Judaism is famous for its dietary laws. The basis of these is a list of the animals that the Israelites could and could not eat (Leviticus 11) – although there are many other rules as well.
Much ingenuity and speculation has gone into working out the possible reasons why certain animals were ‘off the menu’. Why are lamb and beef OK, but not pork or rabbit? And although most of us would turn our noses up at ‘creepy-crawlies’ of any kind, why make an exception for locusts? The commentaries lay stress on the possible health benefits of avoiding certain kinds of meat, but I think these are somewhat overstated. It’s true that pork and shellfish are well-known sources of parasites, but some of the ‘clean’ animals are almost as bad (you can get tapeworm from beef and salmonella from chickens). So that can’t be the explanation.
In all probability, the distinctions between the ‘clean’ and the ‘unclean’ are purely arbitrary. God had called a nation out from the rest of the world to be his special people, and they simply needed help to maintain their distinctive identity. Dietary differences make for clear cultural boundaries; these food laws have helped the Jewish people to maintain their racial and cultural identity for over 3000 years. Under the new covenant, however, they have become irrelevant (Colossians 2:16,17). Christians have other ways of being distinctive from the surrounding culture.
So what we put into our mouths no longer has any spiritual implications (Mark 7:18,19) – or does it? “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (I Corinthians 10:31). Unless we are at or near starvation level, what we eat and drink has significance above and beyond mere nutrition. We care enormously about our food: what goes into it, how it was grown, how animals are slaughtered (or whether we should eat animals at all). How many of us use moral criteria when compiling our shopping lists? We look for the labels that identify ‘free range’, ‘organic’, or ‘fair trade’ products… and we also have to bear in mind the many individuals with food allergies (real or imagined) and the vegetarians. Suddenly the kosher restrictions don’t look so restrictive after all…
Whatever the reasons for our dietary choices, we can easily become obsessive about them. Instead of being a means of honouring God, they can become rules to judge other people by. We can forget that other people are free to make different choices (Romans 14:5,6), and that those with coeliac disease or serious food allergies – and the destitute – don’t have a choice. It may be true that ‘you are what you eat’ – but perhaps the best way of glorifying God at the dinner table is to share what you eat. “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” (Luke 14:13,14)