Friday, 12 May 2017

Why Keep Kosher - Questions from a 6 Year Old

I had the following mail, from a parent of a bright 6 year old in the community,

[My six year old daughter] keeps asking me why Jews can’t eat ham. I don’t know how to explain it. Other than the “because it is not kosher and this is what it says in Torah/G-d says etc” 
We spoke after Cheder yesterday about how kosher things to eat have to have cloven hooves and chew their cud like cows. And pigs don’t chew their cud. So we cant eat them. We can eat cows because they chew their cud.
 And I said it was probably came originally from long ago when people wanted to avoid sickness. And animals like shellfish (which are bottom feeders, so can carry more disease), and pigs, which used to live in people’s houses and people would get a lot of diseases from them.
 Then she says , well why do Christians eat ham, if it could make them sick? And I get stumped what to say.
 I told her I would ask you.

Actually, I posted the question on Facebook and had a huge response

But this is my answer

So ...

There are usually three answers given to the question, “Why do anything Jewish?”

The first is the simplest and probably the oldest. God said, therefore do. God is our creator, God brought us out of the Land of Egypt, from slavery to freedom and brought us Sinai where we accepted a deal (or more precisely a covenant - the Hebrew word is Brit) - God would be in a special relationship with us, and we would accept the obligation to observe the things God commanded (the Hebrew word is Mitzvot). Whether any particular commandment (Mitzvah) makes sense to our own minds is not important. The important thing is, this is the deal, and we say, ‘yes.’

The second reason is that following the Mitzvot is a kind of training and reason for specific Mitzvot is just not important. One important Rabbi called Mordechai Kaplan (who was born 130 years ago) said we do Jewish things because we want other people who also do Jewish things to think we are good Jews. This reason has very little to do with God. It has very little to do with why we would eat chicken, but not bacon. It has a lot to do with the power of being part of a community. This is connected to a slightly different version of this reason - that doing Mitzvot trains us to behave well. To be a good person, I think, you need to be careful about what you say and how you act, and the food you eat. Again this reason doesn’t explain why we eat chicken, but not pig, it’s more about always paying attention to what you do. For example when men go into a Synagogue they cover their heads. But when Catholic men go into a Church they will take anything on their heads off. The important piece isn’t whether there is or there is not something on someone’s head, but whether we are training ourselves to show respect in a House of God. We sometimes call religious Jews observant. In part this means keeping Mitzvot, but also, I think, it means observing what we do and the impact of what we do on the world around us.’

The third reason is that there are reasons for doing Mitzvot.
Sometimes the Torah tells you the reason why doing a particular Mitzvah is good. For example the Torah says that you should always put a fence around the roof of your house so no-one can fall off.
Sometimes the Torah doesn’t tell you why a particular Mitzvah is good (for example the Torah says you should honour your parents. It doesn’t say you should honour your parents because your mother carried you for nine months in her womb, gave birth to you, and then - hopefully along with your father - took care of you as you become an adult.) But you can, pretty easily, work out a reason like that.

However there are a lot of Mitzvot that aren’t obvious. There are even moments when the Torah says to do something that might seem not good. For example the Torah seems to say it’s OK to kill someone who picked up sticks on Shabbat, or a child doesn’t always do what their parents tell them to. This is where it gets very complicated.

There have been some Jews who have been rational about the reasons behind Mitzvot. Being rational means explaining things in ways human minds can understand. The most famous of these Rabbis is Rambam (who died 800 years ago). Rambam went through every Mitzvah in the Torah explaining everything in rational ways (though he doesn’t think you should ever kill someone even if they don’t do what their parents tell them). Rambam is the most famous Rabbi to have said that the problem with eating pig is that it isn’t healthy. However Rambam’s approach made some other ancient Rabbis furious. They wanted to know how Rambam, a simply human being, felt he could truly understand what God - GOD - was thinking when God gave the Torah to Moses. They were also very worried that if times changed (for example pigs were no longer dangerous to eat) Jews might start eating pig - which they thought would break everything Judaism stood for. In fact, pigs are not as medically dangerous today as they were and some religious Jews do eat pig. These Jews are ‘Reform.’ Reform Judaism believes that if times change and old reasons no longer apply you shouldn’t keep following traditional Mitzvot. Reform Judaism started over 200 years ago and some Reform Rabbis don’t think it is important to keep Kosher. Others do - for some of the other reasons discussed here.

Some of the reasons Rabbis give for keeping specific Mitzvot are very thoughtful. Some are more playful. For example we can only eat animals which has a cloven hoof and chew the cud. The pig has a cloven hoof, so you might think it’s only half not-kosher. But eating pig has always been a huge no-no for Jews. In the greatest collection of Rabbis’ reasons - the talmud - there is a suggestion that the big problem with pigs is that they lie with their cloven hoofs point out towards us, as if to say, ‘look at me, I’m Kosher,’ when really what is inside reveals that they are not Kosher. So the pig is pretending to be something it is not. I like that story, but it’s not the reason I don’t eat pig. I think reasons are important and I think it’s good to think about why we do things, but we shouldn’t always try to make Mitzvot completely understandable, because religion is about a God and a Universe we don’t - and can’t understand completely. Mystery is OK.

Some Jews have not worried about why we should keep specific Mitzvot, instead saying that we should follow all Mitzvot because good things will happen to us if we do. The second paragraph of the Shema promises that if we keep the Mitzvot there will be food for us to eat, and if we don’t there won’t be. This would work, as a reason, if good things always happened to people who keep Mitzvot. Unfortunately bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. A lot of people, Jewish and not Jewish, spend a lot of time struggling with this. One solution to the problem of bad things happening to good people is to believe that eventually good things will happen to good people, even if bad things are happening now. Some good people are prepared to wait until they die for good things to happen to them - this is usually called a belief in Heaven. Some people believe that there will be a time when a person will appear who will solve all these problems and the world will be a place where only good things happen to good people - this is usually called a belief in the Messiah.

Another way Jews say keeping Mitzvot is good has to do with reasons that are not rational - they are reasons that exist at the edge of what humans can understand. Sometimes these reasons are called ‘hidden,’ or ‘secret’ or, using a Hebrew word, ‘Kabbalistic.’ For example one Kabbalistic idea behind lighting Shabbat candles is that the flame of the candle rises up and draws down the flow of energy from God into the world. According to Jewish law you are not supposed to study Kabbalah until you are 40 and these ideas can be very complicated, but the idea behind a lot of Kabbalah is this; all religious Jews believe in ‘One God,’ but Kabbalists believe that there are different sides, or aspects, existing within God and that the various different sides don’t always fit perfectly together, or that the energy that is supposed to flow into the world gets blocked and stuck. This is why the world doesn’t always make sense. This is why bad things can happen to good people. Sometimes it is explained that there is a male and female side to God, sometimes a side that is totally beyond any understanding and a side that is like a friend you can talk to or pray to. Kabbalists explain that by performing Mitzvot we can mend the broken parts that exist within God or help the flow of God’s energy into the world. Or if we break Mitzvot, for example by eating pig, we drive God’s presence further away from the world. 

I think it is possible to want to keep Mitzvot because of reasons that cannot entirely be understood. This is the belief that keeping Mitzvot is good, for me, for the Jewish people, for the world and even for God. In fact, that is what I do.

I hope that helps.
Shabbat shalom


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