Parshat Re’eh: Meat in milk, morality and idol worship

One of the commandments Moses mentions in this week's Torah portion is the prohibition against “meat in milk.”

Torah scroll (photo credit: ROOM404.NET)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: ROOM404.NET)
This week’s Torah portion – as most of the Book of Deuteronomy – is part of Moshe Rabbeinu’s sermon before he departs from the Jewish people. In the section of the sermon that we read this week, Moshe reminds the people of many commandments, many of which had been mentioned before. One of the commandments he mentions here is the prohibition against “meat in milk.”
This prohibition, already mentioned twice in the Book of Exodus, is repeated here, and in this repetition gains an additional significance. But first we should note that many commandments in the Torah are mentioned specifically to counter idolatrous perceptions that existed in the ancient world. As we will see, the principles on which these idolatrous perceptions are based still exist today in various forms. The Torah, on the other hand, presents opposing concepts, often particularly complex, whose goal is to place man in general, and Jews in particular, on a high moral level.
The prohibition of “meat in milk” is worded in such a way that arouses in every reader the feeling that this commandment is the minimal moral level required of man: “Thou shall not cook a goat in its mother’s milk.”
(Deuteronomy 14:21) Anyone with the least bit of sensitivity would be shocked at the idea of taking a kid and cooking it in its own mother’s milk. This milk, that the kid was to nurse from his mother to aid in his development, is instead used in this way to kill the kid. There is no doubt that this act conflicts with the basic moral instinct that dictates that man should not exploit anything that brings life to use as a means to bring death.
And in fact, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, among the greatest Spanish sages of the 13th century) says this in his commentary on the above verse: “... Lest we become a cruel people.... who milk the mother to take her milk in which to cook her son. And even though any combination of meat and milk is prohibited, this [is because] any nursing female is called ‘mother’ and any nursing young is called a ‘kid,’.... because cruelty lies in them all.”
In light of this simple moral understanding we must ask: How did the ancient people, the idol worshipers, reach the exact opposite perception that cooking a kid in its mother’s milk is part of idol worship? For this we must examine the fact that the Torah does permit the killing and eating of animals. Many people may doubt whether eating animals is a moral act and wonder why the Torah – being a system aimed at achieving a high moral level – permits this rather than advocating vegetarianism. This question becomes even more problematic when considering the fact that the Torah forbids torturing animals; so why does it permit eating them? These are all proper and important questions, and we must try to learn and understand exactly what perception the Torah wants to provide for us on this issue.
It seems that the guiding principle on here is the question whether man essentially differs from animals, or whether man is simply part of the same system. How does man differ from animals? The intelligence with which man has been endowed does not differentiate him from animals, since among the latter we can also find those with high degrees of intelligence.
The only quality that essentially differentiates man is morality. There is no animal, without exception, that “suffers” from pangs of conscience. Not one finds itself debating moral dilemmas or hesitating to act in any specific way for his own needs.
Man is different from animals in this quality of morality, in the voice that rises from deep within his heart commanding him to act in this world in a way that does not hurt another, but rather in a way that makes the individual – and in fact all of humanity – better.
If we believe that we are unique in that we operate with moral purpose, then man’s eating animals, when done for man’s needs, includes animals within this purpose. In other words: We have been given permission to use animals to fulfill the goals that animals cannot achieve.
But this is all correct as long as we believe that man’s uniqueness is in his moral quality. Whoever does not believe this, anyone who does not differentiate in any reasonable quality between man and animal, as such cannot justify the killing and eating of animals. And this “moral” vegetarianism stems from the disbelief in man’s unique morality and as such becomes of itself a paradox.
This was the outlook of the idol worshipers in ancient times, and we cannot deny that even today we are witness to such views that rise now and again on the stage of history. These views that blur the difference between man and animal cannot easily reconcile themselves with eating animals, and force man to choose between two paths: to stop eating animals or, just the opposite, to turn the use of animals to idol worship that sanctifies cruelty and views the cruel killing of animals – like that of cooking a kid in its mother’s milk – as a “holy” act.
The Torah, on the other hand, offers a world view that believes in man’s unique morality and thus may not preach vegetarianism, but neither does it see in the killing of animals an act that has a value in and of itself.
It is in light of this complicated perception that the Torah teaches us to avoid as much as possible cruelty toward animals.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.