Can I say of myself that I am kosher? Or, that he or she is kosher?
Rabban Gamliel and the 20th century Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, might have had an interesting conversation about such a use of the term, kosher. First, some evidence of how Rabban Gamliel, a sage of the first century, used the word in an unexpected way:
And when Tabi his slave died, Rabban Gamliel received the consolation of mourners. His students said to him: Have you not taught us, master, that we do not receive consolation for slaves? He replied: My slave, Tabi, was not like other slaves, he was kosher. (Click here for Talmudic story in Hebrew and English)
Rabban Gamliel declared that his lamented slave, Tabi, was kosher and therefore the great sage felt entitled to set aside his own ruling—to the confusion of his students—and to mourn Tabi’s death with community rituals that were reserved for Jews.
If we enter the conversation, we might press the very authoritarian Rabban Gamliel more than his students dared to do: “Do you, sir, feel that anyone who wants to mourn a non-Jewish slave can set aside your ruling by declaring that his slave was kosher? Or are you, alone, certified to define kosher in such a manner that extends beyond law and ritual?”
Tabi’s piety and learning are well known from other ancient stories. But for Rabban Gamliel, kosher was a quality of being beyond the sum of these parts and not limited to either Jews or to matters of ritual fitness—the most familiar meaning of kosher.
Rabban Gamliel said of Tabi: He was kosher. The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, said of himself, I am kosher.
Amichai went farther than Rabban Gamliel towards defining kosher in a way that was rooted in native, ritual soil. The poet raised to the level of metaphor certain features of kosher animals, presenting cud and cloven hoof as signs of his own capacities for reflection and repentance:
I am a kosher person. I bring up the cud in my soul
from the closed darkness of what is over and done with
so as not to forget, so as not to lose….
I am cloven as well. I do not have hooves but I do have
a split soul. The split, the cleft gives me the wherewithal to stand
while I strike myself as in the Al Het/For the sin striking
of the New Year…
I am a kosher person.
Both the modern poet and the ancient sage extended the meaning of kosher beyond the world of ritual into an ethical dimension in which kosher represents the most excellent features of being human. (For a current example in Israel of how kosher extends from the ritual to the ethical, link to: http://www.mtzedek.org.il/english/TavChevrati.asp).
The sage and the poet promote enduring questions: How do we continue to define kosher? What responsibility do we have to the ancient traditions that give us the language that steadies us as we redefine and expand our sense of self and of community? In what ways can I certify that I and my fellow human beings are kosher?