Commentary Magazine

Why the Dietary Laws?

A core document of Western civilization, the Torah or Pentateuch has at its center a set of dietary regulations, presented in the eleventh chapter of Leviticus. Though these now strike even many Jewish believers as quaint, and though the tradition (especially among Christians) now regards them as much less important than the so-called ethical teachings of the Bible (for example, the Decalogue), the Bible itself makes no such distinction. At the very least, we risk ignorance of our own Judeo-Christian tradition if we do not try to understand even these seemingly irrational rules of eating and their place in the way of life set forth by the Bible.

But understanding the dietary laws may yield more than cultural self-knowledge. Indeed, I believe that they embody and reflect a more or less true understanding not only of the problematic character of eating but, more significantly, of the nature of nature and of the place of man within the whole. They implicitly pay homage to the articulated order of the world and the dignity of life and living form; they incorporate into the act of eating an acknowledgment of the problematic character of eating as a threat to order, life, and form; and they celebrate, in gratitude and reverence, the mysterious source of the articulated world and its generous hospitality in providing food, both for life and for thought.

These remarkable customs not only restrain and thwart the bad; they also commemorate the true and beckon to the good. Finally, the dietary laws of Leviticus commemorate the creation and the Creator and beckon us toward holiness.




If the dietary laws are to remind us of the creation, we need first to remember some things about it, as it is presented in the first chapter of Genesis. Here we are given, through a sequential unfolding, our world hierarchically arranged, in an account which, carefully read, can be made to reveal also the rational principles embodied in it.1

Let us first remember the order of the creatures. Day one: light and the separation of light and dark. Day two: heaven, a dividing vault which separates the waters above from the waters below, opening up room beneath which life can move. Day three: first, the gathering of the waters to reveal the dry land, i.e., the separation of earth and seas; and second, the earth’s putting forth of vegetation after its kind.

The next three days bring creatures that all have locomotion, beginning with the heavenly lights on day four. Day five brings the fish and fowl, each after their kind. Day six: first, the land animals, after their kind; second, man, created in the image of God. The second three days thus closely parallel the first, bringing (respectively) motion, life, and the possibility of freedom and creativity to the realm of light, to sea and sky, and finally to the earth.

Then there is, either completing or transcending the creation, a seventh day on which God desists from creating. Three blessings are also given: the fish and fowl for fecundity (“Be fruitful and multiply,” 1:22); man for fecundity and rule over other living things (“Have dominion,” 1:28); and the seventh day itself, not only blessed but separated, hallowed, i.e., made holy (2:3). Three blessings: life, rule, holiness, or as scholars might say, the natural, the political, the sacred—an ascending order that is imitated in the Torah’s unfolding account of human life.

The main principles at work in the creation are place, separation, motion, and life, but especially separation and motion. Places are necessary regions for the lodging of separated kinds and backgrounds for the detection of their motion; life may be looked at—at least on a first glance, which I shall later correct—as a higher and more independent kind of motion. Further, if one treats locomotion as a more advanced kind of separation, in which a distinct being already separated from others also separates itself from place, we could say that the fundamental principle through which the world is created is separation. Creation is the bringing of order out of chaos by acts of separation, division, distinction.

This view is encouraged by the language of the text: the word “divide” or “separate” (badal) occurs explicitly five times in the first chapter, and the idea is implicitly present ten more times in the expression “after its kind,” which implies the separation of plants and animals into distinct and separable kinds.



The creation of living things on days five and six completes the work of creation. Living things are higher than the heavenly bodies by virtue of having greater freedom of motion, man most of all. They are characterized also by having a proper place—in the waters, above the earth before the firmament, or on the earth; by being formed according to their kinds; by having motion appropriate to their place (more free on land); and by reproducing themselves, according to their kinds. Unlike the heavenly lights, they also have powers of awareness—especially hearing—which are implied in the receipt of God’s blessing; they can recognize the distinctions that are manifest in the world, and ultimately, at least one of them—man—can understand those conveyed in speech. Finally, they are characterized by vulnerability, which may be what makes them in need of God’s blessing.

The vulnerability or neediness of life, not a prominent theme, is in fact not forgotten. The very last subject of the first chapter, before God’s pronouncement that everything is very good, is the matter of food. After blessing man to be fruitful and multiply (as He also did the fish and fowl) and to have dominion over all life, God teaches man that dominion over the animals does not mean appropriation or exploitation, at least not as food:

And God said: “Behold I have provided you with all seed-bearing plants which are on the face of all the earth, and every tree which has seed-bearing fruit; to you I have given it as food. And to every living being of the earth and to everything that creepeth upon the earth which has a living soul in it, I have given every green herb as food.” And it was so.

The only instruction given to man, the ruler, created in the image of God, is about necessity, about food—his and that of his subjects. Though they are to eat different things—seeds and fruit for man; green herbs for all other animals (yes, including the lion and the tiger)—they are all to be what we call vegetarian.

Keeping to this diet would disturb the order of creation almost not at all. Eating seeds and fruits does not harm the parent plants; eating fruit and discarding the seeds does not even interfere with the next generation. And the green herbs to be eaten by the animals are constantly produced by the earth, almost as a head produces hair. The disruptions caused by meeting necessity through eating would, in the idealized case, be negligible.

We must, however, imagine that man and the animals as created were capable of eating meat. True, they were encouraged not to do so, especially as the fruits of the earth were said to be bountiful. But that they needed to be told what to eat is perhaps a sign that, left to their own devices, their appetites might have extended to incorporate one another.

In this very subtle way, the text hints that the harmonious and ordered whole contains within it a principle—life or, if you will, appetite, and eventually omnivorousness and freedom—that threatens its preservation as an ordered whole. The biblical account speaks truly: life is destabilizing and threatens itself; man does so in spades. Despite (because of?) being created in the image of God, man alone among the creatures—except for heaven—is not said to be good.

The sequel indicates that life’s destructive power is not an idle concern.




Beginning in the garden of Eden, the problem of eating and its regulation—barely hinted at in Genesis 1—receives prominent attention. The Bible seems to agree with Aristotle, among others, that the first reason for dietary laws is the need to restrain, moderate, and define the naturally unrestrained, immoderate, and boundless appetites of human beings—appetites that are by no means restricted to the desires for food, but for which the problem of eating is somehow emblematic.

The need for dietary laws is, to start with, identical to the need for law in general, and laws to regulate conduct are very often heralded by or presented in terms of regulations of eating. Indeed, the Torah presents us with a series of stages in the development of the human race, leading up to the formation of the people of Israel, each of which is marked by a change in the diet, usually involving restriction.

For example, at the beginning, in the bountiful garden of Eden, man was a fruit eater, allowed to eat of every tree of the garden—save one. Though the tree of knowledge of good and bad may be only metaphorically a tree—knowledge does not grow on trees—the image suggests an explicit connection between human autonomy and human omnivorousness, by representing the limit on the former in terms of a limit on the latter.

The expulsion from the garden is coupled with a shift from fruit to bread, the distinctly human food, and marks the next major step toward humanization through civilization. Men turn from gathering naturally available food (fruits) to toilsome cultivation of grain, itself in need of artful transformation before it becomes edible as bread.

But civilization here proceeds in the absence of law. Men are left to their own devices and, beginning with the fratricide of Cain, the whole earth soon becomes corrupt and violent—including also the animals (6:12), by which we may understand that they have become carnivorous. By the tenth generation, men are disordering and dissolving the created order, with no respect for life and limb. The return through the Flood to the watery chaos of the beginning completes the dissolution into chaos that life itself has wrought.

The next and crucial stage, just after the Flood, is marked by the first law for all mankind and the first covenant between God and man, through Noah. To use non-biblical language, man here emerges from what Rousseau would later call the state of nature and becomes civilized or political, in “the moment when, right taking the place of violence, nature was subjected to law.” The first statute of the first law sanctions for the first time man’s eating of all animal flesh, but, at the same time, prohibits the eating of blood, which is the life.

Why does this move to law come about? An answer is suggested by the episode that immediately precedes the covenant. Noah, immediately upon leaving the ark, builds an altar and (presumably in an act of thanksgiving, but without command or instruction) sacrifices some of the animals God had him rescue from the antediluvian world of violence and bloodshed. God, in reaction to Noah’s sacrifice, remarks, one imagines sadly, “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (8:21). Even Noah, righteous and simple Noah, is not pure at heart and has a taste for blood.

God decides against blotting out and starting over; it would not do any good. Instead He chooses the way of law. The covenant with Noah makes a concession to man’s violence and carnivorousness, but only by bringing it somewhat under law.

In becoming a creature under law, quasi-“po-litical,” man is decisively separated from his animal friends and relations, in the interests of elementary decency and justice in human life. For the Noachic law also for the first time prohibits murder and compels human beings to punish it. We surmise that God was willing to tolerate meat-eating in the hope that man’s ferocity would thereby be sated, that murder might become less likely if human blood-lust could be satisfied by meat.

But the laws governing diet do more than restrain human omnivorousness and ferocity. Well before Leviticus, Genesis already hints that dietary laws are not merely ethical or, in the broad sense, political, designed to moderate human appetites that men may live more justly with one another. It shows us that dietary laws are also meant to help distinguish one people from another. Peoples are distinguished most decisively by what it is they look up to and revere, by their gods. And their view of the divine and their experience of the divine are often reflected or embedded in their customs and laws.

As practiced, laws bind a people to a particular and distinctive way. But as objects also of reflection, they may serve as symbols and reminders—in the highest instance, of the divine and our relation to it. Genesis gives us a dietary model.

The specifically Jewish dietary laws are anticipated in the story of Jacob’s wrestling with the mysterious being which later traditions call an angel (Genesis 32:25-33). As a result of this striving with God, Jacob acquires the name which becomes the name of his people, Israel, but he is also marked with a limp in his thigh. The narrator interrupts his story of the wrestling to announce the first specifically Jewish dietary law: “Therefore the children of Israel”—this is the Torah’s first mention of the name of the future people—“eat not the sinew of the thigh which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day: because He touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, even in the sinew of the thigh.”

The children of Israel remember, by a dietary practice, that ambiguous and mysterious encounter of their father Jacob with the divine. They are restrained in eating, as was Jacob by the limp, but in a way that reminds of God. They remember, negatively, that Jacob was injured in the process of struggling against God; positively, that God was close enough to be encountered and struggled with.



The basic anthropological sequence, then, as taught in Genesis, is this:

  1. A pre-human condition (garden of Eden): men eat fruit.
  2. A pre-political condition, before law (from Cain to the Flood): men eat bread, but they lapse naturally also into eating meat.
  3. A political condition, beginning with elementary justice (Noah) and continuing to the formation of separate peoples (descendants of Noah after Babel): men eat meat, but under law, respecting blood as life, and (later) different peoples presumably have different dietary practices, based on differing conventions.
  4. A more-than-political condition, in which one people is brought beyond the just into some relation with the holy, eventually to aspire to holiness itself. In this condition there are further restrictions of diet, connected with purity and holiness, eventually to be built on the distinction between clean and unclean.

After this brief review, we are now ready to ask about the particular laws in Leviticus that govern the eating of other living things.




Why these dietary laws? Many people now seek to explain or rationalize the dietary laws of Leviticus in terms of concrete practical benefits that observance would yield to the Israelites—for example, in improved health. But attempts to explain the laws in terms of hygiene and public health cannot be supported by the text. Only a benighted Enlightenment reason, which holds cleanliness to be more important than godliness, could confidently imagine God as the forerunner of Louis Pasteur, threatening to cut men off from their people in order to keep them from trichinosis. As it happens, the law does not say that the pig or the eagle is unclean simply; it says it is unclean to you—though we shall see in a moment in what sense the pig is in fact itself a defiler.

Perhaps more plausible is the thesis that the laws intend to provide a discipline good for the soul, partly by the mere acts of self-denial, but mainly by the need to attend scrupulously to details of diet. But this explanation (or any other that alleges a different concrete benefit) cannot suffice, for it fails to account for the particularities of the prohibitions: why rule out the camel, the lobster, or the raven? Why permit the locust but not the ant?

There is much to be said for the view (favored by Maimonides among others) that the laws are meant solely to separate the children of Israel from other peoples, most especially from the Egyptians behind and the Canaanites before, peoples whose practices (especially in sexual matters) and pagan beliefs are from God’s point of view abominable: whatever the Egyptians eat, let that be unclean to you, lest you stray easily into their ways.

But left at that point, this explanation does not go far enough. For the ways of the Egyptians and the Canaanites—indeed, the practices of any people—embody their beliefs about the world and especially about the divine, in this case a belief in nature gods. Thus, the avoidance of the abominable turns out to be the start of the turn toward holiness.

The context in which the dietary laws of Leviticus are given demonstrates that their concern is, indeed, with purity and holiness. The immediate antecedent is the problematic sacrifice of Nadab and Abihu, who “offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1)—just as the immediate antecedent to the Noachic law was the problematic, uninstructed massive sacrifice of animals by Noah immediately upon taking them from the ark. It is in the sequel to this wild, “Dionysiac” episode that God makes known the importance of two separations and of the connection between them: distinguishing the clean from the unclean and distinguishing the holy (qodesh, apart as sacred or holy, possessing an original idea of separation) from the profane (hol, common; from a root meaning to bore, to wound, to dissolve, to break—in short, to destroy wholeness and form).

God’s first speech after this episode of the strange fire gives something of a dietary law to Aaron and the priests—no wine or strong drink before entering the sanctuary—and introduces us for the first time to the all-important and related distinctions, holy and common, unclean and clean, using the same verb, lehavdil (the root is badal), to separate or distinguish, which was so prominent in the first chapter of Genesis and which has not been used in this way since: “And that ye may make distinction between the holy and the common and between the unclean and the clean, and that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken unto them by the hand of Moses” (Leviticus 10:10-11). This is the context for the laws of purity which follow.



Chapter 11 is, in fact, only the first of several chapters that articulate the distinction between the clean and the unclean, the holy and the common. Each deals with what might be described as “transgressions” of the natural boundaries between the human being and his surroundings. Chapter 11, food—that is, that which crosses the boundary coming from the outside in. Chapter 12, childbirth, and Chapter 15, bodily issues—things which cross the boundary going from the inside out, and, in the first and very special case, with the bodily separation of one life coming out from within another. In between, Chapters 13 and 14 deal with a disease that has been called (probably erroneously) “leprosy”; as described in the text, it is a disease of the living boundary itself, one which effaces the surfaces separating the inside from the outside and which erodes and alters the human form.

Thus, the laws that especially separate the Israelites from other nations, and that legislate the separation of clean and unclean, concern themselves with regulating “threats” to the embodiments of the principle of separation. The principle for separating clean and unclean is none other than separation itself. We cannot but think of the creation.

The principles important to Genesis 1—place; form or kind; motion; and life—are all at work in Leviticus 11.2 The animals discussed are presented according to their place: first the land animals (vv. 2-8; also vv. 41-45), then those of the waters (vv. 9-12), finally the fliers, birds and insects (vv. 13-23). To be clean, land animals must have completely cloven hoofs and must chew the cud; animals that go upon the belly or upon all fours, that have many feet, that swarm upon the earth, or that do not chew the cud are unclean. To be clean, water animals need fins and scales. Among the fliers, we are given only a list of named unclean birds; but among the winged swarmers, i.e., insects, those that leap on jointed legs are clean, those that, though winged, walk on all fours are unclean.

Though I cannot account for all the details, I observe that the criteria used to identify the clean and the unclean refer to their form, their means of motion, and how they sustain life, that is, what they eat to live—specifically, whether they eat other animals or not. Ruled out are creatures that violate any of the principles of creation: place, form, motion, and especially the original dietary code, the one that would least disturb the created order. Ruled out are:

  1. Creatures that have no proper or unambiguous place, e.g., the amphibians.
  2. Creatures that have no proper form, especially the watery ones, (a) by virtue of having indefinite form, with fluid shapes, lacking a firm boundary defined, say, by scales—i.e., jellyfish or oysters; (b) having deceptive form, like eels (fish that do not look like fish); or (c) having incomplete form—like the incompletely cloven-footed animals.
  3. Creatures that violate proper locomotion, such as those animals that live in the water but walk as on land (lobsters); those that live on land but swarm as in water (“all the swarmers that swarm on the earth”—in Genesis 1, the swarmers belonged in the waters); those insects that have wings for flying but that nevertheless go on all fours, i.e., walk (the insect leapers, though they have legs, are treated as more akin to the true fliers, and are clean); also, those with too many legs (centipedes) or no legs at all (that go on their belly, e.g., snakes, worms); and those that go on all fours, i.e., on their paws (and thus use their hands as feet).
  4. Creatures that violate the original dietary code, showing no respect for life—that is, the carnivorous ones. This consideration is especially evident in the unclean birds, the identifiable ones being mainly birds of prey; and in the requirement of chewing the cud, the mark of the ruminant animals that eat what God originally gave all animals to eat, the green herb of the earth.



Let us consider more closely a few of the particular requirements. The clean and unclean land animals are distinguished according to their feet (parting the hoof) and according to their diet (chewing the cud), i.e., according to motion and eating. The fish are distinguished by their form (fins and scales) and their mode of locomotion (fins); the birds presumably by what they eat; the winged swarmers by how they move. How an animal moves reveals its relation to its place in the whole. What an animal eats reveals its relation to other parts of the whole. If they have fitting relations, they are clean.

Hoofed animals are grazing animals: their feet are fit only for walking and moving, not for grabbing and clawing; they are footed to stand in the world (and generally poised well above the ground, more erect than the carnivores), not to tear at it. Cud-chewers are so far from eating other animals that they finally chew and swallow only the homogenized stuff they have already once swallowed and raised. When the pig, a notorious omnivore, is declared unclean, the Torah says it is because “he does not chew the chew,” using the cognate accusative construction (vehu gerah lo yiggar, 11:17), presenting by implication, as it were, the ideal of the perfect fit of activity and object. The pig is a would-be ruminant gone bad: one should chew not life but chew, i.e., that which is fit for chewing. The chew-chewers are poles apart from that first accursed and most unclean animal, the belly-crawling serpent, which is in fact a moving digestive tract and which “voraciously” swallows its prey whole and live.

By attending to these natural differences of animal form, the dietary laws of Leviticus refine and improve upon Noachic law. At first, in the covenant with Noah, all animals were given to all men as food, as a concession, save only the blood. Avoiding the eating of blood does indeed show some respect for the life that one is nevertheless violating. But the common principle of vitality—blood—itself ignores and homogenizes the distinctions among the kinds of animals. It shows respect for life, but not for separate living form. Focusing only on blood ignores especially the distinction between those animals that do and those that do not honor in their eating the original separations of the world.

The Levitical laws of purity reintroduce those early distinctions: the children of Israel are not to incorporate animals that kill and incorporate other animals. This restriction tacitly acknowledges the problem of carnivorousness. The children of Israel are also not to incorporate or have contact with beings that do not honor in their motion the original separations of the world. These restrictions on their freedom, which rule out animals that take “illegitimate”—i.e., order-destroying—liberties, tacitly acknowledge the problem of freedom.

In all these ways, the dietary laws build into daily life constant concrete and incarnate reminders of the created order and its principles, and of the dangers that life—and especially man—pose to its preservation. In these restrictions on deformation and destruction, there is also celebration of creation.



In a certain sense, the dietary laws push the children of Israel back in the direction of the original “vegetarianism” of the pristine and innocent garden of Eden. Although not all flesh is forbidden, everything that is forbidden is flesh. Thus, any strict vegetarian, one could say, never violates the Jewish dietary laws. Yet though he does not violate them, one could not say that he follows them. For only unknowingly does he not violate them, and, more to the point, he refrains indiscriminately, that is, without regard to the distinctions among the kinds of living things that might and might not be edible. In this sense, the strict vegetarian, though he rejects the Noachic permission to eat meat, shares exactly the indiscriminate Noachic grouping-together of all the animals and its concentration only on the blood, which is the life.

But why, one might still ask, does not the Torah institute other dietary laws that push back all the way to vegetarianism, reversing altogether the Noachic permission to eat meat? Is not vegetarianism the biblical ideal, if the restricted meat diet of Leviticus is really nothing more than a compromise, a recognition that it is too much to expect these stiff-necked human beings to go back to nuts and berries? Perhaps we were wrong to see the Noachic dispensation as merely concessive, a yielding to Noah’s (and mankind’s) prideful bloody-mindedness. Perhaps, looking again, we can see here something elevating.

Noah, the incipiently civilized man, having spent time in close quarters with the animals, figured out as a result his human difference; he learned that he was more than just king of the animals. He learned that he was the ambiguous because godlike animal, both capable of and in need of self-restraint through the rule of law, and also open to the intelligible order of the multiform world. The result was the new world order after the Flood. To mark his self-conscious separation from the animals, man undertakes to eat them; to acknowledge his own godlikeness, man accepts the prohibition of homicide (Genesis 9:3-4, 9:6).

Eating meat may indeed be part and parcel—albeit a worrisome one—of our humanization. This humanization, it seems, can only be achieved at some cost to the harmony of the whole. The price is noted with regret, but it also must be paid. And it may be worth paying in order to keep the human being ever mindful of the forms and distinctions that are the foundation of the world. It might be superhuman or (as some would argue) more godlike for human beings to renounce their rational difference from the animals, and to affirm by an act of choice the prehuman, instinctive diet of fruit and seeds; but it also may be less than human. The Levitical dietary laws fit the human animal in his distinctive uprightness: celebrating the principle of rational separation, they celebrate not only man’s share in rationality but also his openness to the mystery of intelligible yet embodied form.

But there is more to the dietary laws than the celebration of rational order. There is motion also toward the source of that order, toward that which is highest over all. The Noachic covenant with all flesh had denied in a way the dignity of flesh as variously formed and active, reserving it only for blood. Whether as a concession to unavoidable necessity or as a mark of human superiority, the lower (flesh) was permitted, but the higher (blood/life) was not. “Do not eat the high,” says the Noachic law on meat. The Levitical permissions and prohibitions say the reverse: “Do not eat the detestable.” The clean is to be incorporated. The legal distinction between clean and unclean is somehow higher than the natural principle of living and nonliving, even as it incorporates and modifies it.

There is elevation in these restrictions. The clean and the holy, once far removed, are incorporated into daily life. Eating the clean, under laws given by the Holy One, symbolizes the sanctification of eating.




At the end of Leviticus 20, in an exhortation which concludes a long, ten-chapter section on personal, ritual, and moral purity, God speaks together of separation and holiness. He first calls on the children of Israel to keep and perform the laws, in order to avoid becoming abominations to the land and abhorrent to God, like the Canaanites whom He is casting out before them. He concludes as follows:

I am the Lord your God, Who have separated (hivdalti) you from the peoples. You shall therefore separate (vehivdaltem) between the clean beasts and the unclean and between the unclean fowl and the clean; and you shall not make your souls detestable by beast or by fowl or by anything wherewith the ground teemeth, which I separated (hivdalti) for you to hold unclean. And you shall be holy (qedoshim) unto Me; for I the Lord am holy (qadosh), and have separated (va’avdil) you from the peoples, that you should be Mine.

How does making and observing separations between the clean and the unclean conduce to holiness? What does it mean, “Be ye holy, for I am holy”? I do not know. But I offer one observation and two suggestions.

The dietary laws remind us not only of the created order but of the order as created, not only of the intelligible separations and forms but of the mysterious source of form, separation, and intelligibility. The practice of the dietary laws reflects and achieves the separation of the people, around the rule of separation, to celebrate through obedience the holiness and separateness of the source of separation itself—and, by the way, also of the bounty of food.

And how might one become holier through observing these separations? Here are my two suggestions. On the one hand, through obedience: one reduces the distance between the holy and the profane by sanctifying the latter through obedience to the former. The low is made high—or at least higher—through acknowledgment of its dependence on the high; the high is “brought down,” “democratized,” and given concrete expression in the forms that govern ordinary daily life. The humdrum of existence and the passage of time are sanctified when the hallowed separateness of the Seventh Day is brought into human life and commemorated as the Sabbath. Likewise, the commonness of eating is sanctified through observance of divine commandments, whose main principles remind the mindful eaters of the supreme rule of the Holy One.

On the other hand, through imitation: God seems to say to the creature made in His image, “You should make distinctions because I make distinctions. Because I made the separations that created the world, because I also separated you from the peoples that know Me not that you should be Mine in holiness, so you must make and honor these separations in pursuit of holiness, of more perfect godlikeness.” This suggests that it is also in the fullest rational activity that man imitates and comes closer to God—but with these most important qualifications:

We can discern the distinctions in things, but we have not made them separate.

Neither have we made that power of mind which registers the articulations of the world and permits us to recognize distinctions.

The rational man is therefore only an image—and knows it. Brought by his mindful appreciation of forms before the mystery of form and mind, he must bow his head—as he alone can—to powers greater than human reason. The upright animal, his gaze uplifted and his heart filled with wonder and awe, in fact stands tallest when he freely bows his head.

In order that we not forget these qualifications, the biblical dietary laws, like the creation they memorialize and like the world we inhabit, will never be wholly transparent to reason.


1 For a much more thorough treatment and defense of this account of our world, see my “Evolution and the Bible: Genesis 1 Revisited,” COMMENTARY, November 1988.

2 The observations that follow agree largely with those of Mary Douglas (“The Abominations of Leviticus,” in Purity and Danger, 1966) and Jean Soler (“The Dietary Prohibitions of the Hebrews,” New York Review of Books, June 14, 1979), though they were arrived at independently and are made in a completely different spirit. These scholars are content to discover the patterns and logic of what Soler calls “the Hebrew mind.” They do not consider the possibility that those patterns and that logic might reflect truly the intelligible patterns of the world, or that the insights of and about this people might have universal anthropological meaning. Support for such a view is given in my book, The Hungry Soul. See also Robert Alter's article on Douglas and Soler, “A New Theory of Kashrut,” in COMMENTARY, August 1979.

About the Author

Leon R. Kass, the Hertog fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, served from 2001 through 2005 as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. In somewhat different form, this essay will appear in a volume on religion and the American future to be published later this year by the American Enterprise Institute.

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