Introduction to the
Before we get
started, I want to talk about verses in the New Testament that relate to our
topic today. I have spent many hours studying these verses, and, though I do
not intend to go into them in depth here nor do I suggest we have a long
discussion about them, I believe some serious attention is due them.
How should Mark 7, Acts 10, and Romans 14 be read? Do they say that Jesus taught that the rules of kosher (kashrut) no longer apply? Many Christian scholars say yes. They interpret all this language broadly, arriving at the conclusion, in effect, that following kashrut is no longer necessary because what goes into the body cannot defile a person since it goes into the stomach and is eliminated, thus making all foods clean.
Other scholars say no. They maintain that Jesus and his followers kept to the commandments and indeed kept kosher. They argue that the chapter in Mark had to do with a specific argument Jesus had with certain rabbis in which he thought the rabbis had gone too far beyond Torah (including XXVI - Leviticus 11:34). These scholars say that the account in Mark is specifically and discretely concerned with calling foods that had touched unclean hands, etc. unclean to eat, and does not purport to permit the eating of forbidden animals.
We’re not going to attempt to resolve that debate here. But what we can agree to is that Christians almost universally do not feel bound to follow the kosher rules, nor do Jews think that they or any other non-Jews should or must. Further, as with all our study, I have the hypothesis that studying these mitzvot has value for people wherever they fall on the spectrum of believers.
Some on one side try to follow kashrut as fully as possible. Some on the other side, while believing fully in the need to study and know God’s Word to better their lives, do not believe the kashrut rules specifically apply to them and do not follow them. And there are a wide variety of people in the middle, such as Camille and me, who follow these mitzvot in some ways but try to be mindful of all their direction to the best of our ability.
So, our focus will be as it has been in the past: we will look at the deepest levels of God’s Word to see if there is guidance on how we can best live our lives, wherever we may be on that spectrum. To be more specific, whether one agrees or disagrees that all foods are “clean,” are there issues in how we obtain our foods, especially the animals we eat and the manner in which they’re killed, that are worthy for the study of the sacred? Could it be that these mitzvot are more about decisions we make from the heart on what we do to eat than what we put in our mouths? Can we find ideas of the sacred in these mitzvot - aspects of holiness, certain virtues - that help us better serve God? Let’s see what we find.
In our discussion of sacred space, we venture out a bit today. We do so, I believe, because the Bible invites us to consider the view that, as the sacred extends outward, it comes to encompass in some ways the ways we govern the activities of our very own bodies. The idea is not exactly the same as that expressed in I Corinthians 6:19, that “your bodies are temples,” for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment. But it’s parallel enough to make the point: we’re to act in ways that bring holiness to ourselves, our bodies, and the world.
There are many explanations of why followers of the Bible would follow these mitzvot related to kashrut. Some sages argue it’s simply because God commanded it. Others look for explicit reasons based on how they might serve to cause us to live more in accord with Divine expectations, in holiness.
Our goal today is to examine the mitzvot and, as is our custom, to dive deep to see what their underlying direction might be and to benefit from the wisdom they offer in guiding our lives, whether we comply fully, partially, or not all with their surface demands. Essentially, my hypothesis is that they teach us a great deal about virtues that should be core to the way we live.
You’ll recall the pop phrase from the sixties - “you are what you eat.” At many levels, I think this simple prescription actually gets to certain truths in these mitzvot. First, since we physically are changed in some respects by what we eat, it could be said we choose when we eat to become a bit like what we eat. So, if we care about who we are and who we are becoming, we might pay attention to the characteristics of what we eat and make decisions accordingly. Second, and I think more important, what we do to eat - how we procure our food and how we eat it - says something important about the kind of persons we are - our standards, our ethics, and indeed how and whether we are living in accord with the call of holiness.
Let’s illustrate by looking at this mitzvah and searching for what it teaches about virtue and the demands of holiness.
1. Read Leviticus 19:26
Leviticus 19: 26 You must not eat anything with its blood. You must not participate in divination or fortune-telling.
Q1. What’s the surface issue here? Do you see deeper concerns that this language may be addressing?
We are not to eat with the blood. This could be read literally, as with blood or while still alive. Or it could be read as well, as many sages say, as prohibiting eating with abandon, or desperately as if our lives depended upon it. What wisdom would that teach us about virtue?
(We should eat for sustenance, not, as heathens of the past, out of lust or the eagerness of our full life force. Animals often eat in such intemperate ways. We’re part angel and part animal; we don’t eat put aside our holy self to eat purely as animals. Indeed this is one way we mark our holiness. Further, we show our commitment to the commanded life by showing self-control.
Chinuch says, “when the sustenance of man’s material element is increased, through excessive intake of food, the soul becomes weakened.” We should avoid excessive indulging “lest our material element greatly outweigh our spiritual element.”
The physical consequences of eating or drinking excessively or out of control should teach us as well that it’s inappropriate. Whether it’s a painful hangover and headache or it’s becoming bloated and nauseous, having fretful sleeping hours or uncomfortable waking hours - these physical symptoms surely do not fit the character of a person who lives in the Way of God, one who is seeking to be holy. We disrupt the balance in our bodies when we eat and drink to abandon. On the other hand, we move closer to holiness when, as priests of our bodies, we eat and drink consciously and moderately and, thus, in accord with propriety and good health.
I would suggest finally that this mitzvah feels akin to the prohibition against reaping of our harvest out to and through the corners. There’s a sense of excessiveness, the bloated self, greed, and overt self-seeking and aggressiveness in violating the mitzvah.)
2. Read Exodus 23:19; Exodus 34:26
Exodus 23: 19 Bring the best of your land’s early produce to the Lord your God’s temple. Don’t boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.
Exodus 34: 26 Bring the best of the early produce of your farmland to the Lord your God’s temple. Don’t boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.
Q2. This is a primary rule within the world of kashrut. What appears to be the deeper concern in the prohibition?
While tradition has extended this language to prohibit the eating of any kind of meat product with any kind of milk product, let’s look at the mitzvah language directly. What virtue might we learn from a prohibition against boiling, eating, or deriving any benefit from cooking a kid in its mother’s milk?
(First, Maimonides says God-fearing people should begin by avoiding what we know to have been pagan practices. Others say the kid and the milk are two distinct phases of the animals’ life cycle that shouldn’t be mixed.
Second, and perhaps at a deeper level, this mitzvah challenges us to be mindful of the feelings and needs of animals and that we act toward them with respect and compassion.
Third, if we can refuse to eat the meat of an animal that suffers in death the indignity of being boiled in its own mother’s milk, we will be more likely to be sensitive to and treat kindly and justly all our neighbors, both human and animal. We develop the virtue of feeling and showing love and compassion for all God’s creatures.)
3. Exodus 22:31; Deuteronomy 14:21; Exodus 21:28
Exodus 22: 31 You are holy people to me. Don’t eat any meat killed by wild animals out in the field. Throw it to the dogs instead.
Deuteronomy 14: 21 You shall not eat anything that dies of itself; you may give it to aliens residing in your towns for them to eat, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
Exodus 21: 28 When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox should be stoned to death, and the meat of the ox shouldn’t be eaten. But the owner of the ox shouldn’t be punished.
Q3.What’s the argument against eating animals under these circumstances?
These three mitzvot respectively prohibit eating an animal that has been killed by another beast in the field, died on its own, or was killed for having itself killed a human being. I don’t want to dwell on these in our discussion today.
(But I’ll simply say one gets the feeling of inappropriateness in each instance. All have the feel of pagan practice.
In addition, in the first, we don’t want to let a beast do “our dirty work,” and further we don’t know that the animal to be eaten was killed painlessly and didn’t suffer for a period of time in a pained or diseased or injured state.
In the second, there is a longstanding health and spiritual concern with eating carrion, again a practice of pagans.
In the third, as we will see in other mitzvot, there’s a sense that we shouldn’t benefit from, and especially not eat of, an animal that has killed a human being. Further, there’s no assurance the animal we would be eating has been killed painlessly.)
4. Leviticus 11:13-16, 41-45; Deuteronomy 14:12, 19; Leviticus 11:21-22
Leviticus 11: 13 Of the birds, the following are the ones you must detest—they must not be eaten; they are detestable: the eagle, the black vulture, the bearded vulture, 14 the kite, any kind of falcon, 15 any kind of raven, 16 the eagle owl, the short-eared owl, the long-eared owl, any kind of hawk. 41 Every creature that swarms on the earth is detestable; it must not be eaten.42 Among all such creatures that swarm on the earth, you must not eat anything that moves on its belly or anything that walks on four or more feet because they are detestable. 43 Do not make yourselves detestable by means of any swarming creatures. Do not make yourselves unclean with them or be made unclean by them. 44 I am the Lord your God. You must keep yourselves holy and be holy, because I am holy. You must not make yourselves unclean by any swarming creature that crawls on the ground. 45 I am the Lord, who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God. You must be holy, because I am holy.
Deuteronomy 14: 12 Here’s a list of those you are not allowed to eat: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey. 19 Also, all winged insects are off-limits for you. They are not to be eaten.
Leviticus 11: 21 but you can eat four-footed flying insects that have jointed legs above their feet with which they hop on the ground. 22 Of these you can eat the following: any kind of migrating locust, any kind of bald locust, any kind of cricket, and any kind of grasshopper.
Q4. Does our reason respond sympathetically with these restrictions? Why?
We’re to examine for, and avoid eating, certain animals altogether. These include snakes, worms, and other reptiles such as bees, flies, and most insects, as well as birds that include the vulture, the raven, and the hawk. Why might we refrain from killing and eating these animals?
(First, instinctively, we find the thought of eating such animals to be repulsive, whether such food would be injurious to our physical or spiritual health or not. Is this because we don’t want to be like such animals, or we just don’t like the thought of eating them, or both? It’s hard to tell, but the revulsion is powerful. As to the prohibited birds, these are generally birds of prey that survive principally by viciously pursuing and ravenously clawing, killing and eating other animals. We avoid eating them perhaps because we may want to avoid eating animals whose habits we detest and would not in any way want to take on ourselves. Unlike birds of prey, we seek to be just and merciful and preserve life wherever possible. Further, we are of the view that killing ought to be limited and regulated, even as to obtaining food to eat, in ways to limit pain as much as possible.)
5. Leviticus 7:23-26
Leviticus 7: 23 Tell the Israelites: You must not eat the fat of an ox, sheep, or goat. 24 The fat of an animal that has died naturally or the fat of an animal that was killed by another animal may be put to any use, but you must definitely not eat it. 25 If anyone eats the fat of an animal from which a food gift could be offered to the Lord, that person will be cut off from their people. 26 You must not consume any blood whatsoever—whether bird or animal blood—wherever you may live.
Q5. What ancient or modern concerns might be behind these two prohibitions?
(Traditionally, it was thought that blood and fat were exclusively reserved for God, to be consumed on the altar.
Also, in addition to being thought unhealthy to eat, it has been believed that blood is the essence of life, and we should refrain from eating of the life force of another being. Further, consuming blood would be insensitive, encouraging cruelty in us, and thus should be avoided.
As to fat, there is a very longstanding view that fat is unhealthy, physically and spiritually. This goes back way before current medical journals. The Jewish sage Abrabanel wrote of it more than 500 years ago. Chinuch wrote, “cheilev (fat) clings and produces harmful humors in the body.”)
Let me mention Genesis 32:33 which prohibits eating the thigh muscle of an animal. This is designed to cause us to remember and commemorate that fateful night when our ancestor Jacob’s hip was wrenched in his wrestling with the man/angel. As Israel (which means “wrestles with God”), we identify through this mitzvah with the struggle, loss, and victory of that crucial encounter that put us on the path to our destiny with God.)
Concluding Question: Is there an overarching direction of these mitzvot? Is there a common thread? What might it be? What ethic does it seem to promote?
So, after all these mitzvot we’ve studied today about killing and eating animals, and remembering all the many more we considered in our discussion of love of all God’s creatures, what fundamentally seems to be going on here? Do you think there might be some underlying, yet overarching purpose to all these mitzvot, taken together?
(Interestingly, we shed almost all of the complexity of this system if we choose a wholly or mostly vegetarian diet, with perhaps certain fish. I’m not promoting such a proposal to all you meat eaters. (Indeed, Camille and I haven’t made that decision for ourselves. With a certain degree of mindfulness and concern, we do eat meat in the Kress house.) Yet, I increasingly hold to the hypothesis that these mitzvot collectively represent a balanced resolution of a seeming dichotomy in the Bible as to the apparent Divine preference in Genesis for eating plants with the permission granted Noah and all his descendants to be able to eat meat. Is it possible that eating meat is permitted but should be constrained through our being made to be especially mindful and disciplined in the killing and eating of animals?
Living in God’s way involves much more than what we do to eat. But eating is basic, indeed essential, to life. What we do to eat says a lot about us and the choices we make in living, especially to the extent we kill other creatures to nourish our lives. However far we go with this, if at all, could it be that the decisions we make about what we do to eat reflect in some ways a quality of heart? Is a profound care in killing to eat, even when we have the authority to do so, a reflection of the holiness we carry in our hearts? However we answer that question, it’s certainly a question worth pondering.)
Before we complete this discussion, I want you to read Leviticus 19:23-25.
Leviticus 19: 23 When you enter the land and plant any fruit tree, you must consider its fruit off-limits.[e] For three years it will be off-limits to you;[f] it must not be eaten. 24 In the fourth year, all of the tree’s fruit will be holy, a celebration for the Lord. 25 In the fifth year you can eat the fruit. This is so as to increase its produce for you; I am the Lord your God.
This is about fruit-bearing trees, not animals. What might be the purpose of delaying eating the fruit of a tree for the first three years and then requiring a dedication of fruit to God in the fourth before we are permitted to use the fruit from the fifth year on?
(Is the tree unhealthy in its first years? Is devouring the fruit early on wrong because it emulates pagan practice? Or are these mitzvot other ways of expressing our understanding that all sources of food are the property of God and that we’re merely their stewards. Here, we as stewards recognize our duty by committing first to protect the tree from our exploitation until it’s sturdy and stable and then making an offering to God before we begin to eat of the tree ourselves. In other words, it may be that these mitzvot speak to us yet again of God’s preference that we be mindful, respectful, and restrained in what we do to eat, as opposed to being greedy and exploitative, as if we’re owners, without limitation, of the earth and all that we find in it.)
I happen to think there is a sort of environmentalism in the Bible, or put another way, a Divine expectation that we live true to virtues inherent in our being good stewards of the earth over which we have been given dominion. These mitzvot are, at bottom, God’s way of encouraging a mindfulness, a high degree of care, a sense of restraint and humility, and a balance of our interests as against those of other living creatures.
I would go even a step further. As we move out from sacred space and into the world, carrying God’s mission to bring the sacred to the rest of the world, this very teaching we’ve been learning today about what we do to eat is one important way God helps prepare our hearts for such a mission.