August 2017, Parshat Re’eh

Dear friends,

Considering the fact that this week’s Parsha, Parshat Re’eh is one of the two primary sources in the Torah detailing the laws of Kosher food, it is a good opportunity to focus our attention to the subject matter.

The laws of Kosher are many and varied. Rather than list the laws let me pose a question. That question is why? Why do we have these laws and what is the reason compelling us to live by them?
There is a school of thought that these laws are simply God’s will and for that reason alone we keep the laws of Kosher. It is a sign of our submission to the will of God.

The problem with such an approach is threefold:
First, it doesn’t take into account the less submissive amongst us. I think it would be safe to claim that the majority of Jews today fit into this category since it is a fact that many do not keep Kosher. If the message is one of submission then it seems it is being ignored by a significant number.

Second, the Torah actually provides explicit rationale for some of the laws. For example, the reason we are forbidden from eating blood is because ‘the blood is the life’. Similarly, the rabbis explained the laws of slaughtering as having everything to do with the welfare of the animal and minimising, to the utmost, whatever pain we inflict on them even at the precise moment of death.

Additionally, some of the laws have a most obvious rationale. Not eating the limb of a live animal is a case in point. I am forever scarred by an image I saw at school in Grade 5 where a monkey’s brain was been eaten, directly from its encasing, while the poor creature was still alive convulsing.

Furthermore, even those laws without any obvious rationale have been addressed by some of the greatest names in Judaism, attempting to give them a rationale. For example, Maimonides mentions health and hygiene as one reason.

And certainly there is evidence of that in the Torah’s prohibition against eating from a carcass. It is also why in rabbinical school they taught, and tested us, on our anatomical knowledge. We literally handled hearts and lungs of animals and had to identify major issues that lead to each being rendered not Kosher.

Alternatively, Nachmanides (13th Century scholar) saw the dietary laws as beneficial to the soul rather than the body. Nahmanides observed that the forbidden animals and birds are predators, so that for humans to eat of their flesh would have an adverse effect on their character. ‘You are what you eat’ is the way we would put it.

Finally and most importantly, without understanding the rationale for something means that we fail to apply the spirit of the law unto changing circumstances thereby denuding it of its relevance.
A perfect illustration of just such a failure is in relation to the very recent phenomenon of industrial farming, particularly two very problematic aspects thereof. Most importantly is the welfare of the animal. Anyone who has witnessed the horrifying reality of caged chickens, production of veal, and the destiny of calves born to dairy cows, knows that the care for the animal is non-existent. Now if the Torah’s laws of Kosher are simply a test of our submission to God then the laws have no bearing on these practices.

For many non-observant Jews, they walk down Glenferrie Road and instead of going to the Kosher butcher they go to the organic, free-range, ethical and sustainable, butcher.

Why, they may well ask, should I keep Kosher, pay three times as much, and yet not be assured that the welfare of the animal came at all into the equation? In fact, many wonder, what is the point of all the laws of Kosher if we can’t tick the basic boxes of: welfare of the animal; environmentally sound; and health of the humans consuming the product.

The truth is that when we look at all the laws of Kashrut, they are clearly designed to better us. Even the way the prohibition of milk and meat is articulated, ‘do not cook a calf in its mother’s milk’ suggests that it is because there is something grotesque about cooking an animal in the very juices designed to provide it with life.

The question, therefore, remains as robust as ever. How is it possible that Kosher can include anything that is the product of a process which caused great harm to the animal? This is a subject examined by Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland and Dayan at South Africa Beit Din, in a piece entitled ‘Is any meat today Kosher?’. An excerpt from his piece reads:

“Kashrut involves the whole relationship between humans and the animal world. Indeed our sages say specifically in relation to shechitah that “the mitzvot were only given in order to refine people” (Genesis Rabbah, 34; Leviticus Rabbah, 13.)
If at point Z the animal’s throat was cut the right way and its internal organs checked, but from A to Y all injunctions and prohibitions have been ignored and desecrated, how can that product really be called kosher?
Why is there virtually no official rabbinic dissent let alone opposition to such practices? Some of it is due to ignorance, but most of all these facts are uncomfortable and it is much easier to avoid or deny them. But might it not also have to do with the fact that the kosher food industry, and all the rabbinic supervision and authorization inextricably bound up with it, constitutes an enormous industry relating to the livelihoods, interests and power of myriads of people?… Modern technology and innovation, which currently compound the evil, may eventually offer us ways out of this imbroglio. Nevertheless, in the meantime if not for longer, responsible rabbinic leadership should be advocating a plant based diet as much as possible, as the most kosher diet available for most people today.” *

Ultimately, if we are truly honest, sensitivity to other animals would inevitably lead us to not killing them at all. I confess I am an omnivore, but I have no choice but to acknowledge that there is clearly a more evolved and spiritually sensitive approach to our living on this planet.

In fact, originally God told Adam and Eve that they can eat any plant they wished. It was only after God came to terms with human weakness, after he wiped out everything on the planet but Noah and his Ark, that God made allowances for meat.

But those allowances were made with qualification. And that qualification clearly requires us to take the greatest care to not harm animals in any other way besides the obvious taking of their lives. The blade is unblemished so that the animal is dead before it realizes it. If the knife had a blemish it would pull the skin and cause it a split second of unnecessary pain prior to its death.
Now that’s a code of law to get excited about.

At least until we further evolve to vegetarianism there is no reason why Kosher meat should not absolutely denounce and avoid any practice causing harm to animals often for entire duration of their unfortunate lives.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur
*To read the full article please go to