David Kraemer’s “Jewish Eating”

David Kraemer, long time Jewish Theological Seminary Professor of Rabbinics and Talmud, author of six scholarly works, published his seventh, “Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages” in 2007. It was my weekend reading.

Now, I (happily) live in a house with a kosher kitchen and, when I am outside of my house, I ignore virtually all rules of kashrut. And I believe that is just fine, and that no supernatural being cares what I eat. Having a kosher house is (a) interesting, (b) allows your kosher-eating friends to eat with you, (c) and sets a standard for the house as being “Jewish”. It also is not at all limiting with regard to the quality of food you eat at home.

On the other hand, keeping kosher outside the home makes it difficult to eat at the homes of others or to share in foods that they may wish to share with you. It does limit your choices at restaurants (and if you are very strict, keeps you out of all restaurants but kosher ones), and it sets you apart.

I find the “setting you apart” aspect of keeping kosher to be very troubling; for traditional Jews, however, “setting you apart” is a positive, not a negative. And this foreshadows a significant difference in one’s approach to the world at large.

David Kraemer goes through the history of Jewish (i.e., kosher) eating – biblical time, first and second temple time, after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, throughout the Middle Ages, and in the 17th century on forward.

The topics are perhaps the obvious ones: what foods are unkosher, what can you eat with what, what are the time spans between meat and dairy dishes, what about pots and pans and plates and knives, forks and spoons, how about blessings, and of course eating with others. (If you don’t keep kosher, you probably wouldn’t recognize these as the topics to be discussed in connection with kashrut, but those they are.)

Well, it turns out that things aren’t as simple as they might appear (surprise!). Concepts of kosher have varied over the years. And very little was set in stone.

In the biblical period, it appears that only the biblical injunctions against forbidden foods were followed (and by what percentage of the Jewish/Israelite population, it is impossible to know). Everything else grew gradually. Mixing meat and dairy came later – and there wasn’t much meat to mix, in any event. Separate pots and dishes for meat and dairy came much later – before questions over the proper dishes dealt with cleanliness or taste (could you wipe the meat off before you cooked the cheese, or was the pot clean enough that the taste of the meat would not remain).

The issues of eating with non-Jews also changed over time – and was the result of economic conditions as much as anything else. (When economic conditions fostered close business relations between Jews and others, restrictions tended to be loosened.) But this was always a focus of Jewish authorities. Drinking wine with gentiles? It would lead to rape. Eating with gentiles? Even if food didn’t lead to rape, it would lead to social and eventually (who knows) to other forms of intercourse.

And then there is the question of technology. Today, “non-kosher” elements in standard foods (like bugs in the lettuce) are easier to locate, and easier to eradicate. Thus, particularly as you have competing kashrut standards, the restrictions grow and grow and grow.

So, if you keep kosher today and follow the restrictions of the most severe authorities, keep in mind that you are not necessarily following tradition. And if you, like me, feel that anything that keeps a Jew from being able to have normal social intercourse with non-Jews is wrong, keep in mind that you are going against one of the historic reasons for kashrut standards.

Nothing is as simple as it appears.


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