“Jews don’t eat ham.”
Of the six hundred and thirteen Mitzvot in the Torah, this would probably be the first thing a Gentile would answer when asked to name one difference between Jews and non-Jews. At a recent interfaith breakfast sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the local UJA-Federation of Northern New Jersey, as the program began, the emcee invited everyone to enjoy the breakfast, but then joked, “While we are united, we are still divided somewhat. By that, I am referring to the Kosher food table in the back.”
What is it about Kashrut that makes us so different?
Certainly, Chazal have pondered a possible rationale for why certain animals are permitted and other animals are forbidden. For example, the Sefer HaChinuch suggests that the prohibited animals have harmful aspects known to Hashem. We have come through time to understand that there are valid medical reasons for not eating meats, like pork, or certain insects. But there are limits even to this reasoning. We have learned over the past few years from Mad Cow Disease that even permitted animals are not always safe.
Another possibility is that the Torah is trying to distinguish between predatory animals, which are forbidden, and prey, which are permitted. But, again, that distinction does not seem to work as well when trying to understand which Chagavim, grasshoppers, are permitted and which are prohibited.
The easiest answer is simply that the classifications are a Chok, a Mitzvah whose reason is unknown to us. But it is the absence of reasoning that is itself the answer to what about Kashrut makes Jews so very different.
Joseph Telushkin and Dennis Prager, in their book, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, offer a reason as to why not to reason with Kashrut. They explain that there is a common misconception regarding the ability to reason. People are quick to think that reasoning will lead to good; however, that is not the case. Reasoning is often a path to rationalizing, and by rationalizing we can end up doing something improper. Stealing from a hotel, for instance, which statistics report as an occurrence with one out of every three hotel customers, is a perfect example of how rationalizing can cause impropriety. “The hotel charges too much,” or “Everybody’s doing it,” people rationalize, despite the fact that these excuses by no means sanction theft. Even regarding tax evasion, “I pay enough already,” “Everybody’s doing it,” or even “I do enough for my country” are common rationalizations which people use in order to convince themselves to cheat.
If the Torah had, for example, listed non-Kosher food’s unhealthiness for its reason of prohibiting certain foods, the following reasoning would occur: “Because of modern technology and science, non-Kosher meats are no longer as unhealthy as they were six thousand years ago and can hence be deemed worthy of consumption by Jews.” People would rationalize that in a country where cows suffer from Mad Cow Disease, properly cooked pork is healthier than beef and it would therefore be religiously correct to eat pork. Since the health rationale is no longer valid, forbidden foods might have changed their status to permitted foods.
Rabbi Riskin points out that Adam and Eve used such reasoning to eat from the Eitz HaDaat despite God's commandment not to do so. The Torah tells us, “VaTeire HaIshah Ki Tov HaEitz LeMaachal VeChi Taavah Hu LaEinaim VeNechmad HaEitz LeHaskil,” “The woman perceived that the tree was good for eating, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a means to wisdom” (Bereishit 3:6). As a result of this reasoning, Eve proceeded to eat from the Eitz HaDaat, which did not turn out well.
Torah laws come from an authority higher than man's reasoning capabilities. Everyone would agree that committing murder, for example, would seem to be morally wrong and it is against man-made law. But people routinely commit murder for entirely logical reasons, like killings for honor in certain countries in Asia and Africa, killings out of revenge, killings by gangs, or killings in the name of religion. But the Torah takes that reasoning out of our hands when it says, “Lo Tirzach,” there is no acceptable rationale or reasoning to justify murder.
The purpose of the Kashrut laws is, as the Parasha tells us, to protect our bodies from impurity and to make ourselves holy, just as Hashem is holy. In the end, what makes us different from all other nations is that Jews hold themselves to God-given standards of behavior, even when it comes to the food we eat. This is what the Torah tells us at the end of the Parsha, that we must keep these laws in order to make ourselves holy and to make ourselves different. Being holy means adhering to a standard higher than one of our own making, even if we do not understand it.