Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - A Layman's Perspective On Turkey And The Halachic Process
With Thanksgiving on the horizon (for Americans like me) we see quite a bit of Turkey promotion. Of course, most people know that Turkey was not served at that first thanksgiving meal, but being that the Turkey is of American origin, it is "rewarded" with its 24 hours of fame. However, the Turkey's American origin raises Halachic questions as to its Kashrus status, and all you could want to know about the topic can be found here. But, skipping ahead, the bottom line is that Turkey is accepted as Kosher. And the reason? Well, basically, because people were already eating it. The questions raised are post-facto: "Why is Turkey Kosher?" and not "Is Turkey Kosher?"
When I was younger this troubled me. Not only this, but even that there could be different opinions about the status of something according to Torah: How could G-d want us to do the right thing, and then leave it ambiguous? How could He leave everything to fallible humans to figure out and determine, and have them come out with different answers? Different customs I could understand, but differences Halacha? Shouldn't there be one single right and wrong answer? Isn't there a right or wrong answer?
Of course, the question is the answer, but it's still worth discussing. And it's a common problem that I run into: people will say, "If it's Halachically permitted, then we can do it without a second thought – regardless of what people do," or they'll debate if something should be done differently or allowed/disallowed because of XYZ. That's all fine and good from an academic POV, but it's not the way it works. There is a Halachic process, and Klal Yisroel, in fact, plays a very big role in determining the halacha. Halacha is not a cold canonized list in Heaven of Do's and Don'ts; it's just not that way. Halacha is far more complicated; it's a combination of a number of things, and among them is intuition as well as the process of acceptance by observant Jews – and this is a significant element to the underlying difference between what we call Rabbinic Judaism and such strains as the Tzadokim or Karaim (Sadducees or Karaites). Rabbinic Judaism is centered on the rule that "Torah is not in the Heavens" while Tzadokim /Karaim refuse to accept that there can be different answers to the same question al-pi Torah.*
In fact, "Halacha," as we call it, has its own rules and its own reality. For example, Halachic principles such as probability and nullification or how things are defined don't have to match other information that we call "facts." And with us all living in an era that places so much weight on scientific data, it is easy to try to define things in similar terms, but it's not really a good fit and while there is some overlap, they'll never really be aligned. In fact, religion in general is more of a philosophy than a science, and the same is true here:
Perhaps we could compare Halacha in a certain way to a vow. If, let's say, I vowed not to eat chickens, they would become forbidden to me. Similarly, the Halachic process determines the rules. So, along comes the Turkey. It is quite possible, maybe even likely, that it wouldn't have been accepted as Kosher if we analyzed it today from scratch – but that's not the way Yiddishkeit works. Instead, Klal Yisroel paskened, and it is Kosher. Virtually all authorities explain how it is kosher; the actual psak is basically a fait accompli. So, to me, the Turkey represents the power of Klal Yisroel in Halacha. It represents the process. To me, it represents a significant element in the system of Yiddishkeit.
* Of course, there is much more to the battles of the Tzadokim / Karaim vs. Rabbinic Judaism, but it isn't relevant to this piece.