March 2019, Parshat Shmini

Dear friends,

This week’s Parsha has in it the famous Kosher Laws. These laws have had Jews in lively discussion from time immemorial, which may be summarised in the simple word ‘why’. Why does the Torah forbid pigs and eagles whilst permitting cows and doves?

The dominant interpretation amongst those who keep Kosher is that these laws were not meant to have a rationale. They are God’s command to which we must without question submit ourselves.

At the same time, many agree that the greatest challenge for Judaism today is survival itself. Outside of a few neighbourhoods around the world in a few generations time, based on current stats, there will be no wider Jewish community to speak of. If you ask those who are walking away, the number one reason you will hear is a lack of identification with the laws of the Torah.

Thankfully there is a rich tradition that goes back thousands of years. The laws of Kosher, according to Jews 2300 years ago, was to instil certain virtues in human beings. Don’t put your face in faeces like a pig does and don’t behave like a predator. Two really salient points are highly relevant to our complicated world.

Other explanations followed. Kosher is about health, hygiene, and spiritual sensitivity amongst the reasons put forward. There is no doubt that not eating old roadkill can be rationalised very nicely on health considerations. Similarly, not eating a kid stewed in its mothers’ milk makes one more sensitive to the lives of the animals we are eating.

And of course, some laws can only be explained in terms of animal welfare.

If we follow in this tradition today, we might have a lot more to add to this. For instance, perhaps the Torah’s prohibition against pig is because it recognised, as we do today, that they are amongst the most intelligent and emotionally sensitive animals. Perhaps the Torah’s prohibition against eating predators has to do with minimising our impact on the natural environment. Since there are millions of prey to relatively to very few predators, culling the herd is sustainable.

But we would not only add new depth to rationalisations of Torah’s laws, we would also appropriately apply the Torah’s laws. If animal cruelty is a no-no, environment sustainability a yes-yes, and kosher is healthy eating at the very least, kosher eating would have many subscribers.

To reclaim Kosher as a positive force in the world, and indeed to maintain Judaism as a living Torah whose laws have relevance today and into the future, we must first get past the ideology of subservience.

I’m not saying people don’t have a right to approach Kosher out of subservience it’s just that it’s highly unappealing to many. If we allow diversity of opinion in, then perhaps we work together in increasing the relevance of Judaism today.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur