September 2016, Parshat Re’eh, Laws of Kashrut

Dear friends,

In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Re’eh, we read about the laws of Kosher food, whose laws can be basically summarised as follows:
1. No eating blood.
2. No mixing of milk and meat.
3. Only eating mammals that chew their cud and have split hooves.
4. Only eating fish with fins and scales.
5. Only eating birds from the prescribed list.
6. Slaughtering the Kosher animals in a particular way.
7. Insects, reptiles, invertebrates, and amphibians, are all prohibited.
8. Not eating from a diseased or dead carcass.
9. Not eating from an animal while it is still alive.

There has been much discussion as to the rationale for these prohibitions. Some say health. Clearly that is part of the story for after all a dead carcass and a diseased animal are both prohibited. Others say it has to do with the idea of ‘you are what you eat’, which is why animals and birds of prey are not Kosher. Still others maintain that laws of Kashrut are primarily designed to instil a certain discipline, which would explain the seemingly arbitrary nature of some of these laws.

And of course, there is animal welfare. The law against eating from an animal while it is still living is a primary example of this. I clearly remember the traumatising footage we were shown in primary school of a restaurant somewhere in Asia serving a delicacy: the brain of a monkey while it was still hot because the monkey was still alive and screaming under the hole in the middle of the table.

The Torah absolutely forbids these horrifying practices because animal cruelty is a major component of the laws of Kashrut.

Likewise, the strict requirements of the slaughtering process, both the sharpness of the knife and precise location of and manner of cutting, are further explicit examples where the primary concern is to avoid unnecessary pain to the animal. Even as we are killing the animal to eat its meat, we must ensure that the knife is without a nick so it will kill cleanly without ripping the skin which would be more painful. It is also why the actual slice is at the point it is, so it will lose the maximum amount of blood in the shortest timeframe. This way the animal loses consciousness before it can start to feel the pain of injury and death.

Finally, there is a major school of thought that rejects the pursuit of any rationale for these laws claiming that these laws are ‘chukim’ – laws that have no reason. Such laws are given to us for one purpose only, that we subjugate ourselves to the divine will; they are to be obeyed and no rationale is required.
The problem with this approach is manifold.

Firstly, the Torah itself begs to differ. It actually provides an explicit reason for at least the prohibition against blood, ‘because the blood is the soul’. Whatever this means we will momentarily get back to, but the Torah is giving us a reason, not demanding blind obedience.

Secondly, the recurring motif amongst the laws of Kashrut is the idea that you should make yourselves holy. Time and again the Torah provides that as the reason for keeping these laws. It does not say that you should keep them because you are my slaves and therefore should do what I tell you. Whatever making yourselves holy means will become apparent very soon, but it is clearly very different than the idea of servitude.

Thirdly, how does that approach account for all the implicit rationales mentioned above?

Finally and most importantly, by focusing on blind obedience we miss the whole point of what Kashrut is all about, to evolve human consciousness by mandating laws that guide us to become more sensitive human beings. Why are we not allowed to eat the blood? Because we should be sensitive to the fact that even though we are about to eat the animal, it is a being deserving of respect because it has a soul, however inferior to that of a human it may be.
This approach incorporates all the particular explanations above and adds a lot more besides. Obviously ‘you are what you eat’ is a sensitivity issue. Similarly, animal welfare is all about becoming sensitive to the pain and suffering of another living being. What is the difference between those eating live monkeys to those who throw up at the mere thought? Clearly, it is their level of spiritual enlightenment.

This approach also explains a major fact that is otherwise obscured by the infatuation with obedience. The prohibition against eating milk and meat is derived from the words ‘you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk’. It doesn’t say not to cook meat in milk but rather a calf in its mother’s milk. Why? Because it is easier to relate to the ‘wrongness’ of cooking a calf in its mother’s milk than all meat and milk. The Torah is therefore indicating that the reason why we should not eat meat and milk in general is merely an extrapolation of the basic idea that since milk is the juice of life for mammals, to use it in the process of its preparation is simply insensitive. Though it makes no difference to the animal, the Torah is very much concerned with our spirituality.

And this is precisely the idea of becoming holy that the Torah consistently reiterates. Becoming holy is the process of growth that comes from spiritual awareness as a result of nurturing our sensitive souls.

By focusing on obedience on the other hand, we very quickly lose the spirit of the law which ends up in incredible hypocrisy and contradiction.

Consider this fact. Kosher meat is roughly triple the price of the supermarket equivalent. Why? Because of the unique process of Shechita, which as mentioned above is all about reducing the suffering of the animal by split seconds. Now I like that. I like belonging to a tradition and a community who are so worried about the needless suffering of the animal and would put their money where their mouth is.

But how can this hypersensitivity to the suffering of the animal not translate into caring about the needless suffering of the animal for its whole life until it got to the moment of its death?! How in fact is not all Kosher meat required by its certification process to be bred in a humane manner? The fact that there are almost no Kosher products that adhere to a humane breeding process even available, says it all. Apparently, we only care about mercy killing, not actual mercy.

Is it then any wonder then that the younger generation finds other diets more attractive than Kosher? I have no doubt that if Kosher stamp of approval meant that the greatest care has been taken with regard to animal welfare at every stage of its existence, we would have many new adherents to Kosher living. If as well we would include ethical sourcing, fair-trade, and health considerations, then we would truly be imbuing our eating habits with the holiness the Torah demands of us.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur