In this week’s Torah portion — R’eih from chapter 14 in the Book of Deuteronomy — we are given the foundational rules for keeping kosher. In these verses, the Israelites are commanded about which animals they may and may not consume. These animals are divided into three categories: land animals, sea animals, and birds. For land animals, they must have a cloven hoof and chew their cud in order to be kosher. For sea animals they must have fins and scales to be kosher. As for birds, there is not as clear a general category as much as a list of birds which may and may not be eaten. This all begs the question: why? Why these animals and not the opposite? Why separate at all?
One answer is that the animals that are forbidden are seen as scavengers or dirty. In order for us to be holy, which according to the text is God’s goal for the Israelites, we must eat animals which act in what could be perceived as holy way of being. Cows eat grass. They are peaceful. Chickens give eggs that we can eat to help sustain life. The animals Judaism says we can eat are all life-affirming to a certain degree. The pig eats what it wants but does not give anything back. Here our tradition teaches that to be eating itself is an act of holiness and that what we eat is a reflection of who we are and what we put out in the world.
As for the second question, Jeffery Tigay, in the JPS Torah Commentary on page 137 states, “The command [in this case of Kashrut] itself made humanity aware that it may not satisfy every desire, that there are prohibited as well as permitted actions. Distinguishing between these is God’s first requirement of [humans]”. Many people use the term “I am not kosher” when speaking of keeping kosher. This is true enough. Human beings are not kosher. However, an individual keeps kosher, they are not kosher. In other words, keeping kosher, like everything else, is a choice. That is not to say you have to keep kosher to be holy and pure, but rather that holiness and purity are a result of choice, that they are not simply conferred upon us. Therefore, the laws of kashrut teach us, not merely about which animals our ancient ancestors could and could not eat, but really teachers us about the sacrifice and personal agency trying to become holy requires.
Rabbi Micah Ellenson