Kosher laws serve a much deeper purpose than keeping us healthy, however. They keep us human.
The good may sleep better at night, but, as Woody Allen remarked, "the wicked seem to enjoy their waking hours much more." Bad things, it is true, are more enjoyable than good things. Gossiping is more fun than remaining mum, having many sexual partners is more fun than monogamy, and spending money on clothes beats giving it to charity. Violence is a rush. No thrill is as great as allowing the beast within to roam free, irrespective of the destruction it wreaks.
As the architect of man, G-d saw it necessary for man to incorporate an animal nature. Without our animal nature, our lusts, passions and instincts, the ancient rabbis said, no man would ever marry a woman or build a home. Still, we need to harness our animal natures, ensuring that our passions are always channelled into G-dly , as opposed to selfish, directions.
What is needed, therefore, is a code of conduct to purge man of his natural instinct for violence and to condition him to receive as great a thrill from altruistic action as he does from inflicting injury on others. Society has devised its own safety nets: sports allow the populace to cheer for their team to destroy its foe. Some social anthropologists even suggest that the violence featured on television and in films, far from being harmful, allows society to rid itself of its primal instinct for violence.
Long ago, in the wilderness of Sinai, Judaism devised a program to wean man from his appetite for violence. This system is called Kashrus, the highly misrepresented and misunderstood Jewish dietary laws. Keeping kosher has been dismissed as legislated hygiene. We hear of how eating pork can lead to trichinosis and how shellfish were prohibited because of the dangerous bacteria they contain. But while there are definite benefits to eating kosher food - because of the high standards of kosher meat, for instance, none has ever been found infected by Mad Cow Disease - these are all merely collateral benefits.
The laws of kashrus mandate that a Jew can only consume those animals which chew their cud and have split hooves. Only fish with fins and scales may be consumed. The Torah designates 24 types of birds, all birds of prey, as not kosher. In addition, the Jew is prohibited from eating blood, and may only consume the flesh of an animal which has been slaughtered from the neck.
These laws teach Jews to abhor the sight of blood, to detest death, and recoil from unnecessarily hurting any of G-d's creatures. The love of sadistic pleasures must be utterly uprooted from the Jewish heart. G-d is the Creator of life, and man is its guardian and protector.
The Almighty gave the laws of kashrus to regulate how man could take animal life, which animals he could slaughter, how he could put them to death, and which parts of the animal could then be consumed. It answered the problem of how to grant man license to partake of the flesh of the animals without becoming one himself. So we kill humanely, never consume the blood and partake only of non-aggressive, non-predatory animals like goats, cattle, and sheep. (Animals with split hooves cannot be predators for the split hoof makes them sluggish and awkward.) As the Rabbis point out, all the permitted animals are herbivorous and therefore nearer the vegetable world.
Asked to explain why he allowed his followers to eat food that hadn't been cleaned according to kosher laws, Jesus insisted that only what emanates from the mouth of man can defile him, not what he consumes. "It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles." (Mat 15:11) Judaism rejects this belief. Every parent tries to govern the their children's television intake, convinced that violence and sex can have an adverse effect on their minds. Why should physical sustenance be any different?
As man slaughters more and more animals, there is the danger he will become immune to the shedding of blood and the suffering of animals. G-d therefore declared that the Jews cannot eat even kosher animals, save those that are slaughtered from the neck, with the immediate severing of the carotid arteries and the jugular vein by one swift movement. The slaughterer (shohet) recites a prayer before the act of shehitah. Scientific opinion indicates that this method of slaughter results in almost immediate loss of consciousness, and any after after-struggle is muscle reflex only. In short, the animal does not suffer.
No doubt, the kosher laws do involve hygienic considerations. The great medieval scholar Nahmanides stated: "Those without fins and scales.breed in musty swamps and eating them can be injurious to health." Modern scholars also give hygienic reasons for the dietary laws. But we should not ignore the spiritual reasons for not consuming cruel animals. The Torah is out to highlight the image of G-d in man, a feat which can only be accomplished if man's animal nature does not overwhelm his higher self. Kosher food serves as the strongest bulwark in the fight against man's carnality.
Hygenic explanations have been offered for keeping milk and meat separate, most of them too complicated to discuss here. The true explanation is that Judaism is a religion of life, a celebration of being, a euphoria of existence. Death for Jews is not a state of being, rather it is a void, a black hole, a vacuum of meaning and existence. We don't celebrate it. Jewish ritual is designed to establish a perimeter into which death cannot infiltrate. Milk is the ultimate symbol of life. Meat is death incarnate. One represents attachment to the living G-d, the other His absence. For this reason, the practising Jew even has separate meat and milk dishes in the kitchen. His very home and material possessions proclaim the line that divides the living from the dead, the eternal from the ephemeral.