When you are driving along and come to a red light, when do you start to apply the brakes? In other words, when do you start to stop.
We all know that going through a red light is not only illegal, it’s dangerous.But you can’t just zoom up to a red light at full speed and then slam the brakes. There are other variables to consider: whether there are cars ahead of you or people in the cross walk; how fast you are going; whether the road is dry or icy; etc. All of that (and more) will affect when you begin to apply the brakes.
I’m finding that observing mitzvot (commandments) is very similar.
Of course, people argue that the mitzvot are arbitrary, optional aspects of our life. That they are something we do for our own personal satisfaction. They may very well be right.
But even in that case, nothing changes about this discussion. If you aren’t going to stop at the red light, then don’t. Barrel right on through. There are even cases where people who would normally stop at a light will argue it’s not necessary: At 2am in a one-horse town, when you know there is nobody else around, you may decide that the red light is nothing but a social expectation and that sitting there waiting for an electronic timer to click is a foolish and sycophantic adherence to the letter of the law without recognition of the spirit and intent.
BUT… regardless of your view of obligatory nature of the commandments, IF you are going to observe them, you still must consider how you are going to do so. You are going to have to decide when you are going to slow down so that you don’t cross “that line” – the identified demarkation between observing the mitzvah and breaking it.
Some drivers really do race right to the very edge of the curb (or the bumper ahead of them) and then hit the brakes, while others ride the break from a half mile back. Still, everyone’s intention is the same: Don’t run into the cross walk.
The commandments expressed in Torah for keeping kosher state:
- don’t eat blood
- eat only certain animals
- don’t boil a kid (goat) in the milk of its mother
Period. No mention of 2 sets of dishes. No injunction against cheeseburgers. No statement that you have to double-foil-wrap your potato in an unkosher oven.
So why do we do it?
The red light(s) above are very clear. What isn’t clear is what we need to do to avoid crossing that line. Some people are comfortable running right to the edge – no blood, no bacon wrapped shrimp, no goat chops in goat-milk-cream sauce. Everything else is fair game. Other people feel the need for two dishwashers, to carefully check produce for bugs, to learn as much as they can about how and where their food is produced.
Neither approach, in my opinion, is necessarily bad. Like driving, everyone has their style.
Of course, this analogy can only go so far on a single tank of metaphorical gas. Traffic laws are enforced by humans, and ultimately affect others in a very direct way. Kashrut is not “enforced” by anyone – you don’t get a treif ticket if you chow down on a shrimp eggroll. Nor is there any impact on the people around us for our own dietary observances, or lack thereof. Traffic laws are meant to be more logical than not. Kashrut, as I have mentioned before, is understood to be inherently non-logical (which is not to say it’s illogical, only that human logic can’t be brought to bear to understand why we ought to keep kosher. This is one of God’s “do it ’cause I said so” rules).
But in answer to the person who looks at another’s kashrut observance and thinks “why would they need to take it that far?!”, my answer is
“Because that’s where they are comfortable starting to stop.”