A Kosher Second Brain?

In anthropology, the centrality of food is acknowledged such that entire cultures are classified and categorized by their subsistence strategies – foragers, pastoralists, agriculturalists, etc. Solid evidence exists connecting adult food preferences to childhood exposure, and it seems like a critical period for acquiring food tastes overlaps with the same period for acquiring language. Simply put, we have powerful emotional connections to foods, particularly those we learn to eat during childhood and adolescence.

The Jewish relationship with food is complex, nuanced, and famously unhealthy. Interestingly, even as individuals assimilate away from the religious practice of Judaism, the cultural and emotional connection with traditional foods often remains strong. The biblical roots of this relationship, which include the laws of Kashrut found in this week’s Torah portion, indicate the central role that food played from the very earliest moments of establishing what it meant to be one of the children of Israel.

I grew up in a kosher home, and never tasted non-kosher foods until my own Jewish journey took me far from kashrut observance during college (I came back after). I tried all kinds of things that weren’t kosher, and though I could acknowledge that some of them were delicious, they felt foreign, and some of them were so foreign that I couldn’t stomach them at all (like shellfish – just rubbery and slimy to my undeveloped palette). I’m sure that those foods are delectable for many, but because I didn’t grow up with them, they never really felt right.

Modern scientific research has also recently confirmed some powerful connections between the brain and the stomach. The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is known today as “the second brain,” and we are just beginning to explore the powerful links between the microbiome found in our stomachs and mood disorders, cognition, and illness/health.

I find it amazing that many ancient traditions appear to have understood this link far more clearly than our own Western food traditions – from Kashrut to Ayurveda, we have thousands of years of effective pre-literate food wisdom that leaves our own understanding in the dust. There are plenty of reasons to consider keeping kosher (to whatever extent makes sense in your family). From health and wellness, moral concerns regarding the treatment of animals and humans, because G-d commands it, or because it is a family tradition to the powerful communal impact it has on our ability to feed others in our own homes, Kashrut can be a powerful core concept impacting our lives profoundly.

In community schools, where we draw the line for kashrut can vary dramatically from school to school. In our attempts to remain broadly inclusive to the widest possible swath of traditions and practices within the Jewish community, we often find ourselves asking each other to stretch the bounds of personal preference in the name of communal unity. While this can be challenging, it is generally worth it, because when we figure out how to eat together, we strengthen the bonds between us in ways that have been central to human nature since our existence began.

Shabbat Shalom,