By Rabbi Abe Friedman
There may be no outward signs of Jewish observance more obvious than Shabbat and kashrut.
Throughout history, these practices set our ancestors apart from other nations. As the Roman historian Tacitus observed, “Among the Jews all things are profane that we hold sacred … They avoid eating pork in memory of their tribulations … We are told that the seventh day was set aside for rest because this marked the end of their toils” (Histories 5.4, tr. Kenneth Wellesley).
Our tradition provides two compelling rationales for Shabbat observance, both encoded into the kiddush for Friday night: it recalls God’s rest from creation as well as our liberation from slavery in Egypt. On the question of kashrut, however, the Torah remains strangely silent.
Why does the Torah restrict what we may eat? As Professor Jacob Milgrom, perhaps the foremost expert on Leviticus since the days of Aaron, wryly observed, “Every reason has been given for the observance of the dietary laws, or more often, for their abandonment. The most popular explanation is that it is a series of health measures dictated by the primitive hygienic conditions of the ancient world. This comment usually followed by the clincher: ‘Today we have government inspection, sanitary handling, large-scale refrigeration. Why then should we keep these laws?’” (Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, 103).
Such explanations persist, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. As Rabbi Yitzhak Abravnael (Portugal, 1437-1508) pointed out, “Our eyes see that the Nations — who eat pig-flesh, creeping things, mice, and other impure birds, beasts, and fish — live to this day, strong as hardest glass, without a weak or feeble one among them!” Moreover, there are no shortage of harmful and poisonous plants, and yet the Torah puts no limitations on our consumption of fruits and vegetables.
An early midrash suggests an alternative view: the point of kashrut has nothing to do with food at all. Instead, “The mitzvot were given only to purify humanity through them; for what does it matter to the Holy Blessed One if [an animal] is slaughtered from the front of the neck or from the back of the neck?” (Bereshit Rabbah, Lekh Lekha 44.1). From this perspective, kashrut focuses not on our physical health, but on our moral well-being.
Although the opening statement, “The mitzvot were given only to purify humanity,” appears to be a broad generalization, Milgrom pointed out that the phrase almost always appears in connection with kashrut, suggesting a special link to this topic (Leviticus, 108).
The Torah seems to present vegetarianism as the ideal state and meat consumption as a concession to human craving; Milgrom makes a compelling case that kashrut, in limiting both the types of meat that can be eaten and the manner in which it is slaughtered and prepared, sets up “a system whereby people will not be brutalized by killing animals for their flesh” (Leviticus, 103).
Milgrom is not well-known beyond the circle of people who really, really enjoy studying Leviticus (yes, we exist) — but many of us have an intuitive sense of what he highlighted here. The intense outcry and scandal over revelations of animal and worker mistreatment at kosher slaughterhouses makes all the more sense from this perspective: The kinds of abuses that have come to light would be bad enough on their own, but in the context of a practice that is meant to preserve our humanity and prevent cruelty, they are all the more shocking.
For me, although I grew up in a kosher home, the 2008 Agriprocessors scandal marked the first time I really thought critically about what I was eating — not just the meat itself, but where it came from, who prepared it and under what conditions.
My family switched to buying our meat from smaller kosher co-ops, where we had more trust that the workers and animals would be treated with decency, in ways we felt were consistent with Torah values. The meat is substantially more expensive; we eat a lot less of it than we did 10 years ago.
We also learned to think in new ways about all of our food: I remember my wife, Rebecca, asking that we switch to organic berries after reading an article about the impact of pesticides on farm workers. However safe it might be for us to eat those fruits, we felt compelled to make a change because of the effect it would have on the health of those who labor to provide us with the food.
Milgrom’s theory also aligns kashrut with Shabbat — the other “obvious” Jewish behavior. Just as Shabbat raises questions about ethical labor practices and the need for workers to have time off to recharge physically and spiritually, kashrut raises parallel questions about the animals we use for food. In both cases the behavioral practice reaches toward a higher goal: shaping our moral orientation to the world.
As we read parshat Shmini this week and encounter its detailed lists of animals “in” and “out,” I hope you will take the opportunity to get curious about what lies behind the rules — and to think about the next steps in your own moral growth.
Rabbi Abe Friedman is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.