Living in New York City has put me around more Jewish folks than since I was a lower and middle schooler at Detroit Country Day School. Such proximity has certainly been educational. Last year during Passover (which coincided with Holy Week) I enjoyed matzah with some rabbis, one of whom explained the painstaking process by which it is made and ensured to be kosher. On another occasion, I spoke with a Jewish real estate agent who explained to me that (generally speaking) the bigger the kippa, the more conservative the practitioner. And the effect on my vocabulary hasn’t gone unnoticed, with the addition of words like schlep, kvetch, and nosh.
Though Jews and Christians share the Hebrew Bible, the two faiths are quite different. Perhaps the most visible difference is our varying approaches to holiness. The concept of kosher is at (or at least near) the heart of faithful Judaism. Lists of acceptable foods, clothing, and activities identify what is kosher and what is taboo. In many respects kosher reflect practices enjoined in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Lev 11).
Where Christians differ is in our belief that the kosher laws (in fact, the Law itself) has been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, and thus those laws are no longer applicable (cf. Mk 7.19; Col 2.16–23). “The law has but a shadow of the good things to come,” the writer of Hebrews tells us, “instead of the true form of these realities.” It’s not surprising, then, that the law “can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near” (10.1). Since Jesus fulfilled the Law, we are free from the Law as a means of attaining righteousness, and those practices associated with the OT cultus have passed into history.
But are Christians kosher-free? The concern that Christians have with Jewish kosher laws is that it promotes a legalistic approach to God: God will accept me if I do x and do not do y. Believers in Jesus formally reject that notion, but what about our practice?
A friend of mine was recently installed as a pastor. He shared that a member of his congregation told him that he was not as conservative as my friend. When this friend asked why he would say that, the church member said, “Well, you went to XYZ seminary and I went to ABC seminary, and we’re just not as conservative as you.” (For what it’s worth, I’ve attended neither of these seminaries. And both of these schools are firmly orthodox in their theology.) Before actually getting to know my friend, this congregant made a judgment about him based on the seminary he attended. He drew a distinction because his new pastor didn’t attend a kosher seminary.
How frequently are we guilty of this sort of thinking! Our kosher laws do not relate to food and clothing (at least some times!), but we have our own kosher standards: kosher colleges and seminaries, kosher radio stations and music producers, kosher Bible translations, kosher authors and pastors. And this isn’t a conservative vs. contemporary debate, as if the more conservative one is, the more kosher practices he has. We’re all guilty of this. If someone says they’re reading a book by so-and-so but that author is not on my kosher list, I respond defensively and argumentatively, seeking to demonstrate where my differences lie. To prove the value of my kosher list.
I do not mean by this that Christians should be undiscerning. As one of my profs used to say, “The modern concept of ‘having an open mind’ is like being an open sewer drain: take everything in regardless of its value.” Certainly some seminaries are better equipped, some authors are more faithful to the gospel than others, and some translations are superior.
But when we begin relationships with other Christians by emphasizing what makes us different, we forget that what we hold in common is far greater than what distinguishes us. We share Jesus, and because of our union with Christ we have already been made one with this brother or sister. We are now responsible diligently to maintain this Spirit-wrought unity (Eph 4.3).
I was one month into my first pastoral position when our staff took a trip to a Pastors Conference in Orlando. At lunch one of the speakers sat at our table. He asked us where we were from and what seminaries we had attended. One of our pastors, Alexander “Sandy” McCormick, told him we had all attended the same school, well-known for its separatist views. The speaker responded, “So, you want to separate from me, then?”
I was dumbfounded. What do you say to something like that?
I’ll never forget Sandy’s reply. “No,” he said, “we actually prefer to begin by discussing and rejoicing in our union with Christ first, and if we talk about our differences later, that’s fine.”
Sandy—and this speaker, as the proceeding conversation proved—modeled Christian grace at its finest. Yes, we have differences and those differences do matter. If I understand Romans 14 and 1Corinthians 8–9, what is kosher for me may not be for someone else, and vice versa. But what we share is far greater than what differentiates us. Jesus has fulfilled the Law, so we do not need our kosher laws to give us standing before God. Nor do we need our kosher laws to prove we’re smarter, better, or godlier than the next guy.
So may we interact with one another consciously under the shadow of the cross.