God blessed the first humans, told them to multiply and increase, and then instructed them: "Look, I have given you all the seed-bearing plants on the face of the earth, and every tree that has in it seed-bearing fruit; these are yours to eat" (Genesis 1:29). In the utopian vision of the Garden of Eden, human beings are created vegetarian.
The vision of the garden collapses, however. God created human beings to struggle with good and evil, but alas, they chose evil all the time. "When the Eternal saw how great was the wickedness of human beings in the earth, that the direction of their thoughts was nothing but wicked all the time, the Eternal regretted having made human beings on earth, and was heartsick. So the Eternal thought, 'I will wipe the humans whom I created from off the face of the earth—the humans, [and with them] the beasts, the reptiles, the birds of the sky—for I rue the day I made them' " (Genesis 6:5-7).
Following the flood, God again blesses human beings and tells them to multiply and increase. But this time, God does not set the bar so high regarding food. "God then blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. . . . Any small animal that is alive shall be food for you, like green grasses—I give you [them]' all" (Genesis 9:1,3). Human beings may now eat anything at all—with one proviso: "But flesh whose lifeblood is [still] in it you may not eat" (Genesis 9:4). Human beings are granted unrestricted access to the flesh; the life, symbolized by its blood, does not belong to us. In the Torah's framework, this law applies to all of humanity—to Noah and all his descendants.
As the Torah moves on to focus on the specific relationship between God and the Jewish people, it will also refine its guidelines regarding eating, "for you are a people consecrated to the Eternal your God" (Deuteronomy 14:21). The Torah had opened with the utopian ideal that all human beings should/must be vegetarian. This restriction is lifted after the Flood, but for the Israelites, it will be different. The Israelites, too, may eat meat—but only some meat. The permitted animals are listed in our parashah (see Deuteronomy 14:4-21) in a somewhat abbreviated version of Leviticus 11. Being kosher, seen in this way, is a compromise to being vegetarian. Better we should eat no meat, says the Torah, but if you have to eat meat, keep kosher, as most animal life will remain off-limits.
The few permitted animals must also be slaughtered in a particular way. Leviticus 17:1-5 further taught that when we needed to eat meat, we had to bring the animal to the Tent of Meeting and offer it there as a sacrifice. Anyone who did not do so, "bloodguilt shall be imputed to that person: having shed blood, that person shall be cut off from among this people" (Leviticus 17:4). Later, in the Book of Deuteronomy and in our parashah, animals not fit for sacrifice (permitted animals with a defect) could be eaten at home, "Only you must not partake of its blood; you shall pour it out on the ground like water" (Deuteronomy 15:23).
Today, many of us are newly aware how our food choices reflect our values. We are concerned with the sustainability of the earth, with the diversity of its life, with the health of the animals and dairy we ingest, and the conditions in which the animals are raised. Long ago, our people were concerned with the relationship between food and values. Kashrut was meant to limit our access to animal life, to help us see the eating of meat as a privilege—not as a right, and to teach us that all life is a gift, and belongs to God.
This d'var Torah is based on the teachings of my father, Jacob Milgrom z"l—both at home and in the academy.
Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, part of a unique rabbinic partnership of two co-senior rabbis, in White Plains, New York. She is the author of articles about Jewish spirituality, education, healing, and women in Judaism and is the editor of a unique siddur used now for two decades in settings across the continent. She is blessed to learn continually about loving from her husband, children, and grandchildren.
Rabbi Milgrom beautifully shares her father's (z"l) teaching on biblical kashrut and reminds us that our generation also upholds value-based food choices, as today we raise concerns about food production. She is completely correct that our renewed interest in the sourcing of our sustenance has the potential to draw us nearer to our Jewish tradition, especially to kashrut, "keeping kosher."
Reform Jews need to reclaim this potent food practice, as we reshape our relationship to our food and its production. Celebrating individual religious choice, we may or may not follow some or all of the laws of kashrut. In fact, it is a widely held assumption that liberal Jews do not keep kosher, unabashedly eating t'reif, "unkosher" food. While this stereotype is not true, our community certainly is not universally comfortable with kashrut, which can easily be associated with coerced cookie-cutter ritual practice, punctiliousness, and even ritual religiosity devoid of ethics. However, why should we distance ourselves from an entire part of our Jewish tradition on account of the worst modern expressions of these laws and teachings? Rather, as Reform Jews, we must proudly explore this aspect of our Judaism and reclaim our ritual and ethical food laws, for through the Jewish lens we can navigate the complicated modern issues of the environment, animal treatment, workers' rights, human health, hunger awareness, spirituality, and Jewish identity. Furthermore, we can approach kashrut as we do every other facet of our heritage—with empowered, educated, individual choice. In the end, kashrut can help modern liberal Jews define our relationships to food and its production, while strengthening our connections to Judaism.
Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is the editor of and a contributing author to The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic (CCAR Press, 2011), which was designated a finalist by the National Jewish Book Awards. She currently serves as the spiritual leader of the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey in Washington, New Jersey. Rabbi Zamore is a frequent a contributor to the Huffington Post.
R'eih, Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,417–1,450; Revised Edition, pp. 1,255–1,289;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,115–1,140