this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/30 –
When we think about ‘kashrut’ – the question of whether something is kosher or not kosher – the first thought that probably jumps into our minds is food. But in Judaism the idea of ‘kosher’ applies to other things as well, not only to food. Can anyone give another example? One is the Sefer Torah – a Torah that is usable – that we are permitted to read from – is actually called a kosher Torah. Which of course begs a question – what makes a Torah kosher or not kosher? With food we have a pretty strong sense of how that question is answered – certain foods are by definition not kosher – pork the most obvious example. And certain foods can’t be mixed – like dairy and meat. If they are mixed, the food is no longer kosher. But what about a Torah? What makes a Torah kosher, and what might make it not kosher?
Let us first think for a minute about what makes a Torah kosher. First of all, the materials used to make the Torah have stringent requirements. The ink that is used to write the letters must be made in a certain way, and it absolutely must be black – any other color and the Torah is not considered kosher. The parchment, called in Hebrew ‘klaf’ must come from a kosher animal, usually a cow or a goat, sometimes even a deer. the letters must be written using a special quill, usually one made from the feather of a kosher bird like a turkey. When sections are sewn together the thread is made from the sinew of a kosher animal. And if any of these things are not right – if the quill is not proper, or the parchment is not from a kosher animal, or even the thread, the Torah is not kosher, it is not usable.
But it isn’t only the materials that make the Torah kosher. It also has to do with how the letters themselves are written. No letter in the Torah can touch any other letter – if two letters are touching, the Torah is not kosher. Certain letters have to be written larger than other letters – the best example is verse 4 in Deuteronomy chapter 6, the Shema Israel line, where the ‘shin’ of Shema and the ‘daled’ of echad must be written larger than the other letters. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion there is another example – the word Shalom appears in the third verse of this morning’s portion – how do you spell that word in Hebrew? Shim, lamed, mem, vav, mem-sofit. And how do you write a ‘vav’ in Hebrew? One straight down line. Believe me, there are a lot of ‘vavs’ in the Torah. And all of them have to be written with a straight, uninterrupted line – except this vav in our word Shalom from this week’s portion. It has to be written with an interruption in the line – a space – and if that space isn’t there, once again, the entire Torah is not kosher and may not be used. That gives you just a little bit of an idea of what makes a Torah kosher or not kosher.
What about applying the same idea to a human being? What makes a person kosher, or not kosher? It might sound strange in our ears to phrase it that way, again because we so commonly associate that idea with food – but there is a talmudic concept of the ‘adam kasher’ – the kosher person. In the Talmud this is a person who is deserving of the ultimate respect, so much so that the Talmud says when an ‘adam kasher’ – a kosher person – dies – everyone in community is obligated to make a tear in their clothing, something normally only immediate mourners do. And everyone in the community is responsible for mourning this person’s loss. That is the level of respect and love that an ‘adam kasher’ engenders in the course of his or her life.
Now it might seem to you like the High Holy Days are still very far away, after all we sit here at the end of July, and Rosh Hashanah isn’t until the beginning of October! But the truth is in our liturgical cycle we are already pointing towards the fall holidays. We read today the first in a series of 10 haftara texts that try to build up our spirits so that we can stand before God with clean hearts and souls at the beginning of the new year. 10 weeks from Sunday night is RH. I don’t know about you – I tend to be a bit of a procrastinator – but the time is set aside for us, and I think the reason we are given so much time is that sometimes it can actually take quite a while to figure out how to be a kosher person. It isn’t as black and white as the laws of what makes food kosher or not, or a Torah scroll kosher or not. And wouldn’t it be nice if the tradition gave us some guidance as we went through this process. What is it that makes a kosher person?
It is an old tradition during the summer months to spend some time studying Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. Probably more than any other text in Judaism, Pirke Avot lays out for us the tradition’s idea of what makes a person kosher. It deals with ethics and morals, with how a person should act towards his or her fellow, with what kind of responsibility one has in terms of being part of a community. The material is fairly wide ranging, but there are a few themes that come up again and again, ideals that the rabbis of old clearly believed defined what a kosher person should be.
A number of the ideals are things you might expect. Be a kind and compassionate person. Treat others with respect and dignity. Live with a sense of God’s presence in your life. All important qualities of the kosher person. But there are three particular ideals that the text identifies, ideals that are at the core of being an ‘adam kasher’ – that might not normally come to our minds.
The first of them is humility. The text reminds us that we are no more important that any other person, and that when we begin to feel more important than others – something we all seem to do at one time or another – we have wandered onto the wrong path and need to find our way back.
The next quality of a kosher person is communal engagement and commitment, a sense of communal responsiblity. In today’s world we tend to emphasize the individual over the community and the individuals needs and rights over the community’s needs. But in Judaism it is exactly the opposite. When an individual’s need conflicts with a communal need, it is the community’s need that takes precedence. As Jews we have an obligation not only to be connected to Jewish community, but to make sure that because of our presence the community becomes a better place for all.
The last thing is to be a learning Jew, to constantly strive to grow through the study of Judaism, Jewish thought, Jewish life, Jewish text, Jewish history. Tradition understands that we nourish our bodies with food and drink, but that we must always make sure to nourish our souls and spirits, and one powerful way to do that is through the study of Torah – not only the scroll we take out of the ark, but Torah writ large, our ancient tradition with all of its wisdom.
So as we begin our slow but steady walk towards the High Holy Days, and begin to weigh in our minds who we are and who we want to be, we can perhaps keep in mind the wisdom our our sages and an ideal they at least believed we should all strive for – not necessarily to keep kosher, all though that wouldn’t be so bad – but to actually, in the way we live our lives and the quality of our own characters, to BE kosher –