Kosher Self-Identification

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG

The new new splash across our cultural landscape is the question of determining sexual identity. Not “sexual” as in sexual preference — that is so old hat —but rather, in terms of our gender, and the way in which we “self-identify.”

Are we male? Are we female? Both? Neither? Are we one on one day, and the other on another? Does our identity flow, shifting with our mood and life experiences? Or is it set, determined at birth? Is it solely a matter of choice? Does our anatomy play any role in our identity? Our personality?

Consider the famous duck test: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”

Does this age-old wisdom hold true when it comes to self-identification? Does this mean that a chicken has a better chance at being a duck than a cow does? Can it be a duck if doesn’t look like a duck, swim like a duck, or quack like a duck? If so, then does “being a duck” mean anything at all?

Speaking of ducks (or purple penguins), how about this question: Is it only humans that can self-identify?

In this week’s ParshahSh’mini — we learn about the distinction between kosher and non-kosher animals. Kosher animals — of the four-legged variety — can be identified by displaying two traits: (1) they ruminate, or chew their cud; and (2) they have split hooves. Both these traits must be present in order for us to know that the animal is kosher; if only one is present, we know that the animal is non-kosher, or treif.

In fact, what is the most non-kosher animal that you can think of? You probably thought of the pig; as pork as enjoyed the distinction of being the most quintessentially-treif food. Pigs, though, have split hooves — so they have one of the two kosher signs. They are just missing the second: they don’t chew their cud. Camels, on the other hand, chew their cud, but they don’t have split hooves. They are just as non-kosher as a pig.

(Some commentaries speculate that the pig’s notoriety can be explained by an important moral lesson. A pig’s “kosher” sign is on the outside; its sticks its feet out and says,”look at me, I’m kosher!” Meanwhile, on the inside, it isn’t kosher at all — it’s missing the internal kosher traits. Conversely, a camel doesn’t pretend to be kosher — its hooves are not split — even though it happily ruminates and thus enjoys a “kosher” trait on the inside.)

However, we are taught that we would be mistaken to view these two traits as characteristics that make an animal kosher. An animal is not kosher because it has these two signs; it is kosher because it is kosher. The two traits identified by the Torah are simply signs that allow us to identify an already kosher animal, and to distinguish it from a non-kosher one.

Because an animal’s kosher status is inherent, determined and decreed by G-d, and there is nothing that a kosher animal can do to become a non-kosher animal (other than suffer a fatal injury, be slaughtered improperly, or be cooked in milk); and nothing that a non-kosher animal can do to transform itself into a kosher animal. We were merely given some identifying features so that we can distinguish between the kosher ones and the non-kosher ones. For example, suppose we could somehow train a pig to ruminate. Its feet are already split. This would not make a pig kosher. Similarly, we could surgically alter a cow’s feet, or remove its tongue — and it would still be a kosher animal. We just wouldn’t know it (if we were aliens from another planet, and this was the first cow that we were exposed to).

It reminds me of the famous story where a citizen of the city of Chelm was visiting another city when a fire broke out. He noticed how the watchman blew on a loud horn, which summoned the fire-carriages, which promptly delivered gallons of water and effectively put out the fire. The Chelmite was so impressed: “I must bring home a horn like that!” he thought. Upon his return home, he excitedly gathered the townsfolk and, striking a match, set fire to a barn. When the barn was well-ablaze, the young man proudly blew on his horn…and didn’t understand when no fire-carriages raced to the scene, or when the barn — and several adjacent farmhouses — were burned to the ground.

The kosher signs alert us to the inherently kosher nature of an animal. Mimicking those signs does nothing to change the animal’s innate nature. A cow (with Mad Cow disease, presumably), might feel like a stork inside — but its hooves and rumination tell us that it remains as kosher as a cow.

Do we have a set of signs that we can rely upon to accurately self-identify?

How about as Jews? Are there some inescapable signs that reflect our Jewish identity?

Kabbalah teaches that every animal has a living soul; that every human has a human soul; but that every Jew has an additional spark of the Divine, a G-dly soul that both blesses and burdens us, and that commits us to our mission of being a light unto the nations, whether we like it or not. Does this special soul manifest itself in any visible traits or characteristics?

I’m not talking the Jewish nose here; I’m referring more to personality traits.

Maimonides (Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Isurei Biah, 19:17) lists three signs of members of the Jewish nation: (1) Modesty — sure, we may fool around, and dabble in all kinds of treif, but we don’t lose our capacity to blush; (2) Compassion — we feel for others; and I don’t mean political compassion, but rather actual compassion that we personally have for real people in our lives; and (3) Benevolence — we perform acts of kindness for others using our very own energy and resources. In theory, at least, these are the signs that identify the Jewish soul.

So how are we doing? Can you tell that we’re kosher?