The Kashrut of Being Extra Kosher--by Rabbi Alan Yuter

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Question:  When is it proper to be extra strict in the observance of the kosher laws?

 

 Consider:

 

1.              Show devotion to Heaven by being extra strict

2.              Public policy requires that rabbis and people who are viewed as more religious act and play the part as virtuosi of piety; rabbis who are lenient with themselves undermine public piety.   

3.              We should respect the sensibilities of the rabbis and laypeople who are extra strict

4.              If our parents are extra strict, are we not showing disrespect to them and their choices if we ourselves are not as extra strict as they?

5.              If we may add new forms of piety, like daily Kaddish for mourners and the kappores atonement ritual, why  may we not add to the kashrut rules to make Jews more religious?

6.              Being extra strict is the traditional antidote for the moral and religious decline of the generations. Therefore, being extra strict compensates for the moral and religious contamination of a debased society.

7.              The intelligent Orthodox Jew realizes that there are holy people with higher religious standards, who are not content with letter of the law mediocrity.  Those who object to these higher standards have issues with others being better Jews than they are.   

  

 

Principles:

 

 In order to properly address these issues, the following Oral Torah legal doctrines require review:

1.              yShabbat 1:1 and yBerakhot chapter 2 ad fin regard the performing of an act from which one is exempt to be a deed of an ignorant person.  Sanctity in Torah is not a feeling or psychological sensibility; it is the consequence of performing God’s sanctity-laden commandments.  Maimonides, Megilla and Hanukka 3:7 concretizes this value concept by ruling that commandment blessings are not recited for the performance of customs.

2.              bYoma 19b and bShabbat 97a report that one who acts suspiciously regarding the innocent, is worthy of being whipped.

3.              bYevamot 67b teaches  one witness, the individual observant Jew, is to be trusted with regard to Jewish religious ritual.

 

Official religion Oral Torah documents provide not only a code of conduct; this Oral Torah also affords a map to all Israel so that all can recognize how policies, rules and religious practices are to be judged and explicated. We now evaluate the popular religion of the Orthodox street against the grid of those canonically Orthodox doctrines outlined above.

 

1.             Being extra strict demonstrates devotion to Heaven.

 

This sensibility has no precedent in canonical Oral Torah religious ritual law. mPeah 1:1 deals with commandments whose repetition adds merit and being extra strict carries religious valence.   Providing for the poor [peah], being seen at the Temple in the Presence of God and people, being grateful to God for one’s produce [bikurim], performing acts of kindness [gemilut hasadim], showing respect to parents, and increasing peace between people   are precepts where being extra strict is appropriate.  Curious and notable by its absence is a rabbinic preference for ritual virtuosity.

 

Isaiah 1:12 presents God’s attitude toward uncommanded acts that are executed as religion, “who asked you do do that?”   Hence greater is the reward for the person performing the divinely ordained commandment/sanctifying act than one who performs the act as a good will loyalty gesture. bKiddushin 31a.  Sara Epstein Weinstein’s Piety and Fanaticism: Rabbinic Criticism of  Religious  Stringency (Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1997), demonstrates that the Oral Torah’s rabbis did not view public displays of ritual virtuosity to be religiously virtuous.  Deuteronomy 13:4 and bRosh ha- Shana 28b outlaw adding to or subtracting from the Torah.

 

Therefore, absent Oral Torah evidence that being extra strict really pleases God, being extra strict is at best an act of ignorance, because one is unaware that the stricture is not normative, and at worse false and heretical, because one may not knowingly assign religious valence to a usage that evolved by means of convention.

 

2. Public policy requires that rabbis and people who are viewed as more religious act and play the part as virtuosi of piety.


 

This policy indeed infects the Orthodox street and used to reflect the sensibility of the now extinct halakhic wing of  Judaism’s Conservative Movement. The late Rabbi Louis Finkelstein’s Conservative Judaism compromised for the laity but not for the rabbinate. The rabbi’s higher standards were not necessarily the standards of Jewish law.

 

Public policy is a legitimate consideration in Halakhic decision making. It is however not to be arbitrarily decreed and is subject to conversation and review and consent. The notion that being extra strict is a religious virtue is manipulative and not Masoretic, egocentric and not ethical, and is concerned with image and imagination and not commandment or sanctification.  If commandments are the word of Heaven that sanctifies, the extra strictness does not afford sanctity but does set the covenant benchmarks so high that uninformed Jews might despair of trying to be religiously Jewish.

 

Religious Judaism is not about roles to be played, deference to be cultivated, clothes of honor to be worn, or social impressions to be managed.  Judaism is about being good in the long run and not merely looking good in the short run.

 

Therefore, the policy of “looking religious” as religious policy makes the Orthodox street into a god and renders God irrelevant to the religious choices religious Jews  ought to be making.

 

If we are to mistrust others as an expression of piety,  we would not be permitted to  eat at the table of others because we could not accept invitations from them.  We could not trust our spouses to serve kosher food or, in the case of women, observe the mikvah rules correctly.

 

Therefore, when a private piety practice conflicts

with respect for the other, the need to respect the other trumps non-halakhic additions to the Jewish legal order.

 

3.  We should respect the sensibilities of the rabbis and laypeople who are extra strict

 

The short response to this specious claim is “no, we should not.” Being more strict without a good reason is as noted above not a religious virtue. If one’s strictness is frenetic, observing strictness for the sake of strictness, the ritual act is the mark of a fool.  bHullin 44a.  There is no norm in the Jewish legal order that makes this claim.  Being extra strict in order to avoid confusion, error or sin is legitimate; being strict in order  to appear heroic, show honor to elites or to manage the impressions of others by employing sacred gestures in order to service secular ends—this is not legitimate.

 

When being extra strict is done privately, without social impact, and as a personal existential decision, the act is harmless; when however the extra strict act is misrepresented as a holier, higher, and implicitly normative standard, with social pressure but without conversation or persuasion, the dignity afforded by Judaism’s actual rules is being denied.

 

If we are asked to have empathy for those who make the claim that being extra strict does impress God and therefore ought to impress ordinary people, we note that those who are extra strict generally are not empathetic to those who content themselves to obey God’s law in the idiom in which God’s law is recorded.  How we know that God is impressed by extra strict behavior is never addressed by those who accept and advocate this policy. bBerakhot 17b and bPesahim 54b-55a speak of excessive ritual demonstrations that can appear to be arrogant.  [mehazi ke-yohara]   Note well that bad intentions are not presumed by the Oral Torah but the danger of bad impressions that may occur to observers are not to be dismissed.

 

bBerakhot 19b teaches

 

i.                             that respect for people [kevod ha-beriyyot] overrides Torah law on occasion,

ii.                          that Proverbs 21:30 retorts that in theory God’s wisdom and decree are not subject to human review, and

iii.                       that the Written Torah [Deuteronomy 17:11] authorizes the Oral Torah rabbis to apply Torah, and the Oral Torah rabbis sanctified respect for people as an important legal concern.

 

When being extra strict conflicts with respect for people, the egotistic presentation of self in everyday life overrides Judaism’s actual religious norms.

 

If one adopts kosher standards that are not recorded in the Oral Torah and does not accept the kosher standards  of those who are not extra strict, one allows private proclivities, treating extra strict standards as a legal requirement, to override respect for people.

 

If a person is Sabbath observant and Torah compliant, the rules of trust cited abovedemandthat the Torah compliant person must be trusted. Some argue that we do not trust others who do not dress like us, who are not extra strict like us, who do not mispronounce Hebrew like us, who are unaware of the unrecorded by-laws that we add to the Torah in order to preserve the purity of Torah culture.   If the extra strict non-Torah rites wrongly offend the respect for others and discourage them from observing Torah law because Torah appears to them to be absurd, the extra strict policy is worthy of rejection and not respect.

 

There was a rebbe/teacher of Yoreh Deah at a modern Orthodox rabbinical program who made a point of being extra strict. He was said to have told his students that they should not render religious rulings even though  their ordination certificate explicitly authorizes the holder to render such decisions. I would not allow my son to “learn” Torah from this person.  Another Rosh Yeshiva at this institution taught that great rabbis may rule from intuition while rabbis who are not vetted to be great are not even authorized to have an opinion. This sensibility finds the locus of rabbinic authority in the rabbinic person, and not the rabbinic text.  Maimonides sees authority residing in the most reasoned view [Introduction to Yad]; Raabad views the great sage as the source of authority. [Bet Yosef Hoshen Mishpat 25]  In practice, the rabbis who shape the Orthodox street  employ the rhetoric of law but live the culture defined in the intuition of great rabbis.

 

Sometimes, the rabbi leads by being honest and not by being extra strict; being religiously sincere requires that we do not impose our peer-conditioned taste upon God’s eternal Torah.  For example, dairy equipment produced foodstuffs are for many authorities non-dairy, a.k.a. pareve. Dairy equipment produced soy milk for lactose intolerant users being labeled dairy is absurd, because [1] Sefardi practice accepts the testimony of a non-Jewish expert taster to determine if the mixture is contaminated milk and [2] official Ashkenazi practice, accepts the trusting of an Orthodox Jew to do the tasting.  When the Orthodox street is allowed to re-write and reconstruct Jewish law, Jewish law is rendered less accessible, it is taken to be the partisan franchise of the few and not  the inherited possession of all Israel, and fewer Jews are conforming to Jewish Tradition.  Extra strict policies may be situationally appropriate; presenting contrived strictures as higher standards is not a standard that is acceptable.

Today we can measure empirically how much of a foodstuff is absorbed by a pot and how much is lost to evaporation. When we are extra strict and cause extra costs to be incurred, we confuse the habits of inertia with the Tradition of Sinai.

 

4.             If our parents are extra strict, are we not showing disrespect to them and their choices?

 

We  show respect and reverence for parents according to Jewish law by

·                   not standing or sitting in their place

·                   not contradicting their words

·                   not  saying in a debate “my parent is right, i.e. sitting in judgment of them

·                   feeding  and dressing  them in their infirmity

·                   servicing their personal needs

·                   rising in their presence [Maimonides, Mamrim, 6:3.

 

Should a parent command a child to disobey Torah law, the child must respectfully refuse the order. Mamrim 6: 12.  Therefore, the parent may not require of the child to think as the parent thinks or to act as the parent prefers.  Every Jew may stake their own claim to Torah.

 

bPesahim 50a refes to the place/location/heftsa/object of a custom and not the person/family/gavra  of a custom.  Therefore, if a custom violates an explicit law, one would reject the custom. While popular and seen as binding on the Orthodox street,  family customs are folkways  and not norms; the claim that a custom is a vow does not appear in the canon for good reason.  Real vows require verbal articulation.  Leviticus 5:4 and Maimonides,Shavu’ot  1:1.

 

Therefore, family kosher practices which are not explicitly required by the Oral Law and do not provide protection from disregarding laws, may reconsidered.

 

5.             If we can may add new forms of piety, like daily Kaddish for mourners and the kappores atonement ritual, why may we not add to the kashrut rules to make Jews more religious?

 

Orthodox street culture does not oppose innovation.  Generally, innovations that have a hoary history are [mis]taken to generate holiness; according to canonical Judaism, holiness is generated only by observing the commandments.  This culture argues that all change is forbidden.  [Responsa Hatam Sofer 1:28, s.v. ve-od.] Kaddish is not a forbidden ritual, and is attested in Soferim 21:5.  Kapparot is indeed a problematic ritual, as Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 605:1 argues that one should avoid kapparot and R. Isserles argues that Gaonim and latter day sages have approved what the street does.

 

 R. Caro [author of Shulhan Arukh] views the kapparot as Amorite usage. Bet Yosef, ad. loc.,

because the practice claims that the rite actually atones; R. Isserles’ Judaism sees the force of great rabbis and the acceptance of the Orthodox street to be normative.   Maimonides, Positive Command 87, sees the temura as carrying the sanctity status of its antecedent offering. Therefore, the atonement bird would carry the guilt of the celebrant without relieving the guilt. Therefore, the popular formula did not reflect learned opinion but popular mystical usage. Magen Avraham., supra.

 

Customs that violate respect for people would therefore be illegitimate. When confronted with non-glatt certainly kosher meat and offending another person who does not observe glatt standard, the custom’s social damage to the dignity of the other must be waived in order to show respect for the human carrier of God’s image.

 

6.             Being extra strict is the traditional antidote for the moral and religious decline of the generations. Therefore, being extra strict compensates for the moral and religious contamination of a debased society.

 

The generations may on occasion decline. bSota 49a-b claims that R. Pinehas b. Yair observed such a decline. However, bRosh ha-Shanah 25b notes that the inferior Jephtah had the same authority in his time as did the superior Samuel in his time.  Therefore, human free will and genetic capacity for good and evil does not change because God’s Torah does not change.  See Menachem Kellner, Maimonides on “The Decline of the Generations” and Rabbinic Authority (Albany: SUNY, 1996).

 

This un-Traditional doctrine is problematic on three accounts:

·                   It assumes that, like Christianity, Judaism posits a diminished capacity for good on the part of humankind and humankind is held accountable.

·                   As the polar opposite of Reform, whose sense of progress negates the commandments, the decline of the generations requires newer and more demanding commandments

·                   The most compelling flaw of this doctrine is its claim that rabbis, without he collegiality of a vetting Sanhredrin, read, apply and enforce through intuition the views of God. In authentic Orthodox Judaism, exegetic conversation trumps apodictic declaration when determining normative practice and belief.

 

7.             The intelligent Orthodox Jew realizes that there are holy people with higher religious standards, who are not content with letter of the law mediocrity.  Those who object to these higher standards have issues with others being better Jews than they are.  Therefore, being upset with those who refuse to accept lower kosher standards exhibit religious immaturity.

 

The Orthodox community intersects with and reacts to the mandates of the Orthodox canon. On one hand,  every human reading of a text intersects the reader and the writer, resulting in an inevitable subjectivity in the resultant reading. The doctrine of Torah from Heaven requires that the law and its principles must be addressed in an open conversation.

 

One becomes holy only by conforming to the covenant. Being ritually extra strict at the expense of interpersonal relationships, i.e., increasing peace between people, which is an appropriate venue for being extra strict, indicates that the Jewish religious compass is not working correctly.

 

The assumption that letter of the law piety reflects religious mediocrity is flawed. According to Abbaye, one who fulfills the words/norms of the Sages, i.e., the mandated precepts of the Oral Torah, is called “holy.”  Viewing holiness as a Biblical, ontic reality, Rava views those who do not observe the norms of the Sages as neither holy nor wicked; rather, one should sanctify oneself by obeying God, by permitting to oneself only that which is permitted by law.  bYevamot 20a.

 

The popular reading of this passage, that  one becomes holy  by restricting the permitted, i.e., being extra strict appears in the Medieval commentary of Rashi, Supra.,  s.v. ve-af. The Mehrasha, supra., associates this extra strictness with the nazirite  holiness.  Tradition however frowns upon the undertaking of the nazirite vow.

 

 Observant laypeople must be trusted unless there is reason to question the person’s bona fides.   Iggrot Moshe Orah Hayyim 1:32.   A stringency that serves the function of preventing a prohibition may be situationally appropriate.  Semi observant people whom we know to  be honest  may be trusted based upon  intuition.    Supra., Yoreh  Deah 1:54. 

 
  Therefore, when the mandatory respect for the other conflicts with non-commanded discretionary folkways, usages or customs, the conflict is always to be resolved in favor of human dignity.