Beyond Choice - To Eat or Not to Eat…


By Chana-Chaya Klein


As a person new to Jewish Law in the 1980’s I saw people who obviously could not control their food intake. Yet, they were clearly able to refrain from touching anything that was not kosher… even if they were “starving”.  I wondered how they did that. And if they could, why they did not do that with everything?


What makes it possible for the compulsive overeater who can’t leave food alone to stick to the laws of kashrut, no matter how hungry, how lonely, how tired, or how angry, no matter what?


I have not, since then, seen a person committed to the laws of being kosher break those laws, even those who seem to not be able to stop eating.


Is it the kashrut that keeps us holy or is it our holiness that keeps us kosher?


In the eyes of God, I imagine that how we eat is really important. Otherwise, the Torah would not have entire chapters (Vayikra- Chapter 7 and Chapter 11) devoted to the laws of what God commands us to eat and to what he commands us not to eat. Rishonim (early Jewish scholars) differ on the rationale behind these laws ranging from the belief that God is the True Physician and knows medically what is good for us (Rambam & Rabbi Aharon HaLevi) to the belief that there is no other rationale for the laws of kashrut other than teaching us to live a life of holiness (Rabbi Isaac Amram).


What is the mechanism here? Can we bring that control to other parts of our lives? Can we use what we do in order to refrain from eating non-kosher foods to help us refrain from other things?


My relative, Martha a’h, (not the real name) weighed 400 plus pounds. There were not many boundaries that she abided by in her life. As much as self-control was not in her brain wiring, controlling everyone around her was, or so it seemed. She especially controlled everyone’s plate as to what they ate, how much, etc. It was fascinating to watch Martha serve a meal from her hospitable kitchen.


But many years ago, Martha became very ill.  My husband and I took a cross-country trip with Martha and her husband. We were bringing her to one of our alternative-medicine teachers to work with us on calming down the cancer cells growing in Martha’s lower body.


First stop was the airport. Martha commanded the care and attention of every worker at the terminal where we waited for our plane. They were each catering to her, getting her something, wheeling her somewhere, helping her purchase an item from the small shops there, discussing things with her. A whole staff was kept busy by this one woman telling them what to do for her. It was as if they all forgot that anyone else was taking the flight.


As an attendant was wheeling Martha to the window to look at the planes landing and taking off, a security person informed us that our bags had something in them that had to be inspected and that we may not have access to them until they complete their investigation.


Our carry-on luggage held lots of kosher food for the long trip.


Our plane was delayed as were our carry-ons and we were all getting really hungry in the absence of the good food we had waiting for us in out suitcases.


We explained our dilemma to the security people who were keeping our bags from us. We told them that we needed the kosher food we had prepared for the trip. The guard pointed to the plentiful non-kosher foods that surrounded us - food machines, coffee places, and a restaurant from which we could smell the aroma of what they were cooking. He could not understand why we don’t just get something from there.


I saw Martha not even glance at that non-kosher food. It was not in her sphere of choice. Here she was a person who seemed to lack any modicum of self-control and yet, when it came to separating the holy from the non-holy in the area of food, Martha did not have an issue or even a challenge. There was no boundary problem. Despite the hunger she must have felt, despite the hunger we all felt, there was no question in her mind or in her body that any food that is not kosher will enter her.


What makes this possible? It’s clear that those who observe kashrut don’t sense any choice involved in this. It is beyond choice. The level of bechira (free choice) in this case does not allow a kosher person to succumb, even in the face of something s/he would find delicious, and even if s/he were very hungry.


While being faced with a delicious treat that is kosher may create for that person a powerlessness, at the same time, standing before a non-kosher treat, even if it seemed to be tastier, is not even a temptation.


What is in a Jew that makes that possible? 


I believe it is in the soul. I believe that the yearning of the soul for connection to the Almighty, the basic holiness deep within us, the inner wisdom that tells us the words of Torah, the restrictions, and the separations, are like tonic for our mind, body and soul. It’s that inner wisdom that helps the person who normally is out of control to reach inside his/her spirit for incredible self-control, self-control that is almost not human.


We all err in ways that are individual to us and perhaps also as a community. We do much in seeking forgiveness and Teshuva (repentance) particularly on holidays that are created with built-in elements of Teshuva.


Many an individual, who would consider himself a sinner, may also, be keeping the laws of kashrut, eating only the foods that the Torah allows. We don’t know what credit we get in Heaven for anything that we do. I wonder if, in our souls, is the knowledge that eating in a holy way can save one. I wonder if that is why even out-of-control individuals are totally controlled in that area.


We don’t know Heaven’s system for rewarding our acts. Perhaps that act of separating the kosher from the non-kosher, the holy from the non-holy, has saved the soul of a person who may not have done anything else worthy of being saved.


I imagine that it is the Pintele Yid (Jewish spark) inside us, that part of our soul that wants to and does connect with the Almighty. Otherwise how else could a person who cannot stop overeating refrain from eating anything that is not kosher, even if there is nothing else to eat?


That is the power of a Jew and the power of Kashrut!


Copyright © 2010 COPYRIGHT CHANA KLEIN. All rights reserved.



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