Kosher — What Does it Mean?
You could say this piece is about a common Hebrew word with more than one important meaning. Actually, it’s about more than that — it’s a plea for us to think about the relationship between rituals and Ethics.
The word ‘kosher’ is most often associated with food. Our Torah (in Leviticus and other sources) discusses animals which may
(or nay not) be consumed, and the Rabbis constructed a far more elaborate structure of kashrut.
Lulav, Etrog, Sukkah, Tzitzit, Mezuzah parchment — all these things (and some others) figure into Rabbinic evaluations regarding something being acceptable (or unacceptable) for ritual use. A few examples: If the shriveled, hardened pitam has fallen off an etrog, it isn’t kosher. If a sukkah’s height exceeds a certain maximum or falls short of a certain minimum (stated in the Talmud) it’s not kosher. You get the idea — ‘kosher’ can be described as ‘proper’.
In the scroll of Esther, after the wicked Haman has been hanged, Esther and Mordecai still must enlist the king’s help in averting an impending massacre of the Jews throughout the kingdom. Esther pleads with king to issue a new edict which supersedes the original. The Hebrew of Chapter 8:5 is instructive. As Esther proposes her idea, she says this: If the idea is proper in the King’s eyes
וכשר הדבר בעיניו
If we opted for a slightly slangy translation, we might say: If His Majesty thinks the plan is kosher….
The point of this exploration is this — kosher isn’t only about menu items or even ritually prescribed dimensions. It’s about propriety; right and wrong. So now let’s get zoom in on someone in the news. His name is Shalom Rubashkin, former CEO of Agriprocessors. What this article is NOT about is the recent commutation of Rubashkin’s sentence. What the article IS about is what kosher really means. Rubashkin’s rap sheet is remarkable: numerous safety violations on the slaughtering floor, knowingly hiring underage undocumented workers, — Mr. Rubashkin was proven guilty of a big boxful of serious offenses. In terms of Jewish law, he earned the dubious distinction of becoming the face of an Orthodox Jew flagrantly ignoring the ethical demands made of law-abiding citizens. Sadder still — those who cheer his release know the sorry details of his behavior well enough. And his desecration of God’s name through these acts doesn’t seem to give his followers much pause.
Some real questions about what kosher means
Assume for the moment that you diligently try to keep the laws of kashrut. You’re eating at a kosher restaurant. Terrific food. You find out that the boss harasses the waitress who served your meal, or that he cheats workers out of their wages — shouldn’t that uncomfortable knowledge taint your enjoyment of your meal? If the ethical behavior of the CEO of a kosher meat processing plant is irrelevant, how can the kosher certification of that plant possess any spiritual worth?
Years ago Sharona and I were purchasing food up in Atlanta before Passover in a store which I won’t name. To our horror and embarrassment, the owner berated and humiliated his African American employees publicly — we thought we had stepped into a movie from a bygone era. We took our full grocery carts to the cashier and mumbled our apologies to the African American cashier — whose pained expression stays with me. And to my lasting shame we did not leave the store and those shopping carts behind while those racist rantings were happening. How can the certification found on the products in the carts make that food kosher — proper — for consumption if we or any other buyers could disconnect the ethical bankruptcy of the store owner from the merchandise?
Is kosher just about some logos or about pots and pans or about the delicate dried out end of an etrog or about how many strings are on the tzitzit or about the lettering on a mezuzah parchment — or does kosher point a larger picture of our interpersonal relationships? Food for thought…