The foremost reason for observing the kosher dietary laws is that they are commanded by God in the Torah.
Commentators have inquired for centuries as to the rationale behind the meticulous regulations. Some speculate about health benefits. Others suggest moral lessons in terms of cultivating positive character traits. Kosher animals are herbivorous ruminants, not carnivorous. Birds of prey are banned. Some see in the prohibition of combining milk and meat an object lesson, awareness that the milk of the mother should be separated from the meat of the creature that has been slaughtered. Many suggest that the regimen of kashrut instills discipline in our lives. Maimonides’s Code of Jewish Law includes the kosher laws in “Sefer Kedusha” (the Book of Holiness). We deeply believe that we can introduce holiness into the world by sanctifying the most physical of activities.
Our people have sacrificed for their observance of kashrut over the years. Knowing that ultimately the laws are a Divine edict to be observed irrespective of our ability to fathom its meaning underscores our commitment over the centuries to these practices. Kashrut, along with our rigorous system of blessings before and after eating, reminds us that the world isn’t simply ours to use as we please. Our food is a gift. Living in this blessed time with tables of bounty, it is critical for us and for our children that there are rules and boundaries as to how we live in this world and benefit from its resources. Observing kosher laws compels us to be mindful, from the source of each ingredient to every step of its production.
Reflecting on the extravagance and self-indulgence that pervades the food industry and the serious attendant health consequences, I appreciate even more greatly our eternal Torah’s charge to practice discipline and moderation in this sphere. Finally, kashrut has played a major role in maintaining the Jewish people as a distinctive and holy nation throughout the millennia.
Kashrut needs a refinement toward food justice in today’s day and age. We need to align Biblical laws with contemporary ethics, lifestyle, and world population. I became vegan while living and working on a moshav in southern Israel in 2012. My concern was animal welfare and not wanting to inflict pain on sentient beings. I grew up in an Orthodox home, and I soon learned that Judaism — and laws of kashrut — do not oppose veganism. They even complement it.
Eating animals is permitted, not mandated: “For you have the urge to eat meat” (Deuteronomy 12:20). According to some rabbis, it is a “heiter dachuk” — insubstantial permission. However, the laws of “tza’ar ba’alei chaim,” the prohibition to cause unnecessary harm to an animal, are mandated.
These laws are regularly neglected in industrial farms. Animal welfare is not taken into consideration. Calves are separated from their mothers right after birth, male chicks and grown hens in the egg industry are prematurely killed, animals are confined in tiny cages. They still get kashrut certificates, yet they go against ethics and laws of animal welfare. Both Rambam (Maimonides) and Ramban (Nachmanides) claim that the pain of an animal — and the care of a mother for her offspring — are the same among humans and animals.
Furthermore, we now know that animal agriculture is not environmentally sustainable, creating around 18 percent of human-induced emissions worldwide. It is also impossible to better the lives of animals when so many people demand animal products daily. Our tradition connects us to the land and the seasons. “I have given you every plant yielding seed” (Genesis 1:29). We are/can be a light unto the nations with a legacy of protecting and preserving the world with compassion. Kashrut should be part of a set of ethics of living morally and sustainably and caring for the earth and its inhabitants.