This is not Jesus versus Judaism. Despite what Mark says, not “all Jews” were preoccupied with handwashing or with what looks to us like washing the dishes. There were indeed some Jews who regarded these symbolic acts of priestly purification as part of a vital spiritual practice. It reflected a liberating, “democratizing” conviction among Pharisees that all of God’s people are priests, not just the people who are singled out to serve in the Temple at Jerusalem. And apparently a good number of Jesus’ disciples followed this practice too. After all, we are told that only “some” of the disciples didn’t do this. Apparently a variety of practices were welcome among Jesus’ followers.
When I first visited an Episcopal church in college, I was a bit put off by some of the practices I saw, being an anti-ritualistic Southern Baptist (and not noticing how invested we Baptists were in our own sorts of rituals). Some people nodded their heads toward the altar before sitting down. Others went down on one knee before taking a seat. But of course lots of people just sat down. I soon learned that nobody in that parish cared all that much about how the person next to them chose to worship. You could be as Catholic as you wanted to be or as Protestant as you wanted to be. Everyone was encouraged not to grade other people based on what they saw. Ironically, I soon realized that I was the one grading everybody, looking somewhat askance at people who were acting too “Catholic” for my taste back then.
Jesus is not condemning these practices per se. Again, some of his own followers were engaging in them. He’s condemning the common human tendency to lose track of why practices like these might be important. They’re important only when they open us to the “priestliness,“ the holiness, of every one of us, when they open us to loving God in the only way that we can love God, by loving one another.
Jesus is making a point that other rabbis shared. As Rabbi Hillel once said, around the same time, the whole message of the Torah can be summed up in one sentence: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others, the rest is commentary” (Tractate Shabbat, 31a). Keeping kosher is in the service of others’ well-being.
To get fixated on whether somebody else is keeping kosher, or following one of your own favorite spiritual practices, is to miss the point of that practice. But that warning applies in reverse: to look askance at others for keeping kosher, or for acting too “Catholic,“ to assume that their practices are shallow or superficial, is also to miss the point. It’s better to welcome whatever works, whatever opens us to the “priestliness,“ the holiness, of every one of us, whatever opens us to loving God in the only way that we can love God, by loving one another.