Thoughts on a Book

I am recently read Miriam’s Kitchen, by Elizabeth Ehrlich. It is Mrs. Ehrlich’s memoir of her journey from being a secular Jew, performing some rituals for the sake of family tradition while eschewing others, to keeping Shabat and a Kosher kitchen and finding her heritage. It is the story of a second generation, American, Jewish woman.

As I have little experience with Ashkenazic Rabbinism, this text has been an educational read. As she explores her mother-in-law’s (Miriam’s) cooking traditions, she rediscovers her faith and revisits her childhood experiences of religion and culture. As I follow her journey, I have been exploring the rabbinic experience in a way I have been unable to do before.

As I see it, and especially judging from this book, Rabbinic Judaism overcomplicates Judaism. Mrs. Ehrlich describes at one juncture the accouterments of a Kosher kitchen, and explains that one of her grandmothers actually had six sets of dishes: casual dairy, formal dairy, casual meat, formal meat, neutral (pareve), and Passover. There were multiple wash rags. And while there was unfortunately only one sink to wash them all in, the sink was always scoured between types of dishes. Mrs. Ehrlich also noted that many who have only one sink own metal racks to put in the sink as a false bottom–one meat, one dairy. Vegetarian foods could be made into meat or dairy depending on what containers they were stored in or what utensils they touched. All the different kinds of dishes, pots, pans, flatware, and utensils had to be stored separately, according to their kind.

At the same time, though, cream of fish soup is not seen as problematic. Much like the Catholic church (which, at least historically, included fish as permissible during meat fasts), fish does not count as meat, and so could be combined with dairy. Chicken livers and other organ meats are common fare, so long as they are cooked “properly,” so as to avoid the consumption of blood. While her Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is dairy free, she recalls her brown bag school lunches of various meat sandwiches. Bread contains milk, and often, butter.

It’s all terribly convoluted, although not new to me. What is new is the concise way in which it is all written down. “So [G-d] said. So the rabbis elaborated.” (Ehrlich, 1997).

As a Karaite, though, I have to find it all just the slightest bit contrived and more than a little unnecessary. Moses brought the Law to the Israelites as they began their journey through the wilderness. This rabble of refugees were able to keep Kosher. If they could not have possibly eaten by Kashrut during their travels, G-d would have waited to give the Torah until they reached the Promised Land.

Now, think about that. Would these Israelites have carried multiple sets of dishes with them? Would a young wife of that crowd have said, “Well, I heated milk in this pot yesterday, so even though it’s clean, I can’t possibly use it again today for goat?” I highly doubt it.

Would they have salted and rinsed their meat multiple times to remove the blood? Almost certainly not. Salt and water are both too valuable resources to any desert people to be used and discarded at such a rate.

They would have slaughtered an animal correctly, hung it upside down to drain the blood, and removed arteries and internal organs in the butchering process. Then they would have cooked it thoroughly. They would not have eaten the organ meat if they could help it. They would not have eaten unclean animals. They would not have tracked the hours between “dairy meals” and “meat meals.”

Ehrlich wrote, “You don’t keep kosher for heightened awareness. Keeping kosher is in the Torah. It’s an obligation. It’s not an opinion.” (p. 16). I strongly disagree with this series of statements, except that it is in the Torah. The ultimate result of the dietary laws is heightened awareness. It requires one to think about what one eats at every step of the preparation process. We are required to know where our food comes from, how it is prepared, and to do so with respect and completeness. We are also required to eat in a way that nourishes our bodies, enabling us to do our daily work. We are not to eat internal organs or unclean animals.

While “opinion” is definitely the wrong word to use in relation to Kashrut, “obligation” isn’t right either. The laws of Kashrut make up part of a society’s legal codex. No one would ever say that they are “obligated to stop for red lights” or that it is their duty to do so. Obligation involves morality. Kashrut is not part of G-d’s moral code. It is among the laws governing how we are to live our lives. It is not a burden, as an obligation is, but something one simply does. It is a philosophy with a real world application. Why overcomplicate it?

Celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach (Chabad) has justly noted in many recent articles that many Jews who would otherwise be devout, if not Orthodox, have complained to him that being Jewish is simply too expensive. They lack the means to put many children through Jewish school, so rather than send many children to a different school, they have fewer children. Shabbat is made in to boring drudgery, so they neglect to keep it. They can’t afford to have two kitchens worth of space and equipment, so they don’t bother to avoid unclean meats. It’s too expensive to pay a membership for a synagogue, so they don’t go. In some of these things, rabbinic Judaism can work to solve the problem. Synagogues can (and should) try to function more as communities than businesses (if churches can do it, synagogues can too). Communities could band together to provide a good Jewish upbringing to children outside of a formal school environment.

In other ways, though, the answer can only be found outside of the rabbinic, Talmudic, institutions. Kashrut is not outside the realm of possibility for Jewish families of limited means. While, for some, clean meat may be difficult to find or impossible to afford, G-d does not ask us to do things that are impossible. He asks us to do the best we can in our situation to abide by his laws and make careful decisions. If I can’t find Kasher meat, for example, I need to decide whether to go vegetarian (although I can, obviously include dairy, eggs, and fish), find some other brand of meat that I believe is close enough (Halal? Free range? Organic?), or avoid unclean animals (eat standard chicken and beef, but avoid pork, shell fish, and unclean fish). How I make that decision is an individual matter shaped by my own beliefs and circumstances, and no other human has a right to judge me for it. It’s what the Israelites did during the Exodus.

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