Does non-kosher food "contaminate" us?
Written by student of Rabbi Reuben Mann - Dean, Masoret Institute

There are many different explanations of kashrus. One of the popular
views out there is the theory that certain animals such as pig or other non
kosher animals are inherently bad and disgusting and therefore G-d prohibited
us from eating them. This view contends that if one eats the prohibited
foods, something intrinsic in the food would cause "spiritual blockades" to
be set up in a person, and will impair his abilities to get closer to G-d.
This they say is one of the many reasons for kashrus.
Before we get to a proper understanding of kashrus it is imperative
for us to see why this idea does not hold true in Judaism. The source often
quoted by this school of thought is in Tractate Yoma 39a which states, "The
house of Rabbi Yishmael taught, sin dulls the heart of man" and he adduces it
from the portion in the Torah dealing with kashrus. Many people mistakenly
interpret that as meaning that non kosher food dulls the heart and even go a
step further and say it actually "contaminates" the soul. But upon a careful
reading we see it only refers to sin.
Besides this egregious interpretation, the sources in Judaism go
against such a notion. In Deuteronomy 6:11 we read that when the Jewish
people enter the land of Israel they will find homes filled with all kinds of
good things which they will be able to partake of. The oral law identifies
these good things as inclusive of foodstuffs, even pig. The people were
permitted upon entering the land to consume all prohibited foods they find at
the time. The Bible, interestingly enough, refers to these very prohibited
foods as "good." Thus even though the Torah prohibited certain foods they are
not considered "bad." The prohibition is merely to teach man to exercise
control over his appetitive desires not that there is anything "unclean"
about a pig or camel or horse. G-d does not, so to speak, like the cow more
than the donkey. They are all equal His creation. In a similar vein the
Rabbis of the Talmud have stated (check Rashi in Leviticus 20:26), "Do not
say, I dislike the flesh of the pig, but rather, I like it but God has
decreed that I abstain from it." If one abstains from pig because he thinks
it is "bad" in some sense, he is functioning on a primitive taboo level not
on the level which G-d has prescribed for him so that he gain perfection as a
human being.
In fact there is a halacha, that under certain circumstances, if non
kosher food was mixed with kosher food, one is allowed to eat from the
mixture. Now if there was something inherently wrong with the food, and if
it really did contaminate the soul, how would the Rabbis of the Talmud allow
one to eat from the mixture? Another halachic proof against the spiritual
contamination theory is the prohibition of eating a meat and milk mixture.
This is the most stringent of the prohibited foods. Yet is made up of 2
permitted objects. When they are cooked together they become assur. Do we
maintain that the cooking process creates a new chemical which contaminates
the heart? Another interesting proof can be found in Rashi on Vayikra18:4 And
my Chukos you shall keep.... Rashi explains, "Things which are a decree of
the king and the yetzer hara rejects saying why should we keep them like
eating pig and wearing shaatnes, etc." Hence Rashi puts pig in the same
category as shaatnes in the sense that no reason can be found for prohibiting
the particular object. If however negative consequences come from eating pig
whether spiritual or physical then the yetzer hara should not object. It is
thus clear that Rashi did not believe that pig contains any harmful quality.
Besides all this one really cannot understand the idea. Why would
G-d create such animals if they were inherently bad to begin with? If these
foods do indeed contaminate ones soul and bar one from perceiving holiness,
then how is it that Judaism has converts? One could say that since these
converts ate these foods their soul is contaminated. Yet, converts have been
among the top scholars in Jewish history who reached high levels of
perfection (Onkleus, Shemaya, Avtalyon, etc.). What about our forefather
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? They weren't bound by kashrus laws, but were their
souls contaminated? Did the Jews in Egypt all possess contaminated souls
because they ate non kosher food? Maybe this idea is what really
contaminates the heart not non kosher food.
Judaism fosters a system where one control his instinctual desires
such as appetite. The appetitive part of man is a strong force and must be
controlled. Part of Judaism is that man should live in a system where his
soul and rational component are in control. Based on this, G-d created a
system of kashrus. In other words, kashrus wasn't designed to prevent people
from contaminating their hearts from foods which are supposedly inherently
bad. Rather, it was a system designed to control man's appetitive component.
Based on this, the Torah went ahead and prohibited certain foods. The
Rambam states that one of the reasons most domesticated animals are kosher,
while undomesticated others aren't, is because of practical purposes. If G-d
prohibited cattle and permitted only lions and tigers it would be much harder
to eat meat. G-d gave a system in which man can live by. Therefore, from
the Rambam one can infer that really there is really nothing inherently bad
about the food. Kashrus is there to teach us about control. In fact Rashi,
in his commentary to Leviticus 11;44 states that when the Torah says one
should not make his soul impure by eating creatures that creep on the earth,
the impurity referred to is obtained by transgressing G-d's commandment.
Thus we see that the contamination of the soul does not come about through
any specific food, rather it's based on the fact that man transgresses one of
G-d's commandments. One who lives a lifestyle whereby he doesn't listen to
G-d and does not control his instinctual desires is the one who is truly