Sometimes A Mitzvah Really Calls To You
דַּבְּרוּ אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר: זֹאת הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר תֹּאכְלוּ, מִכָּל-הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר עַל-הָאָרֶץ.
Speak to the children of Israel, saying: These are the living things which you may eat among all the beasts that are on the earth…
This week's Parashat Shemini contains a long exposition of the laws of kashrut, a practice I didn't grow up with. Though my father z”l loved tradition in general, he was the first one in his family to have a non-kosher home, saying: "" We're American! What is this craziness? We should eat like Americans!
Family lore has it that when my great-grandmother (his grandmother) came to visit their new home, she was so horrified to find that the kitchen wasn’t kosher, when they offered her food, she would only eat a piece of cold lettuce, on the back porch, on a paper plate, in the middle of a Boston winter!
So imagine my father’s dismay when his oldest daughter (me) announced her decision to keep kosher. His reaction: 'Next stop, Meah She'arim!' And this was while I was in my 2nd year of rabbinical school studying to become a Reform rabbi. But what parent pays attention to rationality when their child pushes all their buttons?
Of course my parents wanted to know why I would do such a 'crazy' thing as deciding to keep kosher. I explained "For me, keeping kosher is a way to remind myself of the centrality of Judaism in my life. What other mitzvah can I do every day (in fact 3x a day) that would make me have to 'choose Jewish' on such a regular basis?"
My parents asked about the rationality of it and reminded me that shrimp was tasty (true). I replied "I know. I did grow up in your house, remember? But there are lots of things that aren't rational, and we follow them nonetheless (For example, why does green mean 'go' and red mean 'stop'?)."
They asserted that modern times meant kashrut didn't apply, since today we have refrigeration. I replied "People who live in huts and have no refrigerators eat pig in Borneo, which lies on the equator. If trichinosis was such a huge problem, they would have figured it out long ago when everyone kept dying after their pork barbeques. It's a myth that kashrut has any connection to refrigeration or hygiene."
Then they asked if it meant I'd never eat with them again. AAH, I thought, now we're getting to the heart of things.
So I explained that I would keep kosher out of my home up to the point where I wasn't able to eat with other Jews - namely, I would eat veggie/dairy - but off of anyone's plates.
As a Reform rabbi, my ethical compass wouldn't allow me to tell my own parents and my congregants that I refused to eat with them unless they had a kosher home. While I fully recognized that Orthodox Judaism does not allow for such a compromise, to me, that stricture would place a ritual act above an ethical obligation to honor my parents and be welcoming and inclusive to all.
Other people (not my parents) have called the idea of eating kosher at home but not in a kosher restaurant- hypocritical.
First, they don't understand the meaning of the word ‘hypocritical,’ since I've never misrepresented what I do.
Second, as Dennis Prager once taught, let's celebrate when someone observes something, anything! When we see a car driving 10 miles over the speed limit, do we say "Well if they're already violating the law, they might as well do 100?" Of course not!
Kashrut was the mitzvah that called to me, and still does. Is there a mitzvah that calls to you, perhaps against all odds? Write back and tell me- I'd love to know.