The other day, I was visiting an older friend who is already a grandfather. Two of his grandchildren scampered into his house and went straight for the fridge – an almost Pavlovian response that likely happens in many of the warm, welcoming homes of the grandparents I know. Then, I overheard the two boys, aged five and seven, assessing the terrain with their grandmother: “That’s pareve… that’s milk,” they said. That’s amazing, I thought.
What a powerful moment that was. Here were kids who were hungry, craving dessert, arriving at indulgence central. Yet, having recently eaten meat, they easily, even naturally, skipped over any milk desserts in the fridge – noting them, cataloguing them, perhaps thinking of consuming them another day, but zeroing in on what was permitted to them: the pareve (non-dairy, non-meat) desserts. It was an extraordinary homage to Jewish civilization. They both asserted impulse control and entered into an easy, natural, but meaningful conversation with generations of Jews before them – going all the way back to the Torah, which first laid out the laws of kashrut.
‘THESE KIDS ARE AMONG THE FIRST JEWISH KIDS IN MILLENNIA TO BE RAISED WITHOUT JEWISH DOUBLETHINK’
That one interaction demonstrated the spiritual, historical and moral power of being traditional. They are Orthodox kids who live in Jerusalem – two essential forces that help explained how literate they are and how natural their identity is. Confirming the famous Soviet Jewish Refusenik Natan Sharansky’s teaching, these kids are among the first Jewish kids in millennia to be raised without Jewish doublethink. They are in a casual, non-neurotic relationship with God and the Jewish People, because that’s their norm – no one mocks them or makes them feel strange. As they sifted between the milchik and pareve desserts, they had no jealous thoughts about Christopher or Patrick, their neighbours who have no such dietary restrictions.
They wore their kashrut as easily as their kippot, their shorts, their shirts and their sandals. Their Jewishness, as the secular Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua notes, was “their skin,” not their garment; something fixed and permanent, not something transient and only mobilized when convenient. That natural relationship with ritual opens them up to a deeper, spiritual journey, where, as they get older, they can focus on the meaning behind these actions, rather than being stuck making efforts to do the actions, hide the actions or explain the weirdness of these actions to outsiders.
The historical lesson was also powerful. Beyond touching base with acts their great-grandparents did – beyond avoiding my negative thoughts that I avoid ham and bacon because my great-grandfather would rather have died than eaten them – they swim in Jewish history, perpetuating traditions with ease. In an age of immediate gratification that encourages meaninglessness, these kids already feel part of something bigger than themselves – the key to finding purpose in life.
The moral lesson was also clear. Of course there are good people who don’t keep kosher. Of course there are many ways to learn how to be a good person. But one easy way is to have humility, to acknowledge something greater than your own needs, impulses and desires. Keeping kosher exercises our moral muscles, pausing, assessing, deliberating and drawing conclusions, before giving into one of our most basic human impulses – the desire to eat. It also takes our animal-like act of eating and humanizes it, consecrates it and makes it special.
The cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am famously said that “more than the Jewish People keeping the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish People.” Those who see all these restrictions as restrictions, as burdens, don’t get it. Those of us who follow the “thou shalt nots” (rather than just the “thou shalts”) of Judaism, realize that these acts of self-control are among the freest, most liberating and most meaningful things we do in a week – well aware that the secular world imposes far more burdens, restrictions and demands on us, which we simply treat as “normal.”