So, skipping a long back story, I wrote an essay explaining why as a Reform Jew I keep kosher. Why would someone who is part of a movement/philosophy which allows him to eat, say, bacon, decide not to. I thought I'd share my first draft with y'all for two reasons. First, you might find it interesting (you are, after all, the ones reading this blog). But, I would also love some feedback. This will, potentially, a ways down the road, get published, so anything you have to say about where it's good and, more importantly, where I'm not getting my point across, or where I'm not very clear, would be appreciated!
My awakening as a serious, adult Jew began while spending a semester of college in Israel. During that time, I encountered Jewish law, Jewish philosophy, Jewish history and much more from the Jewish world for the first time ever on a serious, intellectual, challenging level. As much as I had always identified strongly as a Jew, I was taking my Judaism, and my Jewish practice, seriously for the first time.
It wasn’t easy for me—I grew up in a family which was extremely nonobservant. So, I had little to fall back on in the way of family tradition or previous practice (or, practical knowledge). In many ways, I was building my Judaism from scratch. I was open to everything, and questioning and challenging everything, as well.
Well, not everything. Certainly not kashrut—the dietary laws of Judaism. I remember being rather dismissive of those. Maybe it was just a lifetime of eating shellfish and pork*, but I couldn't imagine a world in which I give them up. I distinctly remember telling a friend, also a Reform Jew, but much more observant than I was, that I would never keep kosher.
* bloggy addition - I've often said that the closest that that family ever came to discussion kashrut was in asking whether it was allowed to put the shrimp with lobster sauce on the same plate as the roast pork fried rice.
The answer, by the way, is "yes."
During our Spring Break, two friends and I traveled to Turkey and Greece. Somewhere along the way, we stopped at a street cart and ordered gyros. Looking at the meat, I found myself asking the cart owner what was in them. Among other things, he told me, there was pork. It suddenly dawned on me—I hadn't eaten pork in months. Living in Jerusalem, sharing an apartment with students who were much more committed to Jewish practice than I was, keeping kosher was just the default behavior. I had been doing it, more or less, without thought.
I don't know that I can explain the reasons any better now than I could have then, but I was suddenly overcome with an intense, unmistakable desire to not eat pork. Although it came, clearly, from a Jewish place, it felt more nonspecific than that. I just knew that, at that moment, I wasn't supposed to break kashrut. I threw the gyro into the trash, and bought something else to eat.
I didn't commit, at that moment, to a lifetime of keeping kosher. I decided, instead, to take a day by day approach, and to keep an open mind to this new practice which I had suddenly, totally unexpectedly, taken upon myself. I started to learn more about the laws of kashrut, talk to people who kept kosher (for the first time with an open mind, rather than with an eye toward refuting their arguments), and to actively engage with the mitzvah—to make conscious decisions about what I ate, from a Jewish point of view, and to pay attention to how it felt, and what it meant to me.
To my great surprise, it felt good. No—that's not quite right. It didn't feel good. I missed (and continue to miss) the foods I gave up. I often don't “like” keeping kosher. But, it felt right. More than anything, I remember the power of turning eating, an act which had been, up until that time, totally mundane, into a religious event. That's not to say that, every time I ate, I felt the presence of God, or heard angels sing. It's just that now eating had become part of my religious life. Which meant that, every time I ate, I had to shift my mind into “religious mode.” Keeping kosher was the first way that religion became a regular part of my life, and it remains, for that very reason, one of the most important.
I do not keep kosher by Orthodox standards. That might be partially because of a lack of willpower or discipline, but it's mostly because it felt inauthentic to cede my decision-making to authorities who see Judaism so radically differently than I do. The details of my practice have changed over the years—at first, it was mostly a case of “doing more and more.” But, with time, that changed, too as I began to learn which specific details spoke most powerfully to me as a Reform Jew, and which ones didn't seem as if they had a place in my practice. I imagine that these details will continue to change as I learn and grow. But, the larger decision to keep kosher is no longer one which I make on a daily basis. It's simply a part of who I am.
The philosopher Franz Rosenzweig taught that, if we do a Jewish practice with enough sincerity, and enough thoughtfulness, we might discover that it's moved from a practice to a commandment. To something which we have to do. I know that, were I to stop keeping kosher, I would not suffer physically—God will not punish me for eating pork. But, given how integral keeping kosher has been in my own Jewish practice, stopping would definitely come with a penalty. It would both symbolize and create a break between me and my religion, my tradition, and my God. Through my practice, then, I can safely say that keeping kosher has become a mitzvah.