South Beach. Atkins. Low Carb. Each diet has its proscriptions and restrictions. Each has its high-cost items that begin to add up when you eat them every day, whether snack bars or supplements. Though I doubt a study was done, my guess is that Jews are no different than the rest of the population in being willing to give up personal autonomy for the purported benefits of a better lifestyle.
Don’t get me wrong: Eating in a healthy way is important. Despite all the schmaltz (fat) in tradition Ashkenazi (European) Jewish cooking which might imply otherwise, Judaism does hold us responsible for taking care of our health. (All those heavy dishes were created during a time when people were generally underfed, so having a nice fat-laden latke on a holiday was nirvana, to mix metaphors a bit.)
But I think many people are missing out on the oldest time tested diet in history: kashrut, better known as the kosher laws.
Think about it, about what you eat, I mean. That is the basic premise behind the kosher laws. Before we put something in our mouths, or in our cookware, we are to think about what we are about to eat.
At the heart of the kosher laws is the idea of self control. We are distinguished from animals because we can exert self-aware choice over our instinctual drives. We use our cognitive functions to distinguish–between kosher and unkosher, between milk and meat. We pour out the blood, because it represents the life force that only God can give.
We are supposed to slaughter the animal in the least painful way possible, because even animals are God’s creatures. If we show such concern for the life and pain of animals, the thinking goes, we will also show a similar, if not greater, concern for our fellow human beings.
Taken in this light, the kosher laws really are a diet for the soul.
Of course, the real reason we observe the kosher laws is because they are in the Torah as commandments from God. There are four Torah commandments: Leviticus 11:3, to eat only animals that chew their cud and have split hooves (cows and sheep, and even farm raised buffalo and deer, are kosher); Leviticus 11:9, to eat only sea life that have fins and scales (fish, not shellfish or shark); Leviticus 17: 10-11, not to eat the blood with the meat; and Exodus 23:19, not to mix milk and meat. (Admittedly, this last verse does not literally prohibit mixing all meat and milk but its observance is so ancient that, by the time of the rabbis, this basic principle was taken as a given.) If we want to, we can also count a fifth commandment in the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve based on the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32:33.) These four (or five) steps are a great place to start one’s Jewish journey. Think of it as an exploration of soul food.
Even with the great variety of kosher food now available even in remote areas, it can be complicated and inconvenient to eat kosher at times. But it is probably a whole lot easier than a low-carb diet. And the rewards are immeasurably greater: connection to generations of Jews reaching back for thousands of years; a sense of spiritual discipline in service to God; and a honing of one’s self-control, which is really at the heart of any hope any of us may have for enlightenment.