Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Free at Last!

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Operation Inspiration

Despite what you might imagine, the inspiration for this article came is the candyman in my shul. Well, not him exactly, but the candy he gave out this Chanuka. They were chocolate coins that were dairy-free, nut-free, vegan and who-knows-what-else. Essentially, they were gelt-free. 

It reminded me of a frum person who told me a non-Jewish colleague approached with a religious question. “They opened a new kosher restaurant near me. This one is “Glatt” Kosher. Tell me, what are they taking away from me now?!”

The question to us may seem silly to those of us who know that what’s taken away is shailos, and glatt just means the lungs are smooth so no doubt of potential kashrus issues. He reassured the non-Jewish questioner that there would still be the kosher foods he was used to, while things like shrimp, pork and shellfish would still not be on the menu. Glatt would not take away anything the fellow would notice. However, oftentimes it is precisely what’s missing that gets noticed.

The fact of the matter is that people are willing to pay more for less. They want to make sure their food is fat-free, sugar-free, gluten-free or free of whatever item they choose to stay away from. It’s worth the money because they’re so passionate about it. Not only this but the people who subscribe to these various health preferences often are so excited with their choices that they share the news with everyone they meet – whether they want to know about it or not. Most people don’t know that Vegan is actually a backronym for “Very Educational. Go Away Now.” 

There are numerous reasons why someone might wish to stay away from a certain food. It could be an allergy which can give the person a negative reaction like a rash or difficulty breathing. It could be a health issue, in which they simply feel a certain food is not good for you. You may even have a moral reason. People may believe it is cruel to eat animals and though this is not the Torah perspective, if a person chooses not to eat animals because it makes him uncomfortable that’s his prerogative.

Sometimes the product is labeled for your knowledge. For example, if you’re watching your fat intake, you’ll be extremely glad to know that Mike & Ike’s, a brand of jelly beans, are a fat-free food(!). In fact, it says so right on the label. Of course, not everything is exactly as labeled. Let me give you an example:

Lately numerous items like shoes, coats, and pocketbooks have been proclaimed to be made of “Vegan Leather.” Like you, I thought this was leather than came from either roadkill or animals that had been allowed to graze on pasture land until they enjoyed themselves so much that they died from old age or pure joy. But sadly, this is not the case. Vegan leather is not leather at all, but a chemically-engineered leather-like substance like good old Naugahyde.

So why my infatuation with this topic; what’s behind this lengthy discussion of quasi-banned substances? Freedom.

One of the things people say about Judaism is that it’s too restrictive. We can’t do this and we can’t go there. We can’t eat that and we can’t look at the other. People want to be free to do what they want. If not, they feel deprived like the fellow who wondered what Glatt would restrict him from now. But that’s the wrong way to look at things.

You see, with all these foods we’re avoiding, we’re exercising our choices and we’re happy about it. We don’t feel restricted by not eating meat, for example, because we feel we’re serving a higher purpose. We enjoy our principles more than we would giving in to our desires. When we don’t ingest an allergen and avoid a nasty situation we’re happy for the ability to discern between the things that are good for us and those that aren’t.

Why should the Torah’s laws be any different? That bacon may look good but Hashem clued us in that our souls are allergic to it and the reaction won’t be benign. The juicy gossip your neighbor is peddling may seem tempting but it will wreck your world and that of many others. What you’re looking at could destroy your life though it seems so harmless at the moment. Freedom is being able to avoid the things that aren’t good for us. And it goes farther.

The Ramban famously comments on Kedoshim Tihiyu, “Kadesh atzmecha b’mutar lach,” purify yourself with that which is permitted to you. Don’t just follow the list of what Hashem forbids, but give yourself an added buffer. Find something that may be permissible, but isn’t quite right for you. There may be nothing wrong from a kosher standpoint with buying a pie of pizza, rolling it up and eating it like a large burrito or schwarma in a laffa, but from the point of view that you’re not just an animal who walks on two legs, you ought to desist from doing it. It shows you are a person with principles.

Maybe it’s as simple as not eating the last bite of the food on your plate or not taking a second glance when the first one catches your eye. There are numerous ways you can rein in your desires so let’s practice choosing wisely and limiting what we let get past our senses. When we do, we’ll be free – at last.

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