All too often, kashrut is viewed as a set of rules that are meant to be followed and not understood, technicalities with little or no underlying meaning. But these rules do embody values that give them meaning, which in turn can give our lives more meaning as we follow them. Of course this isn’t true about each and every detail – as is the case in any legal system – but there is still much meaning to be gained from learning about kashrut in a certain way that too many of us overlook.
While the technicalities of kashrut are found in various verses – most extensively in certain sections of VaYikra and Devarim – and in our Codes, what most people overlook is that a more compelling values based conversation about kashrut actually starts in Sefer Bereishit. From the beginning of when the natural world is created and we are added to it, the Torah challenges us to consider what our role is in that world, as Rabbi Soloveitchik explicates so profoundly. Does the world serve our purposes or do we serve the world’s? (Gen. 1, 2)
That question connects directly to how we understand the rules regarding what we eat. If the world serves our purposes, why then are we initially herbivores? (1:29-30) Similar questions persist following the world’s re-creation in Parashat Noach. Why does it take the world’s destruction following its violent corruption – after God instructs Noach to save much more of the animal kingdom than humanity! – for us to become omnivores? (Gen. 9:3) What is the significance of this transition? Is this new world order somehow better balanced in a way that can sustain animal consumption? Is this a tradeoff, a concession to humanity’s violent tendencies, which will somehow keep us from doing worse?
These are of course not the only places in Chumash that can support a values based conversation about kashrut. What can we learn, for example, from the laws of tza’ar ba’alei chayim (Ex. 23:5, Deut. 22:4) and shilu’ach haken (Deut. 22:6-7); how might they inform our understanding and experience of kashrut? How is our relationship with nature and our consumption of its fruits framed by ki ha’adam eitz hasadeh? (Deut. 20:19-20)
Education, not indoctrination, is my goal; a consideration of competing values. Some of these passages support a narrative of the world serving humanity’s purposes, and some challenge us to serve the world’s.
Then, and only then, it seems to me that the table has been set for the richest possible discussion about the rules of kashrut, with a values based foundation in place to learn, consider and evaluate those rules. Which creatures are permitted and which prohibited? (VaYikra 11; Deut. 14) Why these animals, with these characteristics? (Again, with the caveat that there isn’t necessarily a deeper meaning to everything!) What is the interplay between the concepts of kedushah and imitatio dei included here, and how in turn do they relate to the values raised earlier? With this values foundation in place, we can then better appreciate the insights of, for example, Philo, Rambam, Ramban, Sefer HaChinuch, Akeidat Yitzchak, Abravanel and Seforno, not to mention Nehama Leibowitz, Baruch Levine, Mary Douglas and Arthur Waskow.
After we explore which animals are permitted and which prohibited, we can turn our attention to the rules for consuming those that are permitted. Why does the Torah seem to restrict where we can eat meat? (Deut. 12:20-22) How does Yaakov’s struggle with an angel lead to us not to not eat gid ha’nasheh, and what meaning might the story and resulting prohibition have for kashrut rules generally? (Gen. 32) Why must we intentionally kill an animal in order to be allowed to eat it (Deut. 14:21), and why must we extract as much blood as possible as well? (Gen. 9:4, Lev. 7:26-27, Lev. 17:10-14, Deut. 12:23-25)
Even before getting to the separation of milk and meat, milk deserves our attention as its own topic. The question of chalav yisrael in particular raises compelling issues of community and trust. Why must we guard against unintended contamination? How carefully must we guard against it, and who can we trust to do so? How does adoption of this standard reflect upon respect for various rabbinic authorities, and the evolution of our standards over time?
And now we’re ready for prohibitions against combining milk and meat. What is the range of possibilities for how the verses giving rise to the restriction could have been interpreted otherwise? (Ex. 23:19, Ex. 24:26, Deut. 14:21) With everything we’ve already discussed, how might we justify allowing their mixture, and how might we explain the restriction that they be kept separate? In other words, how do the boundaries between milk and meat reflect the values that arise throughout Chumash, not only in these three pesukim — and well before centuries of their subsequent extrapolation?
Ultimately, of course, to know the practical details of what it means to faithfully comply with the rules of kashrut is essential. And there are still many rules that won’t fit neatly, or maybe not at all, within a values based framework. But just as an inability to discover the underlying values of certain halachot doesn’t excuse non-compliance with them, it also doesn’t excuse overlooking the ways that we can access deeper understandings of others, and how those understandings can offer a more profound experience while observing kashrut each and every day of our lives.