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On kosher tolerance

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

I have kept kosher all my life. It means - for better or worse - that I’ve never tasted seafood, or pork or ham. I’ve never enjoyed the delights of a cheeseburger, or a philly steak, or lobster, shrimps or eel. I’ve eaten venison once, in a kosher restaurant in Prague, and wherever I’ve lived in the world, I’ve negotiated the difficulties of dealing with the local kosher shops and all they necessitate, from faking the ability to speak Yiddish in Budapest, to avoiding kosher meat in Warsaw that was advertised as coming from the Chernobyl side of Poland. In Luxembourg we took it in turns to drive home meat for the community from Paris or Brussels or Strasbourg. And in Singapore keeping kosher has meant similar travails, as well as observing the miracle of chicken without skin but with feathers. I’ve remarked before that becoming vegetarian would be a more ethical and certainly easier way of keeping kashrut, but I’m not there yet.

I grew up in a household with six sets of plates: meat milk, Passover meat milk and vegan for our Pesach guests, and a sixth set of dishes for the cat. And Shelly my wife - a secular Israeli - understands that a non-negotiable part of my neurosis is that we maintain separate plates and a kosher home until this day.

All that said, I know that many of my neighbours here in Jerusalem would not consider our practice sufficiently kosher in order to eat in our home. We even have a babysitter for Noam who performs mental gymnastics to find a new excuse each time we ask her whether she’d like a cup of tea or coffee. We’ve stopped asking, as it puts a strain on her creativity not to offend us each time - and whoever said Israelis weren’t polite! Or maybe we just learnt she’s not a fan of caffeinated drinks.

Keeping kosher is a spectrum, and even if vegetarianism is not an option for you, we can all take a step on the spectrum to improve our behaviour. For me keeping kosher is and always has been an important part of my Jewish identity. But I also know it’s somehow a bit unfashionable in a progressive Jewish community, especially one with so many Americans, generally less observant of kashrut, and one in a country like Singapore, where our community lives surrounded by the temptations of treif.

I mentioned last night the historic announcement about the normalising of relations between israel and the UAE. For all its importance, it may not have been the most important political speech in Israel this week. That honour I would give to the maiden speech of a new member of the knesset, Tehila Friedman, from the blue and white party. Let me quote some of it for you, at length:

“I’m a Jew, a religious person, religious-Zionist, nationalist, feminist, Jerusalemite. I was raised on a certain language and tradition… that has its truth and beauty and good. But I know that in other communities and worlds, there is truth and beauty and good, and I can learn from them. I have things to learn from Mizrahi traditionalism, from the Jews of the Soviet Union, from the Jews of Ethiopia, from the descendants of the pioneers and the labor settlement, from the individualist liberals, from the Haredim, from the Hardalim (Haredi-nationalists), I have things to learn from the Arabs, I have things to learn from the Druze, from the Bedouin, I have things to learn from the Jews of the Diaspora.”

True, some of these groups and communities have principles, values and behaviours that I oppose with a passion, some of them actually threaten me — as a woman or a Jew or a Zionist or a religious person. But I remember and know that in every one of those groups, truly in every one — there are of course those who see themselves as the only correct path, whose justice [they expect] everyone will soon recognize, want to emulate it, and they shall lead and rule — but there are also those who understand that our differences are not temporary, that we are fated to live together and that this is the challenge of our lives

It is “with them,” she said, “that I wish to seal an alliance of moderates, with all those from all the communities who understand this challenge of living together, to restore the power from the fringes that drive us crazy, to create a shared center.”

“I speak softly, I know, and you might make the mistake of thinking my message comes from a soft and accommodating center. But it’s the opposite. My center is a preexisting center, a fervent center, that is unwilling to compromise on its centrism, on its responsibility for all the residents of the country, on the room it has for all who truly want to live together, that puts limits on extremism and selfishness, a center able to sacrifice its own life on the altar of moderation, of democracy, of a Judaism that makes room, a center that defends bodily the rules of the game that enable us to have an argument without falling to pieces.”

It is a speech - in Hebrew - that has been watched over a million times in the short time since it was uploaded. And it is a speech that resonates in this time when we have become so used to political polarisation. It’s a reminder that we do not have to agree with others in order to respect them. And it expresses an understanding that we are not the only ones to be right in what we think and what we do, and that others also have their truths, and act according to their own principles and values and behaviours.

In practical terms and on today’s subject in hand, it means that I can respect those who prefer to eat free-range chicken rather than kosher chicken, even if I would not eat the former whilst preferring that my chicken be both. It also means that I can respect muslims who eat halal, or Hindus who are vegetarian. And it even means that I can respect the masses who may not pay attention to food laws they deem as archaic or irrelevant, but who spend their energies on improving the world in a myriad of different ways. Not everyone needs to be obsessed by food in the way I am, or so many jews seem to be. But we do all need to meet the challenge, as Tehila Freedman pointed out, the challenge of living together despite our differences, and building a community, a society, a world, in which there is room for our differences, our quirks and our deeply-set beliefs.

Leo - this is the adult world that you are entering today. You mature and get older and have your own very many choices to make, not just deciding what is declared abhorrent on your plate, but rather what is abhorrent in the world around you, and how you choose to live your life. Our world is far from perfect, and this years plague has only served to highlight some of its unfairness and inequalities. This is true as we learn of the unspeakable treatment suffered by the Uyghurs in China, and even closer to home the pandemic has shone light on the difficult working conditions of migrant workers deemed “not in the community” with you in Singapore. In israel this is a pattern we see as well, as the prevalence of corona in certain communities here has correlated with their poverty and difficult conditions. Corona has brought home to us how only better standards for everyone will eradicate this plague from our midst, and it is not enough for us to sit in the towers of our condos and believe we can live lives disconnected from the masses below.

Your picking up on the word “abhorrent” in your dvar Torah set my mind back twenty years to when I studied the Augustan poet, Horace. “Odi profanum vulgus et arceo” the Latin author declared: I despise the common people and i ward them off! Starts book three of Horace’s odes and it’s the classical definition of abhorrence, with a shudder and a shake of the head. But it is not a Jewish value, even if later in the poem Horace notes the common fate of rich and poor alike. Rather we are taught to work towards coming to an understanding with the rest of humanity, and even if we maintain our own practices and differences, we acknowledge the humanity of others, and work for the common good. It’s why the announcement that links Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi, Tel Aviv and Dubai, is so important, and why the reminder that we need to create a shared centre, is no less important as well.

Leo you’ve worked hard this past year and I’ve enjoyed our classes together. I’m glad the process went better than you had feared. This is very much due to your own positive attitude towards hard work, where you might grimace and shudder but invariably you get on with it. Today on your bar mitzvah we can all see the results, and may this be a model for all that you wish to achieve in your adult life. Keep the Torah close to you, chase your kosher giraffes, and remember that a smile and a drop of honey can catch more than a glare and a bucketful of vinegar.

Mazal tov Leo - Ros Joey Zoe Rafi and the extended Arwas and Mushin family around the world - and Shabbat shalom to everyone.

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