The subject of kashrut - the dietary laws - seems to be constantly in the news. Most recently there was the scandal concerning a "kosher butcher" in the town of Monsey, New York, who was caught selling non-kosher chickens. From time to time there are articles about European nations forbidding kosher slaughter.
Not long ago there was the revelation of the brutal way in which animals were being slaughtered in a kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa. Electric prods were used to guide cattle to the slaughter pen, and large hooks were used to rip out the animal's trachea and esophagus while it was still conscious. The United States Department of Agriculture reported that this violated the Humane Slaughter Act. Under great pressure the slaughterhouse eventually ceased this procedure. Unfortunately one rabbi was quoted defending these practices, saying, "The Torah is not subjective and the same Torah that prohibits cruelty to animals allows shehita."
Such narrowness of vision is appalling. Heaven forbid that in the name of kashrut we should defend practices that violate the very ideals against tza'ar ba'alei hayim - cruelty to animals - that Judaism has always upheld. By doing that we undermine the very institution of kashrut and negate all the good it can bring to our lives.
Throughout the centuries the system of kashrut has been a basic component of Jewish living. It has always served to distinguish Jews from others and, as such, has helped us to keep our distinctive nature.
It has also been criticized from within and without. Non-Jews have referred to it as outmoded taboos. Jews have seen it as overly restrictive and as based upon a primitive system of health regulations that no longer apply to life today. Indeed, if one were to try to justify kashrut on the basis of health regulations, one would have a difficult time. Fortunately, we realize today that although at certain times it may have had health benefits, that is not its meaning and purpose.
The late Rabbi Samuel Dresner in his book The Jewish Dietary Laws demonstrated that kashrut is a concrete manifestation of the sacredness of all life. Animal life is not to be treated as unimportant. An animal may be killed only for purposes of eating, not for sport. An animal that is not kosher may not be killed at all except in self-defense. When killing an animal for food, it must be done in a way that inflicts the minimum amount of pain; a blessing is said, which in a sense indicates that this is done only with God's permission; the blood is not eaten because it symbolizes life itself, which we take only with hesitancy. And if we are so careful with animal life and prize it so, how much more so must we consider human life to be inviolable!
To quote Dresner: "The laws of kashrut - which forbid the eating of blood, limit the number of animals which may be eaten and provide for a humane method of slaughter and a specially trained slaughterer - have helped to attain Judaism's goal of hallowing the act of eating by reminding the Jew that the life of the animal is sacred and may be taken to provide him with food only under these fixed conditions. From this he learns reverence for life, both animal and human."
In her book Leviticus as Literature, Mary Douglas, the British anthropologist, has performed an invaluable service by an in-depth analysis of this chapter of Leviticus. Her point of view strengthens the connection between these laws and the reverence for life and fecundity. She points out the connection between this section and the biblical description of creation in which God creates all the "swarms of living creaturesâ€¦ and all the living creatures of every kind that creep, which the waters brought forth in swarms"â€¦ (Genesis 1:20-21) and commands them to "be fertile and increase, fill the waters of the seas, and let the birds increase on earth" (Genesis 1:22). The verses that describe various living beings in Leviticus often echo those words.
The creatures that are not to be eaten, contends Douglas, are not inherently bad, otherwise God would not have created them and gloried in their creation. They are only "unclean unto you" (Leviticus 11:5,6,7,8 and so on). They include the creatures that swarm, that are abundant, as well as those that cannot defend themselves easily.
As a matter of fact, the list of animals that we may not eat is far greater than those we may. They are, in a sense, "protected creatures." Those we can eat are domestic animals and birds and fish that are well protected by having scales and fins. Unlike others, these creatures are in no danger of extinction. All of this indicates even more than we may have previously thought that the basic concept here is of life's importance and sanctity. These commands signify the importance of fertility and stress God's compassion and love of life.
Through the observance of kashrut, each Jew makes his or her home a sanctuary, the table an altar and eating a holy act that enhances our reverence for life.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.