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My son wants to have his cake and eat it when it comes to keeping kosher

Rabbi, I have a problem

    Question: My teenage son says he is willing to keep kosher up to a point but thinks it is ridiculous that he can’t have ice-cream after chicken and that this is an example of a pointless rule which is difficult to stomach.

    Rabbi Naftali Brawer

    Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

    Why is refraining from eating dairy ice cream after eating chicken any more ridiculous than not eating a cheeseburger? If we are to apply rational thinking to the laws of kashrut, none of it makes intrinsic sense. While various reasons have been suggested, ranging from the practical (it is healthier) to the mystical (non-kosher contains impure forces), the Bible itself does not ascribe a reason to its dietary laws. The observant Jew obeys them in the same way he obeys other trans-rational mitzvot such as the laws of mikveh.

    The real question is not whether kashrut is rational or not but rather why do the rabbis add elements that are clearly absent from the Bible?

    The Bible states only that one must not cook a kid in its mother's milk. There is nothing about waiting between milk and meat, maintaining separate pots and pans, and there is no mention of prohibiting chicken and milk, only red meat. So it is understandable that your son wants to know why he must wait a prescribed period between eating chicken and ice cream.

    The answer is that the rabbis were concerned that one might easily mistake fowl for meat and so extended the Torah's prohibition to include it as well. As for waiting between meat and milk, two reasons are given; one is that the meat leaves a fatty residue for a while, and the other reason is that the rabbis were concerned that meat might get caught between one's teeth.

    While in this case the rabbis have made religious observance more demanding than it would appear in the Bible, in other cases they do the opposite. For example the Bible declares that no fire may be lit in a Jewish home over the Shabbat. The rabbis interpret this to mean that a Jew must not ignite a fire on the Shabbat but fire ignited before Shabbat is permissible. This interpretation allows us to have warm food and heated homes on Shabbat. Our Judaism is rabbinic Judaism and it is pointless to try and differentiate it from the simple reading of the Bible. There were those who attempted to do just that; the Sadducees and later the Karaites, but both were rendered beyond the pale of mainstream Judaism.

    As for the inconvenience of having to wait for an ice cream, I've experienced the same frustration as a kid. But learning to delay gratification is not without its uses.

    Rabbi Jonathan Romain

    Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

    If logic were the only criterion, then your son has a strong point. After all, the law about not mixing foods derives from the biblical command not to kill a kid in its mother's milk - which applies to a very specific situation, yet has been expanded in rabbinic literature beyond recognition to all meat and meat products.

    As for chicken, that is fowl and could have been exempted from the rabbinic rule, but it was put in the meat category.

    This is one of the reasons that Reform Judaism insists that we should not follow past rules blindly, but make informed choices. Our synagogues tend to keep kosher so that all Jews entering can feel comfortable eating in them, but we allow domestic practice to vary according to individual conscience. Thus some will abstain from the forbidden foods specifically identified in the Bible (eg pork), but obtain permitted meat from ordinary shops; others will only eat koshered meat, but not separate milk and meat dishes; or they will separate but not have different sets of crockery; or they will do that, but buy foods that are intrinsically kosher (eg sugar) without requiring them to have kosher labels.

    Perhaps just as important as what we do is why we do it. For some, it is law commanded by God. For others, it is tradition, sanctified by time. There are those who cite the hygienic aspects of kashrut, while others speak of its effect in making us aware of the world, whether its benefits or its fragile state or our dependency on it.

    For me personally, the most compelling aspect is how kashrut serves as a daily identification - what we eat bleary-eyed in the morning, over a rushed lunch at work and later in the evening reminding us of our identity as Jews and of the values we are to live by.

    Share your perspective with your son, be open rather than confrontational, and do not be upset that he is flexing his religious muscles. Every rabbi tells bar/batmitzvah pupils that coming of age means questioning tradition and finding their own relationship with it. The trick is not to leave it at the objection stage, but find answers; and even if they do not come immediately, then at least leave the door open to them. Remember that what he does now will differ from what happens when he is 25 or 45.

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