Commentary Magazine


The Dietary Laws

To the Editor:

I read with concern Leon R. Kass’s article, “Why the Dietary Laws?” [June]. The observation that vegetarians refrain from meat indiscriminately and thus “violate the Jewish dietary laws” fails to consider that vegetarians refrain from bloodshed and violence. Would that not be the best way to maintain our separation from animals? Are the particular rules, restrictions, and prohibitions around meat-eating not obvious in their disapproval of this human desire for flesh?

Furthermore, given modern factory-farming methods of raising animals (clearly a violation of the injunction against causing pain to living creatures); given the devastating global impact of rainforest destruction on grazing cattle (violating the injunction against purposeless destruction); and given the detrimental health impact of too much meat, chicken, and fish in our diet (violating the injunction to preserve life), would the act of eating not be more sanctified by vegetarian practice?

Susan Kalev
New York City

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To the Editor:

I have heard many justifications for the eating of meat, but none as sophisticated as that of Leon R. Kass. He cogently argues that the Jewish dietary laws still have significance; by discriminating between kosher and non-kosher animals we are imitating God and commemorating God’s creation, since God made distinctions in creating the world.

In contrast, Mr. Kass argues, vegetarians do not make distinctions, since they do not discriminate between animals that might and might not be edible. One might add that vegetarians who are concerned about kashrut do not have an opportunity to distinguish between milk and meat dishes and silverware. However, vegetarians do discriminate in some important ways: between a diet that is not based on violence, that is consistent with human physiology, that does minimum harm to the environment, that best shares resources with others, and a diet that has the opposite characteristics.

With regard to remembering the creation of the earth, what better way than to adopt the vegetarian diet that God gave to humanity in the first chapter of Genesis, a diet that does minimum harm to the other creatures and the world that God created?

While Mr. Kass presents an excellent summary of the anthropological sequence of eating, he fails to consider recent changes in livestock agriculture which have led to conditions that seem to be inconsistent with basic Jewish values today:

  • While Judaism emphasizes compassion for animals, animals today are raised for food under cruel conditions, in crowded cells, where they are denied fresh air, exercise, and any emotional stimulation.
  • While Judaism mandates us to be careful about preserving our health and our lives, flesh-centered diets have been linked to heart disease, several forms of cancer, and other diseases.
  • While Judaism stresses that we are to share our bread with hungry people, over 70 percent of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, and twenty million people die annually because of hunger and its effects.
  • While Judaism teaches that “the earth is the Lord’s” and that we are to be partners with God in preserving the world and in seeing that the earth’s resources are properly used, flesh-centered diets require huge amounts of land, water, energy, and other resources, and result in extensive pollution, soil erosion, and threats to tropical rain forests and other habitats.
  • While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence results from unjust conditions, flesh-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, help to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that eventually lead to instability and war.

I hope that Mr. Kass’s thoughtful article will help to start a dialogue on ethical issues related to our diets. Perhaps this question can further that goal: in view of strong Jewish mandates to be compassionate to animals, preserve health, help feed the hungry, protect the environment, conserve resources, and seek and pursue peace, and the very negative effects flesh-centered diets have in each of these areas, shouldn’t committed Jews switch to vegetarian diets?

Richard H. Schwartz
Staten Island, New York

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To the Editor:

Leon R. Kass’s article on the dietary laws is a tour de force which overlooks the fact that Jewish tradition does not suggest that the eating of meat was ordained in order to “elevate” the stature of the human race by attaching meat consumption to the category of other distinctions, such as that between “holy” and “profane.” On the contrary, Jewish tradition for millennia consistently suggests that the eating of meat is a concession without dignity or elevation. In a discussion in the Talmud (Berakhot 35a), the rabbis lay down the principle that the seven foods of the biblical land of Israel—olives, grapes, wheat, barley, pomegranates, figs, and honey—should be the standard for the blessing of foods.

For a food to deserve a blessing, it should be pleasurable; it should be one of the seven species (subject to the obligation of first fruits); it should be offered on the altar; it should have food value; and it should have dignity. When the question of meat arises, it is pointed out that eating meat may be pleasurable and have food value, but that “meat has no dignity.” And indeed, no special blessing for the consumption of meat was ever created.

The Talmud states (Hulin 84a), “Man should not teach his son to eat meat,” and the Hebrew word for meat (basar) was explained by the rabbis as an acronym—the letter bet: shame; the letter sin: corruption; the letter resh: worms. Consumption of meat hardly sounds like a recipe for spiritual elevation.

Furthermore, Jewish mystical time is rooted in the vegetarian tradition, as Rabbi Avraham Kook formulated it in his booklet, Vegetarianism and a Vision of World Peace. Jewish mystical time arises in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve as vegetarians and concludes with a vegetarian messianic world.

It is true, as Mr. Kass point out, that there is a decisive difference between the world in Eden and the post-Noachic world. Martin Buber stated that the natural world is created with a blessing but the world after the Flood is created with a curse. Noah’s descent (not ascent) is associated with a conclusive separation from nature, the knowledge of war, the eating of meat, and God’s weary acceptance of man’s corruption.

Roberta Kalechofsky
Jews for Animal Rights
Marblehead, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

Reading COMMENTARY is always interesting and occasionally the magazine hits the head on the nail with unexpected force, as in the June issue in which Leon R. Kass tells us the reasons for the dietary laws and Peter L. Berger [“Furtive Smokers—and What They Tell Us About America”] questions the kind of society we have become. Mr. Berger notes that, increasingly, individual rights are subordinated to a collective “good,” which is “ever more amply defined . . . , increasingly codified in law . . . , backed by the awesome power of modern government.” Mr. Kass tells us that something needed to be done to restrain the “boundless appetites of human beings” lest the tribe perish in wickedness.

Before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issues rules to restrain smokers, it jiggers the numbers to “show” that downstream smoke harms the community. In this the EPA is akin to Leviticus, which would restrain us from preferring a blood-sausage sandwich to granola. The splitting of hairs by those in power is never an exercise of reason but of power, always, of course, for the “common good,” but really to subjugate the individual. Mr. Kass answers Mr. Berger: we have become an “Old Testament” society. We are high-tech and relentless—issuing thousands of chapters of Bureaucraticus, year after year. We can identify one unclean particle in a billion clean ones. When we believe pork is unclean, or downstream smoke will kill us, or the sky is heating up, some people are on the way to getting us to believe anything that suits their agenda. The New Class is the oldest class of all.

Jonas Dovydenas
Lenox, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

I believe that Leon R. Kass’s search for truth in the ancient myths of men is mistaken. Mr. Kass argues that in studying the dietary laws of Leviticus, we will be closer to the God of the Chosen People. But revealed truth, as such, must be suspect, and not followed on faith by modern man. The old belief, that because God handed down the Ten Commandments they possess meaning, no longer follows. We no longer fear the myth of Judgment Day, nor do we much believe in God any more, save in foxholes. That I can say that I am more certain that my hand exists than I am of God is the mark of modernity. Nor can I know what a God is other than to look at the world and say He cannot be as written in these myths.

Pestilence, war, and famine tell that the mythological God of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is not all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing. Given this pagan view of the world, religious teachings must be looked at by man with an eye toward what he now knows and has earned: modern liberalism. The ancient prejudices of race, religion, sex, and gender, so perfectly recorded in ancient religious texts, and so well-perpetuated today, will no longer do. Precedence and practiced wisdom must give us pause, and we would be hard-pressed to follow a better set of ethics than that of the Ten Commandments. But whether these are natural or positive laws matters. To believe in superstitious myths means to make these myths the final value: hence the studying of the dietary laws of Leviticus for what they might reveal. But modern man has no such easy exit: God is silent and man is his own master.

John M. Black III
Woodside, California

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To the Editor:

Leon R. Kass’s “Why the Dietary Laws?” makes a fascinating, and serious, point about the fundamental role, often both destructive and salutary, of eating habits in human and especially in Jewish life. The preoccupation with food—that is, the partaking of the “right” kind of food—may be greater among Jews because of the religious prescriptions and proscriptions encoded in divine law. Despite the article’s title, the actual question, which is posed further into the text, centers on “Why these dietary laws?” What are the reasons for the laws of kashrut as laid down in the book of Leviticus?

In this exegetical exercise the author pulls together disparate threads from the biblical text and weaves them into a coherent form which ultimately confirms the essential wisdom of God’s laws. Far be it from me to put it in doubt, either. But the article has also inspired me to revive an old, favorite theory of mine. . . .

The problem is two-pronged: the purpose of the laws and the criterion applied in defining what is kosher and what is non-kosher (treif). The first part is clear: the essential purpose is the separation and holiness of God’s chosen people. The old saying, “Man is what he eats,” may be a play on words, but it contains an essential truth in more than one sense. The real problem centers on the criterion applied in determining which animals are forbidden and which are permitted to be consumed.

As Mr. Kass, following Leviticus, states, God’s decision is based on whether an animal is clean or unclean. So far, so good. But the next question that comes to mind is, what makes one animal clean and another unclean? The classifications in Leviticus display the redactor’s (whether human or divine, it matters not for the moment) acute eye for detail and poetic imagination, but they also betray a rather anthropocentric view of the animal kingdom. Why would God create unclean things in the first place, and if it is respect for life that is the motive, why would He permit the eating of any animal flesh? Mr. Kass does not neglect to address both of these aspects but confines himself to the biblical text for answers.

It may be useful, however, to . . . take into account the wider historical, cultural, and economic context within which the dietary practices of the Jews evolved. This presumes, of course, that the practices and customs did evolve over an extended period of time, necessitated by the vagaries of nomadic life, and that the subsequent legislative act placed the stamp of divine law on ancient, well-established customs.

Mr. Kass does mention earlier practices—for instance, the abstaining from what is now called filet mignon, with sinew attached, as going back to Jacob, and he recalls the wonderful legend of the origin of this custom. We know that Jacob’s father, Isaac, did not “keep kosher”—and presumably neither did Abraham. However, Jacob’s clan of herdsmen and shepherds, wandering in the desert, partially in flight from various people who had it in for them, and essentially steering clear of contact with the peoples of the plains, could well have developed other gustatory habits that, in altered form perhaps, subsequently became the dietary laws.

In fact, if we strip away the layers of interpretations and attributive meanings and expose the bare bones (no pun intended), it becomes apparent that, for instance, the types of meat that are allowed come from animals associated with a pastoral or grazing economy. This is not to suggest a crude Marxist-atheist analytical model of economic determinism. But, if we set aside for a moment areas of overlap and blurring, it becomes obvious: that which is treif is exclusively associated with other economies—agricultural, hunting, even deep-sea fishing.

Does it not make sense that God, being all-knowing and wise, should be keenly aware that to live detached from the nations and to be holy, His people would have to be economically autonomous and productively self-sufficient? He would also know that trade inevitably creates contact between cultures and contact entails cultural diffusion; it is no secret that for millennia ideas have traveled the trade routes of the earth to be exchanged, along with goods, at far-flung trading centers.

One other fact, which bridges the time between Jacob and the Exodus, can be cited in support of the hypothesis of an economic origin of the laws of kashrut and their basis in pastoral, nomadic life. Moses the Lawgiver came from the tribe of Levi, the descendants of Jacob who were not enslaved in Egypt but continued to live as shepherds and herdsmen in Goshen. It may be reasonably presumed that the Levites preserved other “old ways,” including certain dietary habits. So when Moses (and God), after the Exodus from Egypt, set out to mold the mass of ex-slaves into a distinct people, the centuries-old customs, evolved in the days of Jacob and preserved among the Levites, were ready to be invoked, be stamped with divine approval, with some elaboration no doubt, and become the law that made economic self-sufficiency possible once again.

Of all the speculations that abound, an economic basis of the laws of kashrut seems more plausible than many, and it certainly makes God’s decrees appear less baffling and less seemingly arbitrary and whimsical.

Brigitte M. Goldstein
Highland Park, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

Leon R. Kass’s demonstration of a rationale for dietary laws from principles of philosophic anthropology deserves great praise, both for its erudition and for its polemical significance. As he notes, the rules of kashrut are central in Torah and central to Judaism, but they have been replaced by “so-called ethics.” His recovery of the centrality of the dietary laws to Judaism is therefore the necessary first step for recovering the true ethical teaching of the Torah and for demonstrating why any ethics aiming to produce autonomous human beings is an ethics that destroys order, life, and form. . . .

If I understand his analysis, Mr. Kass has ingeniously sought the “formal” causes (in contrast to the “efficient” causes) of the dietary laws, and in having done so, he has demonstrated why they were central in the Torah: they are the vehicle for the perfection of our nature as human beings. What makes us human is not simply that we are thinking beings, but that we are meat-eating beings—animals with a taste for blood—who are capable of placing restraints on our behavior, even those related to our physical survival. We perfect our natures in exercising these restraints because, in doing so, we discover that it is possible to ascend beyond the physical, to become holy, which is to say, to become ethical.

In recovering the centrality of the dietary laws, Mr. Kass has challenged the centrality of what he refers to as “so-called ethics.” I surmise that he would include under the category of “pseudo-ethicists” those Jews who profess that the prophets are more important than Moses, and all people who believe that the Torah is simply one teaching among a multitude of other ethical “systems”—that is, cultural relativists such as multiculturalists. . . . They share a common assumption: that our ethical nature, as humans, is grounded in some notion of “spirit”—whether it is manifested in faith per se or in conscience or in history and culture. If I read Mr. Kass’s argument correctly, he seems to be indicating that Paul, in denying the obligatory nature of the dietary laws, was the “spiritual” father of these “so-called” ethical teachings.

But what kind of ethics can be deduced from spirit? The answer, I believe, can be fashioned from an examination of a system that functions with the distinction between body and spirit, but which does not reject the physical elements entirely. That system is cannibalism, which the Torah treats as an abomination. The ethics derived from cannibalism rest on the assumption that by eating the body of a superior person, the individual incorporates the dead person’s superior qualities and thereby makes himself better than he was before. It is the spirit, when ingested with the body as meat, that transforms—“improves”—a person’s nature. But what is the improvement? It makes the person more capable of killing and ingesting others! Is there any reason to wonder why the Torah treats cannibalism as an abomination and not just as a “different” cultural expression?

While he does not do so explicitly, I believe Mr. Kass’s analysis leads him to the conclusion that cannibalism’s notion of elevation or improvement and the ethics of those who have replaced the dietary laws with some spiritual idea about the grounds of ethics share a common assumption: that a poetically defined notion of spirituality can bring about an authentic transformation of a human’s nature. The Torah, and I believe Mr. Kass as well, would argue that such a transformation depends on a recreation, by humans, of our natures as humans. That is to say, it depends on a miracle, one equivalent to the creation of the world, one that would eliminate the more vicious elements in human nature. We are still waiting for this to occur.

By uncovering the mystery of the dietary laws, and revealing their inextricable link to the ethical grounds of our humanity, Mr. Kass seems to be claiming that any ethical teaching grounded in spirit must be able to refute the principle of holiness provided in the Torah. It can only do so by giving a complete account—not simply a functional one—of why things have the “form” or “look” they have, that is, the ways in which all “things” are separate and separated from one another. No science based solely on determining the “efficient” causes of events has done so. Nor can it do so.

The ethical teachings based on some notion of the spirit put holiness beyond the reach of most human beings. But they are even more problematic for another reason: they indirectly foster, or at least legitimate, the “taste for blood” that the dietary laws were meant to contain. But why they do so may not be self-evident. Mr. Kass has demonstrated that those who reject the dietary laws because they are irrational are incorrect; the most common reasons given for such a rejection are that the laws are man-made, invented for “health reasons,” and that modern science has answered our health concerns, so abiding by them is now irrational. By demonstrating that there are rational reasons for the dietary rules, especially reasons unrelated to health concerns, Mr. Kass has demonstrated that the rejection of those rules is not a matter of reason, but of willful rebellion against reason. Worse, it is a willful rebellion against the capacity of humans to become truly holy, that is to say, to be truly human.

Mr. Kass has opened the door to holiness for those who, having been thoroughly exposed to skepticism, no longer can, in the name of probity, say, “We hear and we will do.”

Martin J. Plax
Cleveland, Ohio

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To the Editor:

Leon R. Kass’s article is excellent. Those interested in showing their fellow Jews how the faith of their fathers is relevant to their lives today should distribute this article to all who are open to its explanation.

Richard Levy
Alexandria, Virginia

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Leon R. Kass writes:

Readers of most of these letters who have not read the article which provoked them might never guess what that article was about: an attempt to understand the meaning and purpose of the dietary laws of Leviticus by means of a careful study of the biblical text that put them forward. I argued that the principles which separate the clean from the unclean animals are the same as the rational cosmological principles of the creation (Genesis 1), preeminently the principle of separation itself; that the dietary laws thereby “implicitly pay homage to the articulated order of the world and the dignity of life and living form”; that “they incorporate into the act of eating an acknowledgment of the problematic character of eating as a threat to order, life, and form”; and that “they celebrate, in gratitude and reverence, the mysterious source of the articulated world and its generous hospitality in providing food, both for life and thought.” Commemorating the creation and the Creator, the dietary laws seek to sanctify eating and to move human beings toward holiness.

None of my critics directly disputes my reading. They rather fault me for the enterprise itself; on various grounds they tacitly deny that any truth or wisdom could be gained by reading and pondering this old book. But one can never learn anything from a text if one reads it only to see whether it agrees or disagrees with one’s prejudices (my vegetarian readers) or, worse, if one “knows” in advance that we enlightened moderns can learn nothing from “the ancient myths of men” (John M. Black III), or that a book’s seemingly reasoned discourse is in fact merely a rationalization either for existing customs and economic necessities (Brigitte M. Goldstein) or for the naked will to power of ruling elites (Jonas Dovydenas). No fair-minded thoughtful person should settle for such prejudices: he will first scrupulously read the text and think deeply about its content and meaning, he will then read commentary or interpretation and judge its merits for himself. The proof of the pudding is in the pondering.

Mr. Dovydenas crudely caricatures the dietary laws (blood sausage versus granola) and mistakenly reduces their meaning to considerations of health, not holiness. Deliberately deaf to the text, he exhorts us to look past the content of the speech to what he “knows” must be the self-interest of the speaker. Let me apply his principle to his own remarks. What should one conclude about someone who gratuitously identifies the EPA regulators and their dishonest researchers with those people who “believe pork is [ritually] unclean,” who claims that the United States has become “an ‘Old Testament’ society,” and who concludes that “the New Class is the oldest class of all” (he means, I take it, Jewish priests)?

He should perhaps speak with Mr. Black who “knows” that we have become a pagan society and is glad for the fact that man is (now) his own master. Repeating the usual canards against biblical religion—it is the cause of racism, sexism, and religious hatreds, often leading to war—and using the ills of the (man-ruled?) world to disprove the existence of the biblical God, he nevertheless prudently endorses the ethics of the Ten Commandments; but he is apparently ignorant of the God-centered content of the first four commandments. A friend of modern liberalism—I’m another—Mr. Black has apparently not noticed that it needs for its survival many non-liberal beliefs, practices, and institutions, and that even the five “Thou Shalt Nots” of the Second Table of the Decalogue are losing ground in contemporary American society. Morally speaking, liberalism is neck-deep in a foxhole, dug partly by such overconfident boosters of “man the master.”

Brigitte M. Goldstein thinks, unaccountably, that a divine law “stamping approval on ancient, well-established customs” would make God’s decrees seem “less arbitrary and whimsical” than if, as I argued, they were both a product of rational intelligence and a memorial of the intelligible order of the world. Moreover, her economic speculations, even if accurate, cannot explain why fish, some birds, and locusts are considered clean and edible: do desert-wandering shepherds normally eat fish? Mrs. Goldstein is correct in observing that God appears to prefer shepherds to city-dwellers, but we differ as to why. She thinks the clever Israelites wrote a book that would pronounce divine preference upon their already well-established (but otherwise arbitrary) ways; I think that the biblical author, leaning against the ever-present human temptation for cities and their prideful claim to self-sufficiency, presents God’s opposition to cities in stories that enable thoughtful readers to discover for themselves the rational—and not accidental—basis for such opposition. Which view makes more sense?

I have nothing against vegetarianism; neither does the Bible. I did not say that vegetarians “violate the Jewish dietary laws”; on the contrary, I said that they neither violate nor follow them. Vegetarianism is one thing, kashrut another: if you don’t believe me, read the text.

Susan Kalev and Richard H. Schwartz use important Judaic principles to support cogent prudential and ethical reasons for giving up meat (actually, their reasons argue rather for eating less meat, and only from animals not grown by cruel factory-farming methods). I share some of their concerns; for the sake of the argument, let me even grant that adoption of their ways would be healthier, more compassionate, and ecologically prudent. But the holy and sacred are not reducible to the healthy and the ethical-prudent; thus, it does not follow that the act of eating would be “more sanctified by vegetarian practice” (Susan Kalev). On the subject of holiness, who can contradict what God Himself says it requires (see Leviticus 20:24-26)?

It is true, as Roberta Kalechofsky suggests, that much of post-biblical Jewish tradition regards eating meat as a concession—but a necessary concession—to human weakness. I gave ample support for this view in my reading of the Noachic law and covenant, and I even suggested that the specifically Jewish dietary laws push back from the full permission to eat meat, granted to humankind after the Flood, in the direction of the prehuman fruit-and-nut diet of the innocent garden of Eden. But the laws of kashrut do not go all the way back, nor do they even suggest that it would be better to do so if we could. Why not? Does not the biblical text clearly suggest, as I argued, that observing the legal distinction between clean and unclean is somehow higher—and holier—than defending the natural difference between the living and non-living? Not regarding myself superior to the text, I tried to learn why it might hold such a view. Those interested in the full-fledged argument might wish to have a look at my book, The Hungry Soul.

Martin J. Plax has grasped my central intention—to disclose the inner and indeed rational meaning of kashrut—and has pushed my argument polemically beyond where I myself had taken it. He ingeniously sees the link between the utopian “hyper-spiritualizers” of human life (who depreciate the meaning of our embodiment) and the brutish cannibals (who, conversely, somaticize spirit and think dismembered flesh still carries the conquering powers of soul). Both sides do violence to the truth of our lively psychophysical integrity, which traditional Judaism honors and upholds in its unswerving celebration of life. Perhaps Mr. Plax should therefore say (with me) that kashrut, like Jewish law in general, does not “ascend beyond” physical existence so much as it elevates and sanctifies it, revealing the holy possibilities within earthly life itself.

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