To eat is to live – to keep our physical bodies alive. For without the body, there is nothing. No experience. No memory. No joy and no hardship.
But man, unlike animals, eats to live and to enjoy. So how should a Jew respond when he is challenged as to why he imposes upon himself not just ceremonies dedicated to the enjoyment of eating but even more to the limiting of what he can eat?
Of course, this is a false question. Understanding the rules of kashrut as a restriction is to miss the essential nature of creation and of our relationships with God and what it means to truly enjoy partaking of creation.
Jewish tradition holds that what gives meaning to food – no matter how beautiful the “presentation” – is the presence of God and Torah. Our rabbis teach that it is forbidden to enjoy anything of this world without a blessing. That is, to fail to engage the connection between the physical and the spiritual, the created to the Creator, is to reduce the experience of eating to mere consumption and to blur the distinction between man and animal.
We are more than physical beings. Our bodies are merely temporary shelters for our souls. That said, God, who created man “of the dust of the earth,” recognizes that man must eat to sustain his physical health. God created a biological being, one in need of physical nourishment. To make sure that the connection between the base need to eat and the holiness of our deeper natures is maintained, we observe the laws of kashrut.
The laws of kashrut are restrictions – but only in the sense that they are restrictions that enlarge us. Despite the weakness of our natures, despite our propensity for evil, there remains within us the possibility of redemption and renewal, of teshuvah. The laws of kashrut define God’s master plan of fusing body and soul within the reality of corporeal existence.
Eating is truly an expression of our essential natures – our physical nature and our spiritual nature. Only when we embrace both can eating be truly and completely ennobling.
The individual Jew observes the laws of kashrut as a spiritual act. But for his observance to be true he must place his trust not just in God but in the agencies that produce, regulate and attest to the food he eats. He must rely on the certification agencies that assure him the food he consumes and blesses is, in fact, kosher.
It wasn’t so very long ago that such trust was sadly misplaced. In his recently published book, Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food (Harvard University Press), Dr. Timothy D. Lytton, professor of law at Albany Law School, notes that kosher certification was not always as reliable as today. At the beginning of the last century, the kosher food industry was rife with fraud. The New York City Department of Markets estimated in 1925 that 40 percent of the meat sold as kosher in the city was, in fact, not kosher. Consumer groups and industry associations thought that figure to be too low and placed it between 50 and 65 percent.
Kosher certification suffered from the same financial incentives to cut corners that characterize private food-safety auditing.
The decisions, efforts and actions that brought about the reforms that allowed independent kosher certification agencies to establish uniform industry standards represent the heart of Dr. Lytton’s observations about the strengths of kosher certification and why it might be a model for improving the even greater failings in the governmental food certification process.
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The kosher food market is big business. Kosher foods generate more than $12 billion in annual sales. This market is comprised not only of observant Jews but also of health-conscious non-observant and non-Jewish consumers who like the idea that “kosher” certification speaks to our deep relationship with the food we eat.
Dr. Lytton suggests that the growing popularity of kosher food among non-observant Jews and non-Jews reflects a pervasive anxiety about the industrialization of the food supply. Not only does rabbinic supervision ensure a heightened degree of food purity, it also personalizes a vast, complex and globalized food production system.