Yehuda Avnir, in his wonderful new book, The Prime Ministers, tells the story of when he attended a state dinner at the White House with Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin as his diaspora adviser. Now it’s important to understand that Yehuda Avnir was religious while Yitzchak Rabin was decidedly secular. Let me read you Avnir’s description of what happened:
Everybody was chomping on their succulent fare except me. I had pre-ordered a vegetarian kosher dish which, for some reason, tarried. Perhaps it was because my place card had been misspelled; instead of “Yehuda,” it was engraved, “Yeduha Avnir.”
A couple of chairs away the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General George Brown, was chatting with Barbara Walters, the famous television celebrity, who was sitting on my right. Within minutes, the general caught sight of my still-empty place setting and, craning his neck to note my name card, boomed, “Yehuda, not eating with us tonight?” Whereupon, as if on cue, a butler stepped forward and placed before me a vegetarian extravaganza consisting of a base of lettuce as thick as a Bible, on top of which sat a mound of diced fruit, on top of that a glob of cottage cheese, and on top of that a swish of whipped cream, so that the whole thingamajig must have stood about a foot high, in contrast to everybody else’s deep brown roasted pheasant, it glittered and sparkled like a firework.
Gasps of admiration greeted this fiesta of color, and Barbara Walters began to applaud. This attracted the attention of President Ford who, half rising to see what the commotion was about, whispered something into Yitzhak Rabin’s ear, who whispered something back into his. Then, rising to his full height and grinning from ear to ear, the president raised his glass high and called out to me with an overflow of well-being, “Happy birthday young fella! Let’s sing a toast to our birthday boy.”
With that, the entire banqueting hall rose to its feet and, goblets aloft, chorused a hearty, “Happy birthday Yehuda.” And as they sang I slouched sheepishly further into my chair, mortified.
In the ballroom after dinner I asked Rabin why on earth he had told the President it was my birthday, and he shot back, “What else should I have told him—the truth? If I did that, tomorrow there’d be a headline in the newspapers that you ate kosher and I didn’t, and the religious parties will bolt the coalition, and I’ll have a government crisis on my hands.
It’s a great story, is it not? As a representative of the Jewish people Yitzhak Rabin should have asked for a kosher meal. That’s what astronaut Ilan Ramon did when he took kosher meals with him into space even though he was not religious. That story, however, had a tragic ending as the space capsule blew up. Representing the Jewish people may be reason enough for some to be kosher upon certain occasions, but why be kosher the rest of the time?
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin tells the story of how he came to observe kashrut. When he was about 8 years old, a Chinese restaurant opened in his neighborhood in NY. His parents wanted to take him there for dinner. He asked his Bubbie whether he could eat there or not. She said no. When he asked why, she said, “Well, if you want to be big and strong when you grow up you have to eat only kosher food.” Rabbi Riskin is grown up now, and very short and somewhat round. But I think his Bubbie was on to something—something much deeper as we will soon see.
There is a thought about keeping kosher—mostly spouted by those who don’t—that it’s really for health reasons because you can get trichinosis from pork, and shell fish are not healthy because they dredge the filthy ocean floor. However, the sole fish, which goes to the bottom of the sea, are kosher even though they are about as filthy as pigs. The Abaravanel discounts the health rationale for kashrut. In his commentary on Leviticus, he writes: There are a lot of Gentiles who have been eating these [non-kosher] foods and are even healthier than most kosher keeping Jews. We see before our eyes nations that eat the flesh of abominable swine and the rodent and other birds and forbidden fishes that they live in a state of strength and there is not a tired or weak man among them.
There are those who say that kosher animals are more passive while the treyf animals are more aggressive. And Judaism—as in its prohibition of hunting—is not aggressive. Is that really so? Is there anything more passive than the rabbit, which is treyf? Is there anything more aggressively speedy than the giraffe? Which, as we learned last week, is kosher?
Where is the word “kosher” written in the Torah? It’s a trick question because it’s not! Where is the 1st time we find the word in the Bible? Wind back with me a week to Purim and the Megillah of Esther (8:4-5). Esther pleads before King Ahashverus on behalf of her people: “If I have won your favor and my proposal seems right to your majesty let the order be written countermanding Haman.” The phrase for, “If my proposal seems right,” is v’chasheyr hadavar. So kashrut means, “doing what is right.”
The New Testament attacks kashrut saying: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles but what comes out of the mouth?” Well, what about both? Judaism teaches that what goes into the mouth as well as what comes out of the mouth should be Gdly.
Let’s go a little deeper to the real reason Rabbi Riskin’s Bubbie felt he should be kosher. The Chassidic master Levi Yitzhak writes on the verse (Lev. 11:1) introducing the laws of kashrut, “Gd spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying to them, speak...”: What is the meaning of “saying to them?...since Gd is destined to speak with every Jew, it is not fitting that the mouth which will speak with Him should now eat forbidden foods. This is the meaning of “saying to them”—that I shall one day “say” to each of them...therefore, they shall not now eat any forbidden food.
Keeping kosher is not, Levi Yitzhak teaches, a matter of health. Nor is kashrut a matter of self-identification. It is not even simply a matter of observing Gd’s word. Keeping kosher is a way of preparing oneself to receive Gd. The mouth is the gateway into and out of the body. To eat properly, and to speak properly, is to guard the gateway of the body. The body is also the receptacle of the soul. If we want to bring the Shechina, the Divine Presence, to speak to us, to our souls, to be receptive to our prayers, to fill us with the joy that can only come with connecting with Gd, then our bodies, as well as our minds and hearts, must be ready.
The Torah, at the end of today’s parsha (Lev. 11:44) tells us the real reason for eating kosher and not eating treife: Ki Ani Hashem Elokeychem, v’hitkadishtem v’h’yitem kedoshim, ki kadosh Ani, v’lo titamu et nafshoteychem, “For I am the Lrd your Gd, sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy, neither shall you defile your souls with any manner of forbidden food.”
For those of you who now keep kosher, it’s important to keep in mind the spiritual dimensions of your actions—and know how kosher food nourishes the soul. For those who are not yet kosher, perhaps you should think about the teaching of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, that eating treife contaminates the soul. Kashrut is an important vehicle for coming closer to Gd, for after all, this is our destiny as Jews. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis