I f you think your refined Jewish soul isn’t influenced by what you eat, think again. Every time the Torah speaks of kashrus, it always includes additional words pertaining to the concepts of holiness and elevation. Because you really are what you eat.

“And the rabbit, because it chews its cud and does not have a cloven hoof, it is tamei… and the pig, because it has a cloven hoof… it is tamei….” (Vayikra 11:7–8).

These two pesukim, selected from the Torah portion that spreads out a chart of the animal kingdom and classifies the various species as permissible or forbidden food sources, lay the underpinnings for the mitzvah known as kashrus.

Yet the typical member of modern Western society is not comfortable with this mitzvah. “Come on,” he says. “You want to tell me that eating shrimp keeps me from being a good person? Avoiding pepperoni pizza is going to make me more of a mensch? My Jewish identity depends on these ancient laws and rituals that just imprison the human spirit? Shouldn’t religion dwell on loftier matters than what’s for dinner? Isn’t it true that man is not defiled by what enters his mouth, but rather by what comes out?”

These are the basic questions that people of our modern, enlightened era ask, but in fact these questions are as ancient as the Torah itself, and Chazal address them in their commentaries on the Torah.

Midrash Tanchuma (Shemini, 7) asks, “What does HaKadosh Baruch Hu care if the Jewish People eat without shechitah? Or whether they slaughter an animal by cutting its throat or its thigh?”

What does He care, indeed?

Before answering this philosophical question, it should be noted that every time the Torah speaks of kashrus, there are an additional few words pertaining to the concepts of holiness and elevation. That is to say, the Torah itself seems to be aware of the question and offers a clue to the answer. Apparently, in the Torah’s view, there is indeed a connection between what goes into a person’s mouth and the formation of his character. In our parshah, for example, after discussing the pure and impure species of wild and domesticated animals, birds, and vermin, the Torah ends the passage with the pasuk, “For I am Hashem, Who brings you up from the land of Egypt to be G-d to you, and you shall be holy, for I am holy” (11:45).

Rashi comments, “[Why is it that] in all the other passages it says ‘I brought you out,’ and here it says ‘Who brought you up’? The school of Rabi Yishmael taught, ‘If I had brought Yisrael up from Egypt only so that they shouldn’t defile themselves with vermin like the other nations, that would be sufficient.’ ”

To fill out the picture, let us bring in another pasuk that shows an additional aspect of the mitzvah of kashrus: “To distinguish between the tamei and the tahor, and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten” (47).

We see, then, that elevation (“Who brought you up”) and awareness of distinctions (“to distinguish between…”) are the salient points of this mitzvah. And now let us add the Midrash’s answer to the question cited above: “What does HaKadosh Baruch Hu care?” The answer is, “In order to purify man.”

Contrary to popular opinion, the Torah says that what we put into our mouths does have an influence on our character, our awareness, and our Jewish identity.

What could this influence be, and how could there be such an influence?

If we study the division of the animal kingdom into permissible and forbidden species, we find that it is linked to the physical structure of the animal in question. The species deemed tahor are those that chew their cud and have a split hoof, and these physical characteristics go along with certain behavioral characteristics. Indeed, they are indicators of those very behavioral characteristics.

The animals we are permitted to use as food sources all behave according to one fundamental principle: Our meat (and eggs and milk, as well) is to come from species that do not display the cruelty that typifies the animal world, and it is to be slaughtered by the method of shechitah, and not simply killed by methods that show no regard for the animal’s instincts. In addition, we must make sure that the blood has been properly removed, for “the blood is the life force,” and this not for our consumption. All this is meant to elevate the human soul and heighten its awareness of the quality of mercy. This approach to our food, day after day, impresses upon a person constantly that he cannot dominate the animal world without restriction.

Judaism teaches that man can access spiritual elevation in every area of life. What’s for dinner is a matter of no consequence only if those seated at the table are people of no consequence. In a Jewish home, where people thank Hashem before and after eating, and they fulfill the injunction to speak divrei Torah at the meal, eating is no trivial pursuit. It is one more way of making human life holy.

Samuel Dresner, a Conservative rabbi who was credited with increasing attention to Jewish traditions and encouraged his community members to keep kosher, wrote that “in eating a slice of bread we can discover G-d; in drinking a cup of wine we can sanctify the Sabbath; in preparing a piece of meat we can learn something of the reverence of life” (quoted in Eight Questions People Ask about Judaism by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin).

Furthermore, kashrus turns out to be an amazing recipe for increasing and preserving the Jewish identity of the individual, and an unconventional weapon against assimilation. Torah-observant author Herman Wouk had the following to say about kashrus observance:

“There is no blinking the fact that today following the Hebrew diet takes effort for anyone who is not a recluse. The eating habits of the majority confront one everywhere: in restaurants, in trains and planes, at the homes of friends. Holding to the diet calls first of all for clarity of purpose, then some willpower, and certainly an elastic sense of humor, to survive and return the venerable comedy on the subject… The Jew who travels undergoes inconvenience, and with it a forcible reminder of who he is and what his home ties are. There is no doubt that the food laws work. They are social instruments for keeping the Jewish nation alive, and psychological instruments for preserving the identity of individuals. The essential question, the only one that the whole discussion tends to, is first whether Judaism is worth preserving; and second, whether any practical means of survival exist for it except its law.” (Herman Wouk, This Is My G-d)

And that last question is the big one facing Jewry in modern times. The answer is howling in the wind. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 656)