Near the beginning of my conversion journey in 2010, I decided to try out some elements of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. Included in and derived from the Hebrew Bible, the laws govern the types of foods Jews may and may not eat. I explored avoiding treyf (non-permitted foods) like pork and shellfish, as well as avoiding the mixing of milk and meat. The milk and meat thing fell by the wayside pretty quickly (the home cook in me rebelled almost instantly), but not eating treyf stuck around for well over a year.
The dietary laws are commandments, but they also had the effect of keeping Jews from eating at the tables of ancient Greek and Roman conquerors, as well as at the tables of hostile peoples throughout two millennia. But I connected with them primarily from a cultural standpoint. As a Reform Jew, I don’t slavishly follow commandments for their own sake, but the act of being mindful about the foods I ate gave me a deep sense of connection to Jewish history and identity.
As time wore on and I completed my conversion, I had the opportunity to explore and discover many elements of Jewish ritual and tradition that spoke to me, and that I adopted into my daily Jewish observance (laying tefillin, praying daily, saying food blessings whenever I eat, wearing a full-time yarmulke, among others.) But I kept coming back to question kashrut.
It isn’t as if I kept a kosher kitchen with separate sets of dishes for milk and meat, or even ever bought (expensive) kosher meat. But I was seeing the exclusionary point of the dietary laws in action in my interpersonal life. After a year of many thoughtful friends and coworkers worrying whether I could eat the foods they made at dinners, parties, and potlucks, I increasingly questioned whether my feeling of Jewish connection through treyf-avoidance was worth the stress induced on my non-Jewish, non-ancient Greek and Roman friends.
As 2012 approached, I started to question what cultural elements of Judaism the dietary laws made me feel connected to. When you get right down to it, the point of the dietary laws are to keep Jews in and non-Jews out–out of your inner circle, out of your love life, out of reach of influencing your Jewish practice. I can see the worth of that when the society in which you’re living is hostile to your continued existence. But why should I be using food to separate myself from non-Jews in 21st-century America?
The answer for most Reform Jews is not to use food that way. Many of us simply decline to follow kashrut. I would bet the answer is similar for some Conservative Jews. However, the Orthodox Jewish answer might be to follow kashrut exactly for those very reasons of cultural exclusivity. As a Reform Jew, I don’t carry around the same fear of cultural and religious pollution as might an Orthodox Jew. I respect their belief of being duty bound to the commandments. But to my mind, you can’t live in a hermetically sealed bubble of Judaism, nor should you. (After all, how could tikkun olam–God’s commandment to Jews to help fix the world–ever get accomplished that way?)
I came to see that avoiding treyf made me feel connected to Judaism in two ways: I felt Jewish pride in honoring laws that helped Judaism survive in ancient and medieval times; yet I also felt uncomfortable that modern Jews to whom I felt connected through kashrut themselves were observing the dietary laws for the exclusionary reasons that I reject. And in fact, many of those same Jews would likely exclude me–a fellow Jew–from their tables, for not being “Jewish enough” (i.e. for not being Orthodox.)
The haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, might not see me as Jewish at all. The most extreme among them might see me and all non-haredim as being substandard in spiritual ways to their specific brand of Jew. Too often, more traditional Jews tend to denigrate less traditional Jews. If you don’t pray and observe the mitzvot exactly as they do–well you should, so get lost for now and come back when you do. it’s bad enough when the modern Orthodox in this country do it. But it’s brutal when the haredim do it in Israel.
During the final months of 2011, international media finally began to cover a long-standing and growing wave of ultra-Orthodox extremism in Israel, centered in and around Jerusalem. Women being forced to the back of buses that serve haredi neighborhoods? Little girls walking to school with “improperly” short sleeves being spat upon by adult men? Women ordered to walk on the opposite side of the street from men? Vandalism and harassment campaigns designed to scare non-haredi residents and business owners into compliance? Attacks on police and soldiers? Images of women banned from public advertising? Calls for Israeli democracy to be dismantled and replaced with Torah law?
Just Google it. It’s happening right now and it’s the greatest threat to Israeli democracy bar none. Hostile states won’t have to destroy Israel. If the government and overwhelming majority of non-haredi Israelis who have finally woken up to the issue (thanks to national TV coverage of the spat-upon little girls) don’t get their act together, haredi mischief will get there first.
It’s mischief in the name of blind adherence to faulty interpretation of ancient law aimed at excluding any other perspectives. It’s also the logical extreme of practices like kashrut. When the enemies that exclusionary commandments were originally aimed at no longer exist, it’s all too easy to turn those exclusionary laws back on fellow Jews. If your entire life is dictated by the commandments, then the commandments regarding exclusivity have to find an outlet somewhere.
No thanks. This far into my Jewish life, compared to kashrut, there are many other, far less exclusionary things that connect me to Jewish culture and history throughout my day. Kashrut need no longer be one of them. I really don’t like the example set by religious exclusion.
So I’m back on the pig.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.