Why do we do what we do?

Situation: In a fifth grade class at a community day school, a child, Emily, asks me about my kosher observance. I want to emphasize that my Kosher observance is a combination of (1) wanting to carry on a tradition my ancestors have done for thousands of years; (2) I want to participate in an observance that Jews around the world observe; (3) I agree with what I take to be the big ideas behind the observance; and (4) I observe a level of Kashrut that is personally meaningful to me. I think that my example of why and how I keep kosher is in keeping with Kaplan's belief that rituals/observances should not be presented as solely "do what works for you," nor should it be "do this for the sake ofJewish continuity." There must be a balance of connectedness and personal fulfillment, which arises out of honestly examining these rituals.

EMILY: Morah Ruth, do you keep kosher?
ME: Yes, actually I do. But I am a vegetarian so that makes it easier for me to eat kosher foods.
EMILY: Why do people keep kosher, or not keep kosher? And what does it even mean to keep kosher?
ME: Well, for me, it's a way of honoring a tradition that my ancestors practiced. When I think about not eating certain foods, and having rules about what I eat, I can imagine what my ancestors did, what they thought, and that's very powerful to think about. Second, I think the big ideas behind keeping kosher make a lot of sense. It's important to think about what we eat; after all, this is what we are putting into our bodies. Have you ever heard the phrase "you are what you eat?" It's good to know what nourishment is going into our bodies. Another big idea behind keeping kosher is having compassion for animals; having respect for the living being that is being killed to provide you with nourishment. I like that Jewish values call on us to: (1) Think about what is going into our bodies; (2) Have respect for animals that are being killed for nourishment.

As for your question, "what does it mean to keep kosher?" I think keeping kosher has many meanings to many different people. The idea of eating certain things and not eating other things comes from the Torah, where it says that you shouldn't cook a kid in its mother's milk. I know that there are a lot of laws, or Halakhah, that further define what it means to keep kosher. A lot of rabbis say that this means many different things, such as specifying how you kill an animal, separating when you eat milk and meat, keeping a separate set of dishes, etc. That's why there are different kosher symbols on food. I really wanted to keep kosher as my New Year's resolution, and as part of my Jewish growth, how I identify myself as a Jewish person, and how I connect to my ancestors. Do you remember the reform rabbi who came into our school? She said that keeping kosher to her meant supporting organic, cage-free meat. She thought that this big idea of having respect for animals was important, and she believes this means treating them well while alive, rather than focusing on how it is killed. I respect her for thinking about how she wants to have respect for animals, and for thinking about the food going into her body, even if her version of kosher might not fall under the Halakhic definition. My version of kosher might not either, although not eating meat makes it easier. Still, I respect someone who keeps a different standard of kosher, and at the same time, I wouldn't expect them to abide by my level of kosher.
EMILY: Do you think all Jews should keep kosher?
ME: Part of why I like keeping kosher, and why it's special to me, is because it's something that Jews around the world do. It makes me feel like we have shared goals and shared traditions. I don't think that all Jews need to keep kosher, but I hope that all Jews respect and understand why someone else would choose to do so. I think Jews who are interested in what it means to keep kosher should explore it: why we keep kosher, what the big ideas behind it are, what it takes to keep kosher, and the different ways different Jews keep kosher. If you are asking if you should keep kosher, I would tell you to learn about it, talk to people--both people who keep kosher and people who don't--and really think about if it is something you want to do. There are also other things to consider: does your family keep kosher? Does your community keep kosher? I know a woman who did not keep kosher in her home, but then she had a new roommate who wanted to keep kosher, so together, they koshered the kitchen, got new plates, and now the entire kitchen only has kosher food. It might not always be as simple as your personal decision to keep kosher, but this is a great example of how the Jewish community might approach keeping kosher: honoring it as an important Jewish tradition, keeping an open mind to its interpretations and how people carry it out, and be both accommodating to Members of the Tribe who choose to keep kosher, and non-judgmental to those who choose not to.