This morning’s Torah portion contains some of the central principles of kashrut, our Jewish dietary practices. While other sections of the Torah describe the kinds of animals that may or may not be eaten, Parashat Acharei Mot tells us how they are to be eaten.
It seems to be describing an early stage of ancient Israelite society, when there were lots of local shrines with altars throughout the land of Israel.
God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites that when they get a hunkering for meat, they may not just slaughter animals from their herds wherever they want. It must be done in the sanctuary. The blood must be poured out, and certain internal fats must be burned on the altar as a pleasing offering to God. This requirement essentially transforms all meat consumption into a sacrifice, and elevates our eating into a sacred act.
The purpose of this requirement, God tells Moses, is to stop the people from making their offerings to the se’irim. The se’irim seem to have been some sort of goat-demon that resided in the wilderness, and ancient Canaanites would apparently make offerings to them out in the wild.
The Torah goes on to state that whenever an animal is slaughtered outside of this sacred context, that person is considered to be cut off from the rest of the people.
The next restriction has to do with hunted game. There were certain undomesticated animals that were kosher, and could be hunted. Elsewhere the bible mentions deer, gazelles, roebuck, and several other unidentified species. Most likely, these were only available to the elite. But the Torah has to account for these as well. So it specifies that when someone hunts an animal, it’s blood must be poured out on the ground and covered in order to be eaten.
You might be thinking right about now, “but Jews don’t hunt.” And you would be correct. These rules about eating meat have not reflected Jewish practice for thousands of years. They describe an earlier time, before worship was centralized in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was possible to bring an animal to the local shrine so that it could be slaughtered in a sacred context.
Later, as described in the book of Deuteronomy, the local shrines are abolished and worship is consolidated to the Temple in Jerusalem. Along with this change, Israelites are given permission to slaughter animals on their own, outside of a sacrificial context.
Our great commentator Rashi notices something about the Torah’s regulations regarding meat – and specifically the hunting clause. The word “hunt” appears twice. asher yatzud tzeid-chayyah. …anyone who “hunts down any hunted wild animal…” Seemingly superfluous words are typically interpreted to have additional meanings. Rashi cites the Talmudic teaching that a person should never eat meat as a casual thing. (BT Chullin 84a) Any time we eat meat, we should consider it as if we had gone through the extensive trouble of actually hunting it down. In its context, the Talmud seems to be concerned with what in those days was the exorbitant cost of meat. It advises that a person should not impoverish himself or neglect his family’s needs to satisfy his cravings. It reports that a given quantity of meat costs 50 times the same quantity of vegetables. And so, the Talmud recommends that, except for the very wealthy, a person should only have a little bit of meat once a week, on Shabbat.
Rashi cites the Talmud’s initial conclusion that eating meat should not be casual to us, but he does not cite the economic reasons. Rather, meat consumption itself should be uncommon and special.
This would seem to reflect the early practice of our ancient Israelite ancestors, for whom meat could only be eaten in a sacred context. By taking life to nourish ourselves, we commit an inherently violent act. That is why it can only be done in a sacred context, recognizing that it is only God who has the right to determine matters of life and death.
How far we have descended from that lofty ideal. Now, most of us never meet the animals we eat. We buy them off the refrigerated shelf in the grocery store, wrapped in styrofoam and plastic. Kosher meat is no different. Are those of us who do eat meat living up to Rashi’s ideal of meat consumption not being casual?
The most famous Jew to argue for vegetarianism from a religious standpoint was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel. Rav Kook was a Chassidic Rebbe, a mystic, an early Zionist, and a prolific thinker and writer. He believed that religious and non-religious Jews needed to work together, and that Judaism needed to be an active and involved force for change in the world.
Rav Kook notes that God’s original plan for creation is for humans to be vegetarians. When Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden, they are given the plants and the fruit bearing trees for consumption, but not the animals. Only after humanity has corrupted its ways on Earth, prompting God to wipe out all creation with the flood and start over, does God introduce the idea of eating meat.
It is a concession, argues Rav Kook, to humanity’s inability to reign in its appetites. While God’s compassion is equal for all creatures, God recognizes that humans need to be given an elevated view of themselves vis a vis other animals in order to get them to concentrate on improving their relations with each other.
And so, God authorizes Noah and his descendants to have dominion over the animals, including eating them – but with certain restrictions.
To the Jewish people, God gives even more restrictions. The menu of available animals is severely limited to us. We are forbidden from consuming the blood. We cannot mix meat and milk. And there are additional restrictions as well. Each of these restrictions, according to Rav Kook, is intended to elevate our moral consciousness and instill in us a profound reverence for life, even while we are eating animals. We should never take eating meat for granted. As Rashi says, it should not be a casual thing for us.
For example, Rav Kook explains that pouring out and covering the blood of the hunted animal is an act of “shame” on our part for committing such a “morally base” act of killing a living creature which had once known freedom. There are similar moral and spiritual dimensions to each of the other mitzvot that regulate our eating of animals.
If we are paying close attention, we will as individuals come closer and closer to the ideal. We will live in greater balance with the world around us. We will treat God’s other creations better, reduce suffering, and be altogether more peaceful in our lives. As a people, and collectively, as humanity, our heightened consciousness will produce greater unity and harmony in the world.
Rav Kook’s vegetarianism was an integral part of his Messianism. The permission to eat meat is only temporary, he says. It is a “transitional tax” until we arrive at a “brighter era” when we will all return to vegetarianism. When that day arrives, human beings themselves will detest the idea of eating meat with “moral loathing.” We will all become vegetarians, and balance between the species will be restored. The sacrifices which will be offered in the rebuilt Temple will be exclusively plant-based.
In his personal life, Rav Kook would eat a small amount of chicken each Shabbat in acknowledgment that the day had not yet arrived. Rav Kook was incredibly optimistic. He lived at a time when Jews were building a life in the land of Israel. He saw humanity as moving forward, closer and closer to perfection. Rav Kook died in 1935, and so he did not witness the cataclysm of the Holocaust which surely would have affected his positive view of human moral progress. But he has much to teach us.
In recent weeks, we have received reports of collapsing populations of coral in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and across the globe off the coast of Florida – the results of rising ocean temperatures and acid levels. I am scared about what that portends for ocean ecosystems upon which we are more dependent than we know.
As a global species, we have done a terrible job of managing our consumption of this planet’s resources. The Jewish laws of kashrut, in placing limitations on our consumption of meat, offer us a model for how we might relate to our consumption of the other resources of our world.
While Rav Kook’s vegetarianism does not reflect mainstream Jewish attitudes, he gives us something important to consider. He suggests that there are spiritual and ethical dimensions of consumption, along with the environmental. God created our world with the intention that its creatures live on it in balance. As humans, our purpose across generations is to gradually approach that ideal of perfection.
Our Jewish tradition offers us thoughtful limits on our behavior when it comes to diet, and most other aspects of our lives. If we are paying attention, living by the Torah will refine our character and help us to become our ideal selves.
In the contemporary world, with our scientific abilities to study the global environment and understand our lifestyles’ impacts on the global ecosystem, we would do well to consider what limits we ought to impose on ourselves, not only on our consumption of meat, but of are use of all the resources of this wonderful world that God has created for us.
Rav Kook, by personally eating a little bit of chicken each week, models for us that it does not have to be all or nothing. Let’s pay a bit closer attention to what we consume. Let’s try to distinguish between what we need to survive, and what we want. What is necessary for us to live, and what, if we are really honest with ourselves, can we live without?