The Torah reading of Shmini contains dietary laws referred to in the Jewish tradition as laws of kashrut (from the Hebrew word kosher) – however, the term kosher does not appear in the Torah reading of Shmini or in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses). The term kosher literally means valid in the sense of in accordance with law – and, appears one time in the Hebrew Bible in the Book of Esther (8, 5). The term is in the main a Talmudic term used often in reference to food and to dietary laws of Judaism. I will not relate to the dietary laws here from a legal point of view – especially because the laws are very detailed. I want to relate to the laws from a philosophic and spiritual point of view.
I want to begin by pointing out that in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), which is a legal constitution of the Jewish people upon which Jewish law is based, permission to eat animals (and animal products) is given to the human being only after the Biblical account of the flood. In the opening Biblical account of the creation of the universe, according to which God creates the universe in six days and ceases to create on the seventh day, no permission whatsoever is given to the human being to eat animals (Genesis 1, 29) – “And God said, behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food”. Clearly, in the plain meaning of Scripture, the ideal of creation, originally, was that the human being would be vegetarian (eating only fruits and vegetables), and not consume any animal products. In the Jewish law, the dietary laws regulate and limit only the consumption of animal products further indicating that the ideal is vegetarianism – and, all fruits and vegetables are kosher (permitted for consumption).
According to the Biblical account of the flood, God regrets of having created the human being (Genesis 6, 6) due to the wickedness of the human being (Genesis 6, 5), and God then decides to bring the flood in order to destroy human beings with the exception of Noah and his family. After the flood, according to the Biblical account, permission is then given to the human being to consume animal products (Genesis 9, 3) – “Every moving thing that lives shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all”. The reason given for the previous wickedness of the human being prior to the flood was the inability of human beings to control their impulses (Genesis 6, 5) – “and every impulse of the thoughts of his (the human being) heart was only evil continually”. Thus, the implication is that after the flood as a concession to human weakness, and due to the inability of human beings to control their impulses, permission is granted to human beings to consume animal products.
Moreover, in the plain meaning of Scripture, permission for the Israelites to ritually slaughter animals and consume animals outside of the Tabernacle, which was the center of ritual worship of the Israelites characterized by sacrificial offerings including offerings of animals, is based upon the verse (Deuteronomy 12, 21) – “then you shall slaughter of your herd and of your flock”. It is clear that this permission is also a concession to human weakness as the previous verse says (Deuteronomy 12, 20) – “When the Lord your God shall enlarge your border…and you shall say, I will eat meat, because your soul lusts to eat meat, you may eat meat, after all the desire of your soul”. Here, the reason for permission to ritually slaughter and eat animals is due to human lust for meat – and, lust though not seen in the Biblical or traditional Jewish conception as a sin is certainly not a religious ideal (lust is seen in the Biblical and traditional Jewish conception merely as a part of our animal nature as human beings and not as sinful). The permission then for the Israelites to ritually slaughter animals and consume animal products outside of the Tabernacle in the plain meaning of Scripture is a concession to human weakness if one is unable to rise above one’s animal nature characterized by lust for meat.
Thus, it is clear that in the plain meaning of Scripture, the dietary laws of Judaism are in a context of a moral and spiritual ideal of not consuming animal products, and eating only fruits and vegetables (and grains or other non-animal products). Regarding the Biblical list of animals that are permitted and forbidden to eat (Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14), the permitted animals are considered pure or clean (טהור) and the forbidden animals are considered impure or unclean (טמא) as an expression of the holiness that the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) demands (Leviticus 11, 45-47) – “For I am the Lord that brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall therefore be holy…This is the law of the beast, and of the fowl, and of every living creature…to make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the living thing that may be eaten and the living thing that may not be eaten”.
In the plain meaning of Scripture then the dietary laws are not, as is widely and mistakenly believed, due to medical reasons (and, the Torah is a religious document and not a medical treatise). Rather, in the plain meaning of Scripture the dietary laws are an expression of the holiness that the Torah demands, reflecting distinctions of what is considered pure and impure or clean and unclean. The concept of holiness in the Torah is a spiritual and religious concept expressing moral and spiritual ideals of the Torah, and thus the concepts of clean (pure) and unclean (impure) are not referring to cleanliness or purity in a physical sense but in a spiritual sense.
In the Talmudic tradition, the most severe form of impurity (uncleanliness) based upon the Torah (Numbers 19) is death of a human being (a human corpse) – and, it is the human being who is created in the image of God. The menstrual cycle of a woman is seen in the Jewish tradition, based upon the Bible, as impure or unclean – and, again, not in a physical but in a spiritual sense. The loss of blood by the woman during her menstrual cycle is associated with death and the loss of a potential human life. The Bible is preoccupied with life. It is clear that the almost complete silence of the Bible regarding life after death is a reaction to the religion and culture of ancient Egypt, from where the Israelites escaped from slavery marking the birth of the Jewish people. The ancient Egyptian religion and civilization were preoccupied with death and dying. Rabbi Hertz, in his commentary to the Torah (Hertz commentary, p. 397), points out that “a characteristic element in the religious life of Egypt was worship of the dead”, and that the pyramids were monuments to the dead that “testify that the Egyptians devoted greater zeal than any nation on earth to the abodes of their dead”.
Thus, the preoccupation of Egyptian culture with death, to such an extent that the Egyptians were willing to enslave and oppress people (and not just Hebrews) here in this world in order to build monuments to the dead, leads to a preoccupation in the Hebrew Bible with life in this world. The great unpronounceable name of God – YHVH – comes from a root meaning to be or to exist. Rabbi Hertz points out that in contrast to ancient, Egyptian culture, “Israel’s faith is a religion of life, not of death; a religion that declares man’s humanity to man as the most acceptable form of adoration of the one God” (p. 397). According to Rabbi Hertz, the true service (“adoration”) of God in the Biblical conception is morality (“man’s humanity to man”).
If we return then to the list of animals permitted in the Torah for human consumption (Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14) that are considered spiritually pure or clean, and this is true of the animals permitted as sacrificial offerings in the Tabernacle, the permitted animals that are considered spiritually pure or clean are not predators. The term sacrifice in Hebrew comes from a root that means to draw close, and sacrificial offerings were in the Biblical conception a way to draw close to God – and, one cannot draw close to God in the Biblical conception by offering as sacrificial offerings animals that are predators. Similarly, animals that we are permitted to eat, only as a concession to human weakness in the Biblical conception, cannot be predators. Holiness, which is required in order to draw close to God in the Biblical conception, can be attained only by being spiritually pure or clean – and, this means among other things not eating unclean animals, especially predators.
One last issue relating to the eating of animal products. As I have pointed out the permission to eat animals in the Biblical conception is not an ideal but only a concession to human weakness. However, this permission is very problematic in our contemporary world – especially in light of the development of the livestock industry and intensive animal farming in which animals are raised in very large numbers on farms for the consumption of meat and animal products. This development of the livestock industry has brought about three major changes. But, before I explain the changes, I want to cite a remarkable teaching of Nachmanides (a great commentator and thinker who lived in the 13th century), expressing the view that the essence of Judaism is not law but moral and spiritual demands of the Torah that go beyond the letter of the law. Nachmanides actually formulates this position in two separate places in his commentary upon the Torah – on the verse, “You shall be holy” (Leviticus 19, 2) and on the verse, “And you shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18).
Nachmanides makes a famous and remarkable comment on the verse, “You shall be holy”, when he says that a person, even though strictly observant of law, may nevertheless be “a despicable person with permission of the Torah”. For example, one may be strictly observant of dietary laws, refraining from eating pig – and, yet, eat greedily and gluttonously like a pig, which would clearly not represent a life of holiness as demanded by the Torah. The meaning of the phrase “with permission of the Torah” is that such a person would not be violating any specific law, in eating greedily and gluttonously like a pig, and thus the Torah grants one permission, legally, to act in such a disgusting way.
The first change brought about by the development of the livestock industry concerns our health. Together with the development of the livestock industry, there has been a plague of epidemic proportions of illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and so on. These illnesses existed prior to the development of the livestock industry, but they were not plagues of epidemic proportions. Thus, today, for a Jew to argue that we are permitted to eat meat and animal products, not only is this permission in the Biblical conception a concession to human weakness, but this is also in the realm of a “despicable person with permission of the Torah”. The Torah according to Nachmanides requires much more than what is permissible from a legal point of view, and requires from a spiritual point of view that we take care of ourselves in terms of our bodily health. Today, the consumption of animal products without question endangers our health.
The second change concerns the causing of pain and suffering to animals, which is forbidden according to Jewish law (צער בעלי חיים). Prior to the development of the livestock industry animals that were slaughtered according to Jewish law were not raised in a way causing pain and suffering to those animals. However, there is no question that the animals raised on the animal farms of the livestock industry for the consumption of meat and animal products suffer terrible pain and suffering. There is a concept in Jewish law that a mitzvah (commandment and good deed) that is the result of legal wrongdoing (of a violation of law) is not a mitzvah and is actually forbidden – here, in this case, the eating of animal products is a result of the violation of the law prohibiting the causing of pain and suffering to animals, and the eating of animal products is not a mitzvah at all but only permitted as a concession to human weakness.
The last change concerns damage caused to our environment – and, there is a prohibition in Jewish law of causing wanton or wasteful destruction (בל תשחית). The livestock industry without question is a huge source of damage to our environment – and, again, this means that the eating of animal products today is the result of a violation of Jewish law when the eating of animal products is not a mitzvah at all but only permitted as a concession to human weakness.