Leviticus 11 gives us lists and characteristics of kosher animals – mammals, birds, fish and insects. Mammals must be ruminants with split hooves. Why? The answer is pretty straightforward, if you’re thinking ecologically.
How so? Almost every religion arises in and is shaped by a place and teaches its adherents how to live in that place. In an ecosystem where humans depend on hunted game taken from large herds of wild animals, like buffalo in the North American plains, the prohibition against eating blood found in Leviticus 17 would be almost impossible to follow. But in the ecosystem of Biblical Israel, where wild herds and habitats are less productive, a hunting culture would be unsustainable. Instead, what is called for is a culture of animal husbandry, where humans can carefully control the size of domesticated herds to fit both the limits of the ecosystem and the needs of the population.
That ecosystem shaped the rules of the Torah that determine which animals are permitted for eating. Mammals that chew their cud and have split hooves are kosher; all other land animals are not. What do these two characteristics of hoof and mouth mean? Anthropologically, historically, theologically and personally, there may be many interpretations. Some of them can be found in Mary Douglas’s celebrated work Purity and Danger. But ecologically, there is a specific meaning, which goes far beyond any hygienic or moral or other rationalistic or symbolic interpretation.
The depth of this meaning is not found in generalities, but in the details. That meaning is straightforward: any animal that chews its cud can eat grasses and plants that are inedible to human beings. Any animal that has split hooves can walk, and therefore graze, on land that is too rocky to cultivate with a plow. At the extreme, mountain goats can be seen grazing small shrubs growing out of crevices on the sides of dams.
These characteristics together mean one clear thing: the only land animals that can be eaten according to the laws of kashrut are animals that need not compete with human beings for food. That pretty well explains the rules for mammals. (The mystery of which birds and fish are kosher will for now remain a mystery.)
The rules that classify kosher mammals are precisely tuned to the agriculture of hilly Canaan, which was their original context. They would have potentially allowed a civilization to thrive and grow there without destroying the ecosystem it depended upon. That ecosystem was in some ways marginal, and its ability to sustain our ancestors depended on intensive human input (agriculture and herding), as well as upon intensive “divine” input (rain, as it was understood in Biblical Israel). That meant there was no room to devote good farming land to livestock.
Embedded in this wisdom about locale is another truth: any culture which allows domesticated herds to compete with humans for food also pits farmers against herders. More importantly, it pits the poor who have no land against owners who control both land and herds. We can easily see the dynamics of this problem in the modern world, where rising world food prices endanger the poor in many countries. Those prices are driven in part by the industrial practice of feeding grain to cattle, instead of giving them their natural diet of diverse grasses and other pasture plants. They may also be driven more recently by the use of grain to make ethanol fuel. Instead of competition between herders and farmers, we have competition between feeding our SUV’s and cattle, and feeding other human beings.
In order to create a just society, which may be the most important value within Torah, there needs to be a way for farming and animal husbandry to sustainably produce enough for all people, poor and rich, without ruining the Earth. (As you may well intuit, another part of this very finely calibrated system was the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year, which rested the land and treated the land as a covenantal partner with the people and with God.) The way to achieve this value of justice differs in different ecosystems, but every culture founded on justice will always find a way to align its idea of justice with its ecosystem.
This article is based on Rabbi Seidenberg’s commentary in the Wisdom Commentary on Leviticus, edited by Tamar Kamionkowski (Liturgical Press, 2018).