Sign In Forgot Password

An Anachronism to Live By - A sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning

10/03/2023 01:49:15 PM


Bruce Alpert

Terri and I own a lovely set of Lenox china for which we registered at Macy’s when we got married thirty-seven years ago.  The plates, cups, saucers and serving dishes are all tastefully displayed in the mahogany china cabinet that once belonged to my grandmother.  And not one of those pieces has ever held a morsel of food.

For the first few years of our marriage, that china remained boxed and stored until we had a suitable space for it.  That came in 1993 when we moved into our home of now thirty years.  But the reason we didn't use it in the years immediately following is different: I had it in mind that one day we would keep kosher and I didn't want to spoil our most expensive dinnerware in the meanwhile.

We started keeping kosher some time after Rachel was born in 1996.  I met with my rabbi, Rabbi Sommer whom many of you know, and discussed the particulars of making a kitchen kosher.  It involved a lot of sorting and scouring and eventually boiling pots and pans and flatware and utensils.  My plan was to keep a kosher home but eat whatever I wanted outside.  Like they say of war, my plan didn't survive the first battle. I remember going to a burger restaurant with friends just days after kashering my kitchen and ordering a turkey rather than a beef burger on the reasoning that it was a lesser infringement of kashrut.  That is the last time I willfully consumed any sort of meat that wasn't kosher.

One learns many things when keeping kosher: details about cheese-making, the anatomy of various types of fish, the practical realities of wine production.  But for me, the two most important things I learned were forgiveness and compromise.  To my mind, these are the essential skills one needs in order to keep kosher. 

Compromise I learned by facing the myriad gray areas that keeping kosher presents.  One of the fundamental principles of kashrut is the separation of milk and meat.  People who keep kosher typically have separate pots, pans, plates and flatware for each of these.  But exactly how far must one go in keeping them apart?  Can I use the same pepper mill to season a chicken one day and a vegetable lasagna the next?  Can I use the same oven when cooking them?  Where can I put the leftovers in the fridge?  I'm always amused when a guest will ask me where they can throw something out; essentially wondering whether I separate my milk garbage from my meat garbage.  The fear of mixing things that should not be mixed can really make you crazy.

Ultimately this fear is a reflection of a bigger compromise that the decision to keep kosher requires, namely just how kosher do I want to be?  Am I going to require kosher certification on anything I bring into my home, or will I rely on label reading and my own judgment?  Am I going to continue to drink that Chardonnay I've always enjoyed, or do I have to find a new one that has been cooked lest a non-observant Jew had some contact with it?  What about hard cheeses?  Soft cheeses?  And what am I going to do outside the home?  You come to realize that the decision to keep kosher is not a binary choice, but a series of decisions based on how far you want to take this practice.  In truth, it cannot be otherwise.  Kashrut affects every morsel of food you consume, and while its practice eventually becomes second nature, its consequences are always with you in the form of the foods you eat and the foods you don’t eat.  Hence the compromise between the platonic - or maybe I should say rabbinic - ideal of kashrut, and the day-to-day reality of keeping kosher.

But beyond the art of compromise, the other thing kashrut taught me is forgiveness.  Well I remember the day I made a big pot of rice pilaf as a side dish for our chicken dinner.  The pilaf itself was pareve - that is to say, neither milk nor meat - but it was cooked in a meat pot.  Then Terri plunged a dairy fork into the pot and I went crazy.  I don’t remember how the fight that ensued ended, but I do know this: I was wrong.  Keeping a kosher kitchen has its own set of pitfalls, but fundamentally, they are no different than any other kitchen disaster; that is to say, they can easily be remedied with a little work.  But with a kashrut mistake, one can quickly blow the whole thing out of proportion.  In your mind, an error that requires nothing more than dousing a fork in boiling water somehow becomes an existential crisis.  

But no one decides to keep kosher in order to plunge one’s family into endless strife over flatware.  This is particularly true in a case like mine, where I was the one who really wanted a kosher home and my family was going along in loving support. In such cases, you have to see the mistakes as mistakes and not surreptitious rebellions against religious tyranny.  And so you have to forgive your loved ones’ mistakes, as they most assuredly bear the burden of supporting you in your religious journey.

So as it turns out, keeping kosher has taught me a lot; not just about its laws, but also about life.  I’ve learned that the ideal is unattainable and that - with something so fundamental as food - you have to be prepared to compromise with reality.  And I have learned that a commitment like that required to keep a kosher home impacts people in different, often contradictory ways and that you must address those contradictions with patience, understanding and forgiveness.

That said, I didn’t start keeping a kosher home because I thought doing so would teach me valuable lessons about interpersonal relations and the like.  From time to time, people would ask me why I decided to keep kosher.  This proved a harder question to answer than one might expect.  Many people keep kosher homes because they grew up that way, and they want their family to feel welcome in theirs.  Others talk about a sense of connection or shared history as their impetus to this lifestyle.  And still others speak of it as a means of self-discipline, of controlling one's appetites.

I used to use that last one myself quite a bit.  But even as I did, it always felt like a rationalization to me.  Deep down, I believed, we keep kosher for what is fundamentally an intuitive impulse: we feel ourselves commanded by God to do so.  If anyone gives you a different answer, it’s because they find it too embarrassing to admit the real reason: that they feel the yoke of heaven pressing down upon them.  Why else would one take on a lifestyle that so severely limits one’s dietary choices and so clearly causes one to stand out from everyone else?

There is more than an element of truth to this answer.  But looking back at it, I think I got cause and effect reversed.  I didn’t really feel that God was commanding me to keep kosher.  Rather, I kept kosher because I really wanted to feel that God was commanding me.  Allow me to explain.

In those years in which our Lenox china was sitting in boxes, my Jewish identity was continually growing.  Having no formal Jewish education, I taught myself some rudimentary Hebrew and I learned some basic prayers.  I read books about Jewish theology and history.  We joined the synagogue and I became active in its ritual activities committee and participated in its adult education programs.  

Looking back on it, I think my desire to make a kosher home had to do with wanting to take on something whose size and gravity had the effect of pushing me deeper into my Jewish identity. I wanted Judaism to become a bigger part of my life.  I wanted to be seriously Jewish and I saw kashrut as the path to being so.

It worked.  Keeping kosher isn’t something you can keep secret for very long - at least not among family and friends.  And once they know you keep kosher, they look at you differently.  Frankly, they look at you like you’ve lost your mind.  Or they figure it’s a phase out of which you will grow.  Only time will disabuse them - and yourself - of that notion.  But in my case it did more.  For me, kashrut was the seed from which my Judaism blossomed.  Because kashrut affects your life so profoundly, it both allowed and compelled me to define myself as a serious Jew.  And that has led my life in the most amazing directions: to rabbinical school, to the fellowship of brilliant teachers, colleagues and friends with whom I share this path, to this wonderful congregation that has given me an abiding sense of purpose to my life.

When I started keeping kosher, I wasn’t a particularly prayerful Jew.  Now you will find me most mornings wrapped in tallit and tefillin saying my morning prayers.  When I started keeping kosher, I had yet to visit Israel.  Now I go back regularly; I have friends there and I share their concerns almost as if they were my own.  When I started keeping kosher, learning Torah was a hobby.  Now it is the centerpiece of my life.  When I started keeping kosher, I did so because I wanted to be seen as a serious Jew.  Now I believe that I am.

It might seem ironic then, that as time has gone by, I’ve grown more lenient in my observance of kashrut.  I don’t sweat some of the details like I used to.  I don’t worry if I roast a chicken on Friday in the same oven in which I baked a quiche on Thursday.  I don’t worry if the leftovers from both meals occupy the same shelf in my fridge.  And I certainly don’t lose my cool when a dairy fork gets plunged into a pot of rice pilaf.  Rather, I have come to see kashrut as existing in a context.  And for me, the context in which I keep kosher is that of a serious Jew.  

But kashrut is also something else for me.  It’s an anachronism.  While I know a lot of people who do keep kosher, only a handful of them live within a hundred miles of me.  The nearest place for me to buy kosher chicken is 25 miles away.  I have to go even further if I want a steak.  If I lived in New York or Jerusalem, I have little doubt my own practices around kashrut would be different.  Our communities impact our behavior.  And in the case of kashrut, my behavior is anachronistic.  It is, quite simply, out of step with almost everyone else with whom I associate regularly.

Which brings me back to our china.  I’ve explained why we never used it before we started keeping kosher.  And the twenty-five years since?  Well, the truth is, for us at least, fine china has become what kashrut is for so many Jews: an anachronism.  I love making grand Shabbat dinners with a salad course, a fish course, and maybe even a soup before I bring out the traditional Shabbat roast chicken.  But we eat it in the kitchen where everything is easy to serve up and bus away.  We just aren’t that formal anymore. 

Perhaps with tablecloths and china, perhaps eaten in the dining room rather than the kitchen where we ate all our other meals, my Shabbat dinners would have been even more special.  But this much I know.  My kids know that roast chicken requires a non-dairy dessert, like babka.  They know the blessings before the meal and the table songs after.  And each of them can lead Birkat HaMazon - the grace after the meals - in all its joyous, tuneful beauty.  If I have taken a somewhat liberal approach to kashrut, I have also taken one that is living and sustaining for my family.  Kashrut may be an anachronism everywhere else.  But in our home, its part of our identity.

This is a synagogue.  It is not a museum. It must never become a museum.  It cannot become a place where we perform anachronistic rites and rituals that are passively witnessed or patiently endured.   It has to be a place where Judaism inspires us to live as Jews. That is why I have rewritten our siddur to make our Friday night and Saturday morning services both concise and almost entirely participatory.  That is why every week we don’t just read Torah, we discuss it, we argue about it, we puzzle over it so that we can bring its message into our daily lives.  That is why we have started showing movies each month that get us thinking about Jewish questions. That is why I have led two synagogue trips to Israel and will soon start to plan a third.  That is why I try to teach classes that speak to the Jewish heart by way of the Jewish mind.  And that is why, every few weeks we gather together to share a meal that has been defined by who we are.

Perhaps my description of kashrut has not inspired you to take up this particular mitzvah.  But I hope my discussion of how kashrut has shaped my life - how it has taught me to compromise for the sake of peace, to forgive for the sake of love, and particularly to live a more Jewish life for the sake of my own soul - will encourage you to see the subtlety, the sympathy and the humanity that every mitzvah has the potential to foster in us.  And I hope that will encourage you to ask the question I was asking of myself when I started scouring and scrubbing and boiling all those pots and pans so many years ago: namely, what kind of Jew do I want to be?

On this day of judgment, on this day of remembrance, no question can be more pressing.  And none can offer us so much possibility for good.

Sat, May 18 2024 10 Iyyar 5784