Thoughts on Parshat Aharei Mot
Why isn’t the prohibition against the consumption of blood included in the Noahide laws?
“And any man of the House of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn among then, who eats any blood, I will set My attention upon the soul who eats the blood, and will cut him off from among his people. (Lev 17:10)
“For the soul of the flesh is in the blood and I have therefore given it to you to be placed upon the altar, to atone for your souls. For it is the blood that atones for the soul. (Lev 17:11)
“Therefore, I said to the children of Israel: None of you shall eat blood, and the stranger who sojourns among you shall not eat blood.” (Lev 17:12)
Parshat Aharei Mot contains the injunction against the consumption of an animal’s blood, with dire consequences for any Israelite or sojourner in Israel who violates this prohibition “For the soul of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11).
Had the Torah stopped right there it would have made perfect sense – a remarkable dictum that affirms respect for the creatures we consume by not consuming their ‘soul’, merely their flesh.
But the Torah does not stop there. Indeed the very same verse continues with “and I have therefore given it to you to be placed upon the altar, to atone for your souls. For it is the blood that atones for the soul”.
This latter part of the verse provides a totally different reason for not consuming blood, namely that it is an atonement for the soul, a sort of proxy for our own blood on the altar of G-d. In other words, G-d indulges in the consumption of blood but denies the same right to His people. Non-Jews have no such prohibition.
Furthermore, it is clear the Torah does not consider blood consumption an abomination, even though its prohibition precedes an entire litany of acts that are classified as such – incest, male-male sexual penetration, bestiality – all of which are described as the customs of Egypt and/or the inhabitants of Canaan, as surely blood consumption was as well.
It is worth noting here that one of the seven Noahide laws is the prohibition against consuming a limb from a living creature. Yet there is no such Noahide prohibition against consuming its blood – even if drawn from a live animal, as is the custom among certain African tribes which drink fresh blood drawn from the veins of living cattle. One might think that in the hierarchy of importance, blood might take precedence over a leg, tail or the ever-popular ‘prairie oysters” on which cowboys feast. After all, if the soul of the animal is its blood, surely flesh is of secondary importance.
Can it be the Torah’s prohibition against a Jew’s consuming blood is not merely implying a tolerance of such consumption by non-Jews, but actually is an encouragement of it? Indeed, one rarely encounters even the crudest gentile hacking the leg off a live cow or lamb in order to make dinner. Yet even the most sophisticated carnivores expects their steak to be rare, and virtually floating in a puddle of blood, while sausages made of the blood of pigs and other mammals are a delicacy throughout Europe and Asia.
It would appear then, that the Torah actually divided humankind into two groups – those who consume blood and those who do not. The non-Jew and the Jew.
I would suggest that what the Torah is telling us is that both the consumption of blood and the abstention thereof have direct impact on one’s personality. Because blood is the soul, its consumption introduces that soul into one’s body. In other words one who drinks the blood of a pig or a cow imbibes the soul of a pig or a cow, thereby spiritually becoming more like a beast and somehow less human. Conversely, one who abstains from the consumption of an animal’s blood retains only the soul of the human – which while not quite Divine, is certainly of a higher order than that of an animal.
The Jewish People have excelled in areas that other peoples have not — creative endeavors, the sciences and mathematics, philosophy, economics, business. Not that others do not excel in these as well, but the proportional divide is enormous. By the same token Jews have always been underrepresented in the realms of murder, mayhem, genocide and other sociopathic behaviors that are viewed as beastly and animal-like.
Credit is normally given to the fact that Jews are the People of The Book. This is typically understood as meaning that our literacy and obsession with study are what enable us to achieve such heights. I would suggest, perhaps, that indeed we are a cut above because we are People of the Book in that we adhere to The Book. The fact is that we are People BY the Book even before we are People OF the Book – naaseh נעשה preceedes v’nishma ונשמע. By observing the prohibition against ingesting the souls of animals we are inured against behaving like animals. Hence we are less drawn to brutality and barbarism. It is this, in turn, which enables us to focus on loftier goals.