By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
No mammals which don’t chew the cud or have cloven hooves; no fish without fins and scales; no birds of prey and certainly no rodents: - in this week’s portion the Torah gives the first detailed list of what animals are, and are not, kosher. This is, of course, not the only aspect of kashrut described in the Torah. We have already been instructed not to ‘seethe a kid in its mother’s milk’ (Exodus 34:26). The threefold repetition of this verse led the rabbis to deduce that we are permitted neither to cook, eat or derive any benefit from meats prepared in this way, hence the separation of ‘meaty’ and ‘milky’ which characterises the (non-vegetarian) Jewish kitchen. The prohibition against the consumption of blood is stated categorically further on in Leviticus (17:10-12).
But why keep kosher? A simple answer is that the Torah says so. Sufficient as this answer may (or, by some, may not) be considered, even the most pious Jews have always searched for reasons. To Maimonides, who was in this regard a rationalist, the idea that God would command something lacking all reason was itself suspect, implying a negative reflection on the deity.
The various facets of kashrut require different responses to the question. One long-standing explanation concerning why certain animals are forbidden altogether is medical: the beasts concerned have bad habits and their flesh is therefore unhealthy to eat. This train of thought was partly espoused by Maimonides, who was court physician to Saladin and as deeply concerned with physical as with spiritual health.
A thoughtful rationale for the distinction between milk and meat, which I heard most eloquently from the poet Chaim Lewis, is that milk is the source of life whereas the eating of meat necessarily entails death. We are thus enjoined to be constantly aware of the relationship between life and death. Another, not necessarily contradictory, reason is that the Torah requires us to make differentiations in many domains of life: we must not mix wool and linen in the same garment or sow different kinds of seeds in the same area of a vineyard. Rather, each facet of creation is to be appreciated separately, on its own terms and for its own worth.
The prohibition against consuming blood makes it impossible to eat hunted meat. Jews are thus precluded from hunting, an activity associated from the Bible onwards with the cruelty of the tyrant Nimrod. (In a famous responsum, Rabbi Ezekiel Landau of Prague (1713 – 1793) answered a query from a man who’d recently inherited an estate by explaining that hunting was not the Jewish way and that we’d no right to pursue animals into their domain unless we were starving.)
The removal of blood necessitates the swiftest method of killing. Together with the injunction to avoid causing suffering to animals, tsar baalei chaim, this underlies the laws of shechitah. (For many, the only way to avoid animal suffering, which, if one takes into account factory farming and the cruelties entailed in transportation, may be far greater during the animals’ lives than at the point of death, is to be vegetarian, with the ultimate ideal of becoming vegan. Apparently the country with the fastest growing percentage of vegetarians and vegans is Israel.)
A parallel explanation for the laws of kashrut in general lies in the social sphere. In having to keep kosher Jews are obliged to eat separately, which in turn prevents assimilation. As the Talmud puts it, decrees against their (non-Jews’ food) are because of their wine; against their wine because of their daughters, and against their daughters because of idolatry. What we eat thus limits with whom we eat and defines us socially. (The challenging question then arises: is vegetarianism a good way of ‘building bridges’ or a way of undermining the very function of kashrut? Do we want to ‘keep apart’ and , if so, when and why?)
Yet for all these ‘reasons’, or rationalisations, kashrut still remains a hok, a decree from God not reducible to ready explanations. Ultimately, as Joseph Telushkin writes, ‘The Torah associates kashrut with holiness’. Kashrut limits unrestrained greed and forces us to be mindful of what we put into our mouths.
Since that is so, the question arises as to whether today there should be other, additional facets to our understanding of kashrut as an ideal. Holiness, after all, must describe our highest ethical and spiritual aspirations. In the 1970’s Rebbe Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of Jewish Renewal, advanced the idea of eco-Kashrut, which would embrace not only the traditional rules enshrined in Jewish law but also:
Bal tashchit (not ruining the earth)
Tza’ar ba’alei chayim (respect for animals)
Sh’mirat haguf (protection of one’s own body)
Oshek (not oppressing workers)
Tzedakah (sharing of resources with the poor)
Shmitah and voyel (periodic times of allowing the earth to rest)
In a world in which the damage we do by heedless consumption is foremost among our global challenges, it makes sense to think that the ideal of kashrut should encompass our ethical concerns in the most comprehensive manner possible.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the Rabbi of New North London Synagogue and Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism.