never troubled his conscience).

Judaism asks us to follow not our own conscience, but rather God’s commandments. What makes us accept these commandments? In the past, Jews may have kept the commandments to conform to community standards, but this no longer can be the case when only a minority of Jews keep the mitzvot: “It is much more probable than ever before that a Jew who remains faithful to the covenant in this day and age is acting out of conscience instead of social conformity,” Wyschogrod writes. “The Judaism of our day can no longer dispense with conscience as part of our theological arsenal.”

The solution, Wyschogrod maintains, is to acquire a biblical conscience—and here he draws on Karl Barth, who taught direct engagement with revelation. Jews can bridge the chasm between autonomous choice and divine command “by exposing conscience to those events and documents which constitute the record of Israel’s relation with God.” We cannot separate the Torah from our national life of the past 4,000 years and the lasting belief that God loved us and made us his inheritance. We answered that love by accepting the means God gave us to sanctify the quotidian, bodily life of Israel. The Jewish conscience, he argues, is “developed by the tradition of revelation to which the people of Israel are witness and without which Jewish conscience is impoverished and isolated, cut off from its source of historic sustenance.”

And that is why the little essay “The Revenge of the Animals” gobsmacked me: It impressed upon me that the “narrative” and the “legislative” parts of the Bible, the “ethical” and the ritual,” the ineffable mystery of life and death and the rules of the kosher kitchen, all are woven into one seamless fabric. We stand in fear and trembling before the terrible mystery of death; our fate, said Solomon, is the same as the beasts’, for all is vanity. In such matters, philosophical rationalizing leads to nonsense or madness—in the extreme case, to Peter Singer’s infamous claim that a healthy pig has more right to life than a crippled human infant. Judaism instead provides a supernatural answer to the mystery: God gives us means to sanctify our physical life on earth and therewith the promise of eternal life.

Eating is more important than prayer, remarked Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. There is no direct instruction to pray in the Pentateuch, which tells us plainly, “You shall eat before the Lord.” It takes work to learn to daven, but it was harder for me to learn how to eat—to live like a Jew rather than just sound like one.

Sometime later, I worked up the courage to invite Michael to dinner. He chose kosher vegetarian.

David P. Goldman is a senior editor at First Things magazine and the “Spengler” columnist for Asia Times Online.

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.

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