Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages - Review

I just finished reading Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages by Professor David Kraemer. The book traces the development of Jewish dietary laws from biblical times to the modern age.

The author provides theories for the development of increasingly stringent rules – from the very initial Torah prohibition on cooking a baby goat (kid) in its mother’s milk – to the very recent developments of families having two sets of absolutely everything – sometimes even two kitchens – all emanating from that original prohibition.

The book persuasively suggests that the rules have become more and more stringent in an effort by the highly observant Jews to build the walls of separation between themselves and other less observant Jews – or non-Jews. Kraemer touches on such topics as the development of the waiting period for eating dairy after meat, the development of rules separating meat from dairy dishes, the rules prohibiting Jews from eating certain breads and drinking non-kosher wines. I do believe that it is likely that keeping kosher has played a huge role in maintaining the Jewish community and fending off many assimilationist threats over the years.

Kraemer ties this all in by the end of the book to the very recent development of extreme rules barring observant Jews from eating various types of green vegetables for fear of insect or bug contamination. Kraemer suggests implicitly – that the bug rules have little to do with Kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws). Rather they are either designed as an economic mechanism to support such companies as Bodek that are selling pre-washed and “checked” greens – or they are designed to simply raise the “fence” higher to separate very observant Jews from the less observant. He points out that the cafeteria at the Jewish Theological Seminary has opted to serve broccoli and cauliflower – despite the ban on these products by many Orthodox Kashrut councils – all since the early 90s.

Though some of the early parts of the book were a bit dry – and other parts were a bit puzzling (trying to justify the fact that so many New York Jews eat at non-kosher Chinese restaurants) – the overall explanation and theory that Kraemer provides for the development of these rules is compelling and persuasive. The question left unanswered is how to deal with and address these newer, increasingly stringent guidelines which are seemingly designed to make it harder and harder for Jews to keep kosher – and to give increased power and control over kosher food preparation to a group of increasingly powerful Rabbis running the largest certification boards.

The book provides a great deal of food for thought – though it is sure to upset some Orthodox readers.

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