The Civilized Diet

Interview with Rabbi Simeon Maslin

Every sensitive human being should evolve a personal dietary regimen guided by ethical considerations.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam,
hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz.

Thank You, God, for giving us
bread from the Earth.

Baruch atah Adonai
hazan et hakol.

Thank You, God,
for providing sustenance for all.

Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin is a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the author of several books and numerous articles on Jewish practices. He was interviewed by Reform Judaism editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer.

What are the origins of kashrut practice?

The Jewish dietary laws appear in several places in the Torah, most specifically in Leviticus, chapter 11. Many of these biblical laws are straightforward, such as the prohibition against the eating of animals that do not have cloven hooves and do not chew their cud, which allows for the eating of most domestic animals-e.g., cattle, sheep, goats, and deer-with the notable exceptions of pigs, horses, camels, and donkeys. There are also prohibitions against eating fish without scales and fins as well as certain birds and species of insects. In addition, Leviticus includes dietary prohibitions that may be unfamiliar to modern Jews, among them the prohibitions against eating animal fat and blood [3:17, 7:23] and against eating any animal that has died of natural causes or that was "torn by beasts" [22:8 and Exodus 22:30]. Interestingly, the word the Torah uses for "torn by beasts," t'reifah, is the origin of the Yiddish t'reif.

Some of the other biblical dietary injunctions, however, are much less explicit.

Such as?

What is often considered the essential pillar of kashrut, the prohibition against eating or preparing dairy products and meat together, comes from the cryptic injunction, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk" [Exodus 23:19, 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21]. Later generations of Jewish authorities interpreted this statement to mean that milk and meat must be separated. Long-standing tradition has reinforced this interpretation, but I would contend that the biblical injunction was never intended to apply to the mixing of milk and meat.

What led you to this conclusion?

The most telling proof that this law has nothing to do with the dietary prohibitions is the fact that the statement appears three times in the Torah, but not within the exhaustive list of dietary laws in Leviticus 11. In two instances, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk" occurs at the conclusion of passages discussing festival sacrifices [Exodus 23 and 34]. In the third instance, which does indeed address dietary laws [Deuteronomy 14], it is appended to the concluding admonition, "You are a people consecrated to the Lord your God," and is clearly disconnected from the dietary laws that precede it. This context suggests that the boiling of a kid in its mother's milk was part of pagan sacrificial rituals and, as such, forbidden to Israel.

I agree with the twelfth-century biblical commentator Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir), who believed the injunction was intended to teach tzaar baalei chayim, sensitivity to the pain of animals. As he wrote: "It is disgraceful and voracious and gluttonous to consume the mother's milk together with its young…. The Torah gave this commandment in order to teach you how to behave in a civilized manner."

If a Jew chooses to keep milk and meat separate, recognizing the common practices of Jewish communities for two millennia, I can understand and honor that choice. But I cannot entertain the notion that Torah commands us to do so.

How relevant is biblical kashrut?

I believe that we have every right to reconsider the laws of kashrut and to determine, with due respect for history and tradition, which of these laws should be determinative for us today. At the same time, I believe equally that every sensitive human being, Jew or non-Jew, should evolve a personal dietary regimen which accords with the basic meaning of the word kasher (or kosher), which is "fitting and proper." In eating, as in every other human activity, ethical questions must be considered: Should food be considered kosher if its production involves pain to animals or the despoliation of natural resources? What if this food is eaten without any indication of gratitude? What if these resources are not shared by other human beings or animals?

Do you personally observe kashrut?

Although my personal eating habits would not be deemed kosher by those who view themselves as the guardians of halachah (traditional rabbinic law), I would argue that my dietary choices are very much in keeping with the spirit and intent of Torah because they derive from what I consider to be a proper understanding of that ancient admonition, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk." While I take the food taboos of previous generations into consideration, my primary criterion in the choice of food is sensitivity to an animal's pain. I also believe that the privilege of eating requires giving gifts of tzedakah to the hungry, expressing gratitude for sustenance, and avoiding foods reminiscent of historic persecutions or foods that derive from unfair labor practices. In addition, Jewish tradition instructs us not to eat in a gluttonous manner.

In short, kashrut for me means choosing to eat only that which is fitting and proper for an observant ethical Jew.

Some would argue that the only ethical dietary choice is vegetarianism.

I have no argument with vegetarians and vegans. Possibly they have arrived at a level of ethical behavior that is beyond me-and, I believe, beyond the capabilities of most Jews and beyond the ethics of our biblical tradition. I myself do not eat mammal flesh, but I am not ready to condemn those who do.

Still, I firmly believe that those who do eat meat are obliged by ethical considerations to see to it that whatever meat they eat has been produced with the least possible pain to animals in observance of tzaar baalei chayim. It should not be necessary to describe the cruel methods that are employed to produce, for example, pâté de foie gras and "milk-fed" veal; the distress of force-fed geese and immobilized calves has been widely reported.

Is today's ritual slaughter of animals (sh'chitah) humane?

Clearly, the original intent of the laws of sh'chitah, created at a time when animals were generally slaughtered with no regard whatsoever to their pain, was to kill the animals as humanely as possible. Today, all enlightened nations have humane slaughter laws. In the United States the Humane Slaughtering Act of 1978 requires stunning animals before they are killed so as to avoid unnecessary pain and the sense of impending slaughter-but the U.S. Department of Agriculture makes an exception for sh'chitah, which forbids pre-slaughter stunning. And both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have raised questions about the notoriously inhumane practices in the largest kosher slaughter plant in America (see the book Postville by Stephen G. Bloom and the exposé of cruel practices there in the New York Times, March 10, 2006).

It should be an embarrassment to Orthodox Jews that their kashrut supervisors, who certify butcher shops that sell pâté de foie gras and "milk-fed" veal, seem to pay more attention to the details of sh'chitah law than they do to the pain of animals. One has every right-ethically, historically, and spiritually-to decide to observe a kosher dietary regimen in keeping with Jewish tradition. But to cede the right to decide which foods one may eat to rabbinic authorities who often ignore the sacred principle of tzaar baalei chayim-and are all too often influenced by the contributions of businessmen who profit from the vagaries of kashrut supervision-is certainly not to observe what is best and noblest in Jewish tradition.

Can we buy kosher meats from animals slaughtered humanely?

As far as I know, kosher slaughter is an Orthodox monopoly. I would love to see non-Orthodox Jews cooperate in the training and supervision of ritual slaughterers whose primary concern would be tzaar baalei chayim.

You also avoid foods reminiscent of persecutions and derived from unfair labor practices.

Yes. Jews were tortured and put to death in Inquisitorial Spain when it was determined they would not eat pork. Inquisitorial records tell of crypto-Jews who would keep pots of pig meat boiling outside their homes to mislead the agents of the Inquisition. Many of these same Jews would not, even under the threat of death, eat it. In honoring their sacrifices, I will not consume pork. I also feel the pain of today's exploited migrant farm workers, and thus support the boycott of farm products grown and marketed by unscrupulous agri-processors.

These considerations should be a part of any modern system of kashrut.

How do you refrain from gluttony?

Eating is, at its essence, a bestial act. We humans need to participate in this bestial act in order to survive. But we are not beasts, and we can mark this distinction through ritual practices associated with eating. Personally I think it is gluttonous not only to eat to excess but also to eat any food without pausing to acknowledge the source of that food. For some this will mean a prayer of thanks to God before breaking bread; for others it might mean a simple moment of reflection. It doesn't take much time or effort to say the Motzi prayer before eating-Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz. We can also conclude the meal with Baruch atah Adonai hazan et hakol-Thank You, God, for providing sustenance for all.

I will always remember a lesson that my father taught me as a young boy. We were studying the passage in Genesis that tells of how Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew. The text reads: "[Esau] ate and drank and rose and left. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright." In what way, my father asked, did Esau demonstrate that he despised the sacred birthright? His answer: "He ate and drank and rose and left, without taking even a moment to thank God for his food." From that day forward, I have never been able to eat a meal without at least pausing to consider the source of my nourishment.

I view our family dining table as a mizbei-ach m'at, a miniature or a proxy altar. On the Sabbath and festivals, it is graced by wine, candles, and challot; it is a sacred space which connects us to God and to the history of our people.

But even on ordinary days, one's table should represent something more than catering to our basest animal instinct. Ethical kashrut is a means for all of us to participate in the richness, the blessings, and the sacred values of Jewish tradition-each and every day.