One of my closest friends in graduate school was a modern Orthodox Jew who kept kosher. Though strict in her observance, she never called attention to her way of eating. At my apartment, she ate fruit and packaged cookies with a hekhsher, the mark indicating the food was under rabbinic supervision and kosher. When we met for coffee, she’d buy a hekhshered carton of yogurt or bag of chips. If we went out, she ordered cold salads, ensuring that what she ate had not been cooked in a treyf pot, one that had been used to cook nonkosher food. She kept kosher with integrity and grace, never making a fuss, never assuming her moral superiority, never distancing herself from me by her observance. I was intrigued by her way of eating—bemused at times, but not put off. Though I didn’t understand the spirit of her practice, it didn’t smack of the letter.
Not every kosher-keeping Jew I met during those years, however, met my suspect criteria for a “good” kosher-keeping Jew. One Orthodox man who came to my apartment for dinner confirmed my disdain for those who focused on what they put into their mouths instead of what came out of them. Wanting to be a good host, I had conscientiously prepared everything to welcome this man in my home. I asked friends who kept kosher how to make food fit for my visitor to eat. I bought kosher fish. I hard-boiled eggs and left them in their shell. I bought paper plates and plastic cutlery so no food would touch anything that had touched treyf food.
He refused to touch any of it. The salmon, he informed me, was not kosher: It had not been sliced with a kosher knife; the eggs had been boiled in a non-kosher pan and thus were rendered treyf; the milk was not hekhshered. The fruit pie I had baked for dessert—fruit, sugar, an egg, flour, and oil, all pareve—was also treyf: because I had not separated the egg to check for blood spots, because I had baked it in a pan whose purity I could not vouch for, because the gelatin I had used had not been derived from a kosher animal. As my frustration grew at this list of rules I neither knew nor understood, my guest scanned the kitchen. He grabbed a banana, peeled and ate it in a single motion, then picked up the stainless-steel bowl brimming with freshly whipped cream and, with his plastic spoon, ate the entire contents without stopping.
When my guest left, I felt rejected, hurt, angry. Why be so ungrateful and ungracious? Why choose rules over people? What kind of morality, what kind of holiness was that? Why couldn’t he be like my friend, the “good Jew”? She didn’t throw her religious practice in my face, nail it up as a wall dividing herself from me, ascend it as a pedestal from which she looked down on me, or use it to feed a neurosis. And how could food matter that much to anyone? If one was well, that is. Having suffered anorexia in high school, I knew the intoxicating mix of fear and control, desperation and ecstasy one could experience by strictly disciplining a basic human need. But I had fought my way back to a healthful relation with food and concluded that, like anything else, food might be feared or enjoyed, frantically consumed or given thanks for, treated as an escape or used as fuel. But elevated to a spiritual discipline? Not for me.
Fifteen years after my guest’s visit, I converted to Judaism and began practicing the spiritual discipline I had judged him so harshly for: keeping kosher. Only then did I realize how my Christian upbringing had prejudiced my encounter with his practice and my friend’s.
Before becoming a Jew, I was certain that what a person ate or didn’t eat had nothing to do with how holy they were. Did Gandhi’s vegetarianism earn him the title of Mahatma, holy man? Did eating melons and cucumbers, foods believed to contain trapped particles of light, make the Manichees pure? Lurking behind my disdain were these words of Jesus from the gospel of Mark (7:15-16): There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man. If any man have ears to hear, let him hear. This call to a higher, purer spirituality, a way of life beyond the drag of the body and the red herring of outward things, enthralled me. I was on the side of Jesus and the spirit against those letter-loving scribes and Pharisees, who, following the “tradition of men,” were harassing him about whether his disciples had properly washed their cooking pots and their hands before eating. Who wouldn’t choose the life Jesus was calling for: a life lived freely in the interior castle of spirit, a life lived from the inside out, not the outside in? That was what I was after: a life of freedom, freedom from the body, from outer practices, from external authority—the spirit over against the letter!
This misinterpretation of Jesus’ words was fed by my experience of growing up female in a Sabbath-observing Christian community that refused to allow women to be church leaders. Even as a young girl I longed to be one of Jesus’ liberated followers, to be accepted as the disembodied spirit I was, not judged by the letter of my being (read female, body) and forbidden to serve God because of my physical, outward reality. This eagerness to celebrate the spirit instead of the letter was intensified by my frustration with my community’s policing of Sabbath observance. Those who did not touch money, work, shop or spend money, smoke, watch TV, swim, play the piano, ride a bike, or engage in any “worldly” practice on the Lord’s Day were deemed true followers of Christ; those who desecrated the Sabbath were not. Judging others by their acts seemed to me more akin to the scribes and Pharisees’ obsession with outward things than to Jesus’ insistence on what flowed out of a person, from inside. The hypocrisy I witnessed confirmed my lack of trust in outward things; I became suspicious of what I saw people do, for I knew their “real” spiritual life, pure or impure, was hidden inside.
Reinforcing this suspicion of all things letter as opposed to spirit was a subterranean tradition of anti-Semitism, which I had absorbed unknowingly. A persistent stream in Christianity reads the words about what defiles a person that the gospel of Mark attributes to Jesus, a Jew speaking to Jews, through the words of Paul, a Christian speaking to Jews and gentiles. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells the mixed community, who were arguing over requiring gentiles to follow traditional Jewish practices such as circumcision and kashrut, that they are “able ministers of the new testament, not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (3:6) In the fraught environment of the first centuries CE, when Christianity was distinguishing itself from Judaism, Paul’s contrast was read as opposition between the two communities: spirit over against the letter. Jews followed the old way, the letter that kills; they were stuck on the lower plane of law and duty, concerned with all that is outer, bodily, carnal. Christians followed the new way that surpassed the old, the spirit that gives life; they were truly spiritual persons who had ascended to a higher plane of love above law, beyond law, an interior realm where all external concerns, such as permitted and forbidden foods and permitted and forbidden eating companions, had been superseded.
Behind these words of Paul to the Corinthians looms a pernicious stereotype in the gospels of the “scribes and Pharisees” as the enemies of Jesus: hide-bound, ritual-and-law-obsessed pedants who cared more about appearances than what was in a person’s heart, hypocrites. I was in graduate school before I learned—from E.P Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism, W.D. Davies’ Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, and other texts—how biased this hostile portrayal is. How in the heady mix of Jewish movements in the first century CE, the scribes were those who devoted their lives to studying and interpreting scripture as an inexhaustible source of revelation. How the Pharisees were those who taught people how to practice holiness and ritual purity in their daily lives, in their homes and at their tables, not just by offering sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. How the rabbis who radically transformed scriptural interpretation and Jewish practice after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, giving birth to rabbinic Judaism, were the heirs of the scribes and Pharisees. But I knew nothing of this fuller portrait of the scribes and Pharisees in my youth. Instead, it was these words of Jesus, the famous refrain in Matthew 13, that echoed in my heart: Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
Unaware of this inherited prejudice, and facing what I thought was the only choice, between the death-dealing letter and the life-giving spirit, I chose life in the spirit, a life of freedom from outward practices, bodily constraints, and obsession with ritual purity. Not for me the life of a niggler over details (like a scribe!) or a boastful hypocrite (like a Pharisee!). And I certainly didn’t want to be a carnal person (like a Jew!), obsessing over outward things that didn’t matter, worrying over the shell while letting the egg inside rot.
These early experiences made me a skeptic of outward religious practices, not an antinomian, someone who rejects law and outward practice outright. I’d never proclaim with the 16th-century mystic Caspar Schwenkfeld, “The spirit, not the letter!” Nevertheless, though never quite tipping over, I leaned precipitously to the side of the spirit over the letter, the inner over the outer. It wasn’t whether a person was male or female that made them fit to be a spiritual leader, or what a person did or didn’t do on the Sabbath that made them pure or impure, but who they were inside. How much more true for what a person ate! I was with Jesus on this one (so I flattered myself): What could it matter what one did and did not put in one’s mouth? What mattered was who you were inside and how that truth was expressed in acts of mercy and justice.
In 1989, to help discern whether to convert to Judaism, I began observing the laws of kashrut. I began, as the Conservative movement advises, on the bottom rung of the “ladder of kashrut,” by not bringing any treyf foods—pork, shellfish, non-kosher meat and fish—into my house or eating it outside my house, and slowly climbed, rung by rung from there. Soon I was buying hekhshered products for my kitchen and not eating meat and dairy together. Then came the final step: kashering my kitchen, ridding it of anything treyf and making it fit for use. This took weeks. First I had to sort every item in my kitchen: kasherable or nonkasherable? I was ruthless in following the letter of the law. If there was the slightest question about whether an item could be kashered, I pitched it. I boxed the nonkasherables—wood, plastic, china, earthenware, wood-handled knives, all baking utensils and containers—and gave them to the Salvation Army. The rest, whatever was metal or glass, I kashered, by boiling, soaking, or blow-torching. I kashered the stove, oven, sink, countertops, table, and cupboards. I bought a new set of dishes and toveled them, immersed them, in the mikveh at Chabad House before eating off them.
For the next 24 years I kept kosher.
Why? Why did I choose to follow the laws of kashrut, when I had wanted freedom from rules and outward practices? It’s always been easier for me to answer this question in the negative. I had no illusions that keeping kosher was more hygienic, that it would protect me from the larvae, bacteria, and toxins found in foods not as “clean” as kosher food. Not even the great Maimonides (1135-1204 CE), who argues in his Guide for the Perplexed that keeping kosher keeps the body healthy (3:48), could persuade me of this. A glance at the ingredients of many kosher products—sugar and chemicals galore, barely a strand of fiber—and the meat-heavy Ashkenazi kosher diet quickly give the lie to this. Nor did I consider eating kosher meat or not eating milk and meat together more moral, because it encourages compassion for animals, as many argue. Kosher slaughterhouse practices are not less cruel to animals; they may be more cruel, some argue, because they don’t stun animals before shackling and hoisting them. Philo of Alexandria’s (circa 20 BCE-circa 50 CE) apologetic argument, that in following the dietary laws Jews are practicing self-restraint, using reason to control desire and will, and thus strengthening their moral life, might have made sense to his non-Jewish Platonist friends. But I was after a less rationalistic motivation for following such a challenging discipline.
The You-Are-What-You-Eat argument of Nachmanides (1194-1270 CE) seemed equally specious. I didn’t believe that eating the blood of any living thing or the flesh of vicious predators would make me violent or cruel, that eating fish that swam in the depths rather than nearer the air would render my soul murky, or that eating “anything disgusting, anything treyf” like roasted bat or pickled snake, would contaminate or choke my soul. Equally unpersuasive were mystical, tikkun olam arguments that by eating we can repair our broken world. “When a spiritually refined person eats something and receives nourishment and vitality from it,” the Rav of Tcherin explains in Tikkun of Eating, “the holy sparks concealed therein are raised up to a much higher level.” Metaphysics aside, I didn’t believe what went into the mouth of any creature, however enlightened, could heal the mess we’ve made of the world.
The deontological argument—that we keep kosher simply because we’re commanded to do so—intrigued me at first. I agreed that searching for the whys and wherefores of the laws of kashrut was a dead end. Speculating about the origin of Jewish dietary rules in the Hebrews’ need to distance themselves from Egyptian and other “pagan” cultic practices might be fun, but we’ll probably never know why the Torah forbids boiling a kid in its mother’s milk or eating pigs, camels, scavengers, roadkill, creeping things, winged swarming things, and fish without fins and scales. Simpler to say, we don’t need a reason for these laws; stop talking and start walking in God’s ways! Less awkward, too, for attempts at justifying the dietary laws often end in absurdity. The allure of clinging to the inexplicableness of the laws of kashrut soon wore off, however, leaving me wondering, why did I want to keep kosher?
My answer, which I gave often during my first years of keeping kosher, was this: It fed my identity as a Jew. As a convert from Christianity—neither fish nor fowl—I suffered the common anxiety about whether I was a “real” Jew. Maybe I hadn’t been raised a Jew, but I could identify myself as a Jew, in solidarity with other Jews and in distinction from non-Jews, by keeping kosher. Every day, every few hours, wherever I was, I could confirm to myself and others, by what I ate and drank, that I was a Jew. Food and eating codes, the anthropologist Mary Douglas argues in Purity and Danger, define an individual’s place in a society and actively maintain the social order and its boundaries. Holy means “set apart” and the dietary laws of the Jews, she says, were physical pointers to God that set them apart, bringing them closer to holiness.
What you eat creates who you are. The philosopher-rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin explains it this way in Symbols of Judaism: The Jewish “body of dietary rituals commemorated and transmitted the history of a group of people. They acted as a constant reminder of this history, thereby effectively ensuring group cohesion.” For me, keeping kosher meant identifying myself with the Jewish community, both living and dead, and taking my place in that narrative. To not eat leg of lamb, for example, was to participate in the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, who wounds the sciatic nerve in Jacob’s hip. To eat no leavened foods during Passover was to live inside the story of the Exodus. Eating challah on Shabbat to remember the showbread the priests placed on the altar in the Temple as an offering to God and remind ourselves that the table is now an altar. Eating Haman’s hat or ears on Purim to remember the threat of and rescue from genocide. “Eating the Book” as part of the Sephardic Rosh Hashanah Seder, eating foods that were puns on seven blessings for the new year, to celebrate the creation of the world. This was one of the reasons I had fallen in love with Judaism—its narrative genius coupled with its embodied spirituality, including the pleasure of eating.
Keeping kosher also meant drawing a clear boundary between myself and the dominant culture. Defining myself by what I did and did not eat helped establish my identity as a Jew in the majority Christian culture out of which I had emerged. Both reasons—identifying with the Jewish community and distinguishing myself from non-Jews—were life-giving for me in those first, tender years when my identity as a Jew was gelling.
I quickly discovered, however, that keeping kosher was no guarantee of Jewishness. A year after my conversion, when I asked to join an Orthodox shul, the rabbi told me it would be possible only if I converted again, this time with a beit din (court) of three Orthodox rabbis, since my beit din of three Conservative rabbis had no authority in the Orthodox community. “Do you mean,” I asked, ”that though I keep kosher and observe Shabbat, which 90% of your congregation, by your own admission, does not, that I, nevertheless, am not a Jew, unless three Orthodox rabbis say I am?” “Exactly,” he said. I did not join his congregation. Instead, I gathered and led a group of Jews with varying affiliations and dietary practices in the small Southern town where I was living.
Other disturbing aspects of the identity argument surfaced. When eating at houses where kashrut was not observed, I experienced a spiritual predicament similar to what my male guest must have experienced at my table so many years before. Often, even after my host had inquired about the rules of kashrut and labored to prepare a kosher meal for me, I would be served something I could not eat—chicken cooked in butter, shrimp sauce on fish, “vegetarian” soup in a chicken base—and I would have to find a way to graciously decline what was so graciously offered, or eat it and keep my mouth shut. I was often torn—between not offending my host and not breaking my spiritual discipline, between not causing a rupture between Jews and non-Jews and not rupturing my identity as a Jew.
Sometimes, even when I took pains to explain to my host how much I appreciated their efforts and that my choice not to share food they had so thoughtfully prepared was not a rejection of them, I could tell that they nevertheless felt the sting of rejection or the superiority of judgment, and I would leave wondering, What message have I just communicated about Judaism? That we Jews are difficult, that we’re behaving just like those prickly scribes and Pharisees, more concerned with the letter that kills than the spirit that gives life? That we’re “unsocial” (apanthropos, Greek for “turned away from other people”), as Apion, the first-century CE Alexandrian, and Tacitus, the second-century CE Roman historian, and so many anti-Semites after them have claimed? That we refuse to join the rest of humanity, perversely insisting on our difference, keeping ourselves outside the mainstream by not eating what others eat? That we flaunt our separateness? Throw our particularity in the face of supposed Greek or Roman or Christian universalism, saying, I will not share your food, I will not be part of you?
Similar questions plagued meals I shared with Jews who didn’t keep kosher. For many Jews, my keeping kosher, following the Halacha taught in the Conservative movement, was a cause not of solidarity but discord. Some Orthodox Jews found my practice unacceptable. I didn’t insist on glatt kosher meat? Ate kosher fish in restaurants? Drank non-hekhshered wine? How could they eat Shabbat dinner at my table, since they couldn’t be sure I had observed—to the letter—all the laws about checking eggs for blood spots, soaking and salting meat, washing sinks and countertops with the correct sponge, baking challah on a pan that had never touched any dairy or meat product? Secular Jews were equally nonaccepting. For many, my practice was primitivism, a willful denial of the Enlightenment and the modern world. Kashrut stories are often told to highlight the hypocrisy and absurdity of these laws. “We kept kosher in our home, but my parents ate take-out beef stroganoff on paper plates in the garage!” “We kept kosher, but my parents would eat shrimp or prime rib with baked potatoes and sour cream whenever we went out to eat.” “My parents ate ham and bacon, but no pork! Can you imagine?”
When Jews get together, this joke is often told: Upon arriving in heaven, a Jew makes inquiries about the state of the kitchen, the level of observance of the laws of kashrut, and the strictness of the mashgiach, the person overseeing kashrut. When told that God is in charge of the kitchen, the Jew replies, “In that case, I’ll have the cold fruit plate!” Like so much of Jewish humor, this joke presses down on a sore point to momentarily relieve pain. It acknowledges that we’re quick to judge our fellow Jews based on what they eat and don’t eat; and it suggests a more life-giving approach: laughing at our different eating practices, and ourselves. But as far I could see, we weren’t laughing hard enough or often enough about what we ate and when and how. We were allowing the laws of kashrut to divide rather than unite us.
After a decade of carefully watching what I put in my cupboards, on my plates, and into my mouth, struggling to explain kashrut to non-Jews, and witnessing kashrut skirmishes among Jews, I began to wonder if Jesus’ words still held truth for me: Not what goes into a person but what comes out defiles a person. If what Jews put into their mouths caused so much trouble for the community of faith and in the community of faith, then why continue this practice?
Why keep kosher? What did eating have to do with my spiritual life, beyond helping me construct my identity as a Jew? A Hasidic tale pointed me in a new direction.
The Yehudi [Yitzhak of Pzhysha] once told his disciple Rabbi Bunam to go on a journey. Bunam did not ask any questions but left the town with a number of other Hasidim and just followed the highway. Toward noon they came to a village and stopped at an inn. The innkeeper was so pleased with his pious guests that he invited them to have dinner with him. Rabbi Bunam sat down in the main room, while the others went in and out and asked all sorts of questions concerning the meat which was to be served them: whether the animal was unblemished, what the butcher was like, and just how carefully the meat had been salted. At that a man dressed in rags spoke up. He had been sitting behind the stove and still had his staff in his hand. “O you Hasidim,” he said, “you make a big to-do about what you put into your mouths being clean, but you don’t worry half as much about the purity of what comes out of your mouths!” Rabbi Bunam was about to reply, but the wayfarer had already disappeared—for this is Elijah’s habit. Then the rabbi understood why his teacher had sent him on this journey.
—Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim II: 229
As I read this tale, the uncanny echo of the words of Jesus reverberated in my bones, and I heard that teaching—There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man—with new ears. Like his brother Jesus before him, the Yehudi was not teaching: Eating doesn’t matter for a life of holiness, so forget about what you eat and how and with whom and just make sure your heart is pure. He was teaching: As you eat, remember the end for which you are taking such care with your food, holiness, which requires acts of mercy and justice as well as ritual purity; take care with both.
Both Jesus and the Yehudi were echoing the Prophet Isaiah’s denunciation of fasting on the Day of Atonement. Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? (Isaiah 58: 5-6) These words—read in synagogues every Yom Kippur—are not a condemnation of ritual fasting but of the hypocrisy of making a show of adhering to the outward requirements of ritual purity without acting in compassion and justice, without living holiness in all their actions.
It was in this prophetic tradition that I now heard the words of Jesus in Mark: What a person puts into their mouth is no more and no less important than how they treat their fellow human beings and other creatures. The invitation to be holy as God is holy means in all that one does, the inner as well as the outer, the outer as well as the inner. Not the spirit or the letter, but the spirit and the letter. How else could it be, since we human beings are animate bodies, a marriage of matter and spirit? Our task is not to flee this corporeal world into a world of pure spirit, but to hallow this world. And there is no other way to do it than as bodies, through the movement of those bodies in space and time, through all our actions, eating as well as performing ritual and moral acts. For us, we body-spirits, there can be no spirit without the letter, no letter without the spirit.
Body-spirits we may be, but holding the inner and outer together in the spiritual life is difficult. In their mysterious, labile union, bodily life and the life of the spirit seem to pull in opposite directions, tempting us to separate them. No wonder antinomians deny the letter a role. And no wonder Jews and Christians often misunderstand each other, echoing the tension between the spirit and the letter Jewish and Christian communities experienced during Paul’s day. When Christians debate the roles of external law and inward grace in a life of sanctification, the inner work of justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ usually takes precedence. When Jews debate what is more important, kavannah (intention) or mitzvah (commandment), it is performing the deed, even without a good intention, that is usually insisted on as most important. With Christians prone to stress the inner life over or before the outer, and Jews the outer life over or before the inner, and with so many centuries of ignorance, suspicion, and hostility between the two communities, it’s often difficult to find common ground to talk about eating and other outward practices as a way to holiness.
Does holiness grow from the outside in, or the inside out? That’s a tired argument based on a false choice. The door of the spiritual life swings both ways, from the inside out and the outside in, from the spirit to our actions, and from our actions to the spirit. Again, why should this surprise us? For we are one animate organism, body-spirit, with messages traveling back and forth at every moment of life. Why then do we spend so much time condemning those who stand on the side of the door we don’t normally stand on and enter from another direction? It’s entering through the door that matters, not the direction from which one enters. Why do we not see that the life of the spirit—call it ruach, call it pneuma—is one of movement, moving freely, in all directions? Eating as well as ritual and moral actions form our spirits, and our spirits shape our actions. What goes into the mouth is as holy-making as what comes out.
I had focused for so long on denouncing the letter that killeth and celebrating the spirit’s freedom from, that I had been deaf to the freedom to live a life of holiness in all things, outer as well as inner. The verses in the Torah that deal with kosher and nonkosher food (including Exodus 22:30, Leviticus 11, Leviticus 19: 6-8, 23-16, Leviticus 20: 25-26, and Deuteronomy 14) are addressed to a people freed from slavery, freed to live a life of holiness. All these passages include a variation of be ye holy; for I am holy, the same refrain that is used to introduce all the commandments, making it clear that eating, too, is a way to holiness. And not a lesser way.
That there is no separation between the inner and outer in a life of holiness can be seen in Leviticus 19. The chapter opens with the words You (plural) shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy and the next 36 verses describe (not delimit) what this holiness looks like. All areas of life are included, the inner alongside the outer, with no hierarchy—ritual acts; moral acts in business, finance, agriculture, and daily life; how to treat the poor, the rich, ghosts and necromancers, one’s own people, the stranger living among you, one’s body; how to eat. You shall not eat anything with its blood (19:26) is no less a way to becoming holy like God than Do not hate your kinsman in your heart (19:17) but love your neighbor as yourself (v. 18) and Welcome the stranger (19:34).
Understanding laws as a way to holiness in Judaism is underlined by a concept that originated with Nachmanides: naval birshut ha-Torah, a scoundrel within the bounds of the Torah, a person who lives by the letter of the law and does not go beyond to the end for which the Torah was given, to sanctify life. The law points the way to holiness. One can adhere strictly to what is required by law and fail to fulfill the command to be ye holy, both inwardly and outwardly. Following the law is not the letter that kills. When following the law does not carry one beyond the law to a life of holiness reflecting the holiness of God, it becomes the letter that kills. The inner is indispensable for the outer, in Judaism and in Christianity. Commenting on the words of Jesus in Mark 7:14, E.P. Sanders notes in The Historical Figure of Jesus that “Jewish usage of the construction ‘not … but’ often means ‘not only this but much more that,’” saying that it is not what goes into a person but what comes out that defiles one, then, is not a rejection of Jewish dietary laws; it is a warning not to separate the outer from the inner.
When I looked at keeping kosher this way, as one of the many ways to holiness, as both a door swinging in—starting with the body and its actions, food and a community’s eating codes, not ending with them—and as a door swinging out—a concrete, disciplined practice that shaped all my actions and speech and thought rather than replaced them—it came alive for me. When I shopped, prepared, ate or cleaned the kitchen, I remembered, Take care in all you do, no physical act is outside the realm of the spirit; go beyond what is required, remember the end for which you are eating, to become holy, to sanctify all of life. Over time, keeping kosher became a practice of mindfulness, not unlike that taught by Buddhism. Chop wood, carry water. Eat kosher food, don’t eat treyf food. Though I cannot say I was fully mindful at every moment and never complained about restrictions (like waiting three hours after eating meat to eat a dairy dessert), keeping kosher became for me a grounding and liberating spiritual practice.
For 24 years I kept kosher in this way, feeding the body to feed the spirit. I enjoyed following the laws of kashrut, though at times I grumbled in annoyance, especially during Passover, when an additional set of laws overlays the regular restrictions. My experience of keeping kosher for Passover encapsulates the paradoxical effect of this spiritual practice: I felt burdened by all the requirements for making my house kosher for Passover—cleaning the entire house meticulously, covering all countertops, changing the dishwasher racks, boiling all pots and silverware, unpacking the Passover dishes and packing away the regular dishes, getting rid of anything with leavening, chametz, including anything with kitniyot, any of the other forbidden grains, seeds, or legumes, which meant exorcising the house of corn syrup, a daunting task—and much, much more. It took weeks to prepare, and by the time the first Seder arrived, I had barely enough energy to explore the meaning of the Exodus. At the same time, those weeks of cleaning and sorting, searching for any chametz that might be lurking in pockets or crevices, under cushions or rugs, were intensely meaningful. I was searching out the leavening, the pride, in my spirit, anything that didn’t belong. Paying close attention to crumbs was training in spiritual discernment. Like all spiritual disciplines, keeping kosher was equally challenging and rewarding. And it sustained me, body and spirit.
Then, in 2009, my husband and I divorced and I moved out of our spacious home into a tiny condo with one sink, postage-stamp counters, and not enough cupboards for Passover dishes plus two full sets of daily dishes, pots and pans, and cutlery. Down to one set of plates, I served meat—a rare occurrence—on paper plates. I still kept kosher but gradually relaxed my vigilance. I ate halal meat in restaurants with a Muslim friend. I stopped using separate dishes and pots for meat and milk, which felt as dangerous at first as breaking a taboo. After I married a Jew who had grown up in a kosher home but hadn’t ever kept kosher as an adult, my keeping kosher complicated our relationship, the way I had seen it do in many marriages. I stopped buying kosher meat, opting to be mainly vegetarian, eating organic meat and poultry occasionally. I still don’t eat pork or shellfish or catfish or bring them into my house. If kosher or halal meat is an option, I choose it. I still don’t cook, serve, or eat meat and milk together. I still drain meat of all blood, inspect eggs for blood spots, and soak produce to dislodge any insects hiding there. But I no longer say I keep kosher.
Why did I abandon the hard-won practice that had sustained me for so long? I don’t know. I was fed up with the unjust labor practices of kosher slaughterhouses, but then why not join the hekhsher tzedek movement started by Rabbi Morris Allen and others, which works to ensure that the food Jews eat is kosher ethically as well as ritually? I was concerned about the environmental impact of eating animals, but then why not revert to being a vegetarian, which I had been off and on since reading Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet in 1971, and join the eco-kosher movement, which promotes sustainability and addresses environmental and social concerns? Had I simply grown tired of always announcing my difference with my eating practice? If so, the cultural shift to dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free, sugar-free, nut-free, preservative-free, GMO-free, locally sourced, and other restrictive diets made it easier than ever to keep kosher. Had keeping kosher become too expensive for me? Was I too eager to accommodate to the nonpractice of my new husband, for the sake of shalom bayit?
These were the questions I considered the first year, but now, after almost five years, I believe two submerged feelings drove my relaxation of the laws of kashrut. The first was grief. I had spent 24 years creating a Jewish home, a mikdash m’at, a little sanctuary, where we shared weekday and Shabbat and holiday meals around the altar of our table. With that sanctuary in ruins, I felt bereft. Instead of anchoring my life, keeping kosher disturbed it. The outer practice had lodged itself so deep in my heart, my life, that every time I looked in my cupboards or cooked or sat down to eat I was reminded of what I had lost, the family now broken.
The second was the absence of joy. Though I continued keeping kosher in those first years of grief, I lost the joy of it. When I first started keeping kosher, I had focused on “doing it right,” following the letter, proving to myself and others I was a real Jew. But over the years I had come to feel nourished and enlivened by choosing again and again what to eat and not eat. I found joy in the practice. Now, following the laws felt joyless and, not knowing how to reclaim the joy, I felt the hollowness of the empty shell I was propping up. I had lost my way. I had lost all movement. I was no longer swinging from the letter to the spirit. And I couldn’t figure out how to swing from the spirit to the letter, how to animate my practice so it was joyful and free once again. I was stuck in the letter, and it felt like death to me. Bitter. Rigid. Cold.
As I slowly relaxed my observance of kashrut, a voice in my head scolded, You’re not a real Jew! You’re not a good Jew! Inconsistency is a sign of spiritual weakness! Grow up! But I also found it liberating. It felt like reclaiming the heart of a practice that had once sustained me but now fettered me. Intentionally choosing which rules I would not continue to follow and which I would follow helped me reconnect the outer to the inner, rediscover eating as a way to holiness, remember the freedom of the spirit.
Recently I’ve begun to think it’s time to embrace more of the dietary laws once again. But only if I can do it with joy, accepting that this is a way I feed my spirit. I have a friend, a rabbi, whose strict observance of the laws of kashrut I respect. But once a year, on Purim, when the world turns upside down, he eats shellfish. That choice reveals a joy and freedom in his way of keeping kosher that I would like to find for myself. A way of eating beyond the law, in the spirit of holiness.
No doubt some will say that observing kashrut the way I do now is not keeping kosher. Kosher-style maybe, but not kosher. For others my observance may be too strict. I’m not interested in being judged or judging myself on a basis of a ladder of kashrut—this is higher (better!), that is lower. That metaphor, while motivating when I first became a Jew, seems divisive to me now. I prefer to think of all of us being on the way to holiness, in all that we do. I’m walking on a path of kashrut with fellow travelers, each with our own gait, each at our own pace, each of us continually reflecting on how what we eat affects our individual life, our communities, the world, and the planet.
And who is there to judge me? To judge any of us? Kosher does not mean pure. The word for pure is taharah. Kosher means fit for use. This is the deepest spiritual question that can be asked: Is my life fit for use by the One? My whole life? The way I pray. The way I celebrate Shabbat. The way I fast on Yom Kippur. The way I treat animals. The way I treat other human beings—rich and poor, well defended and vulnerable, family and strangers. The way I love my enemies. The way I love God. The way I eat. The way I eat. That is a question only I can answer, by living.
Mary Lane Potter is a theologian and writer whose books include the novel A Woman of Salt and the story collection Strangers and Sojourners.