Mishpatim: Respecting life, do not add insult to injury

Three times Torah tells us not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. (Exodus 23:13, 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21)
Why is Torah so interested and concerned about this practise that it repeats the prohibition so insistently?
The probable reason is that this act must have been one that was practised by the surrounding peoples for religious/idolatrous reasons and it must also have been seen as quite attractive to the Israelite people – otherwise why would Torah mention it?
Talmudic rabbis give no reasons for the prohibition. It is the later commentators from the medieval period who turn their attention to a rationale. Maimonides(died 1204) suggests that it was an idolatrous practise but he gives no supporting text for his statement. Sforno (d 1550) also thought that the law referred to an idolatrous practise in which young goats were cooked in their mother’s milk as a kind of fertility rite and indeed an Ugaritic text translated in the 1930’s seems to talk of an agricultural fertility ritual of doing just this, followed by spreading the mixture on the fields.
But whether or not this was a practise of the surrounding peoples performed in order to bring about fertility or to appease their gods, the prohibition of “basar be’chalav” (meat in milk) is profoundly embedded in Jewish dietary practise, and the three references are used as the basis for three separate laws:
The prohibition against cooking a mixture of milk and meat
The prohibition against eating a cooked mixture of milk and meat and
The prohibition against deriving any benefit from a cooked mixture of milk and meat. (BT Chullin 115a)
However regardless of the origin of this prohibition, and also of the way that the Jewish legal tradition has taken it, there is another, ethical dimension to the statement.
Sforno argued that as well as this being a practise of idolatry, the using of the milk of an animal to cook its child is inhumane, and he compared it to the principle of shilu’ach ha’keyn – the injunction to send away the mother bird from a nest before taking the eggs, so that she does not get distressed in seeing it. Ibn Ezra also understood the injunction ethically, to mean that one should not to kill a mother and its offspring at the same time, as this would show an inexcusable lack of sensitivity to life.
But the ethical message was, I think, best put by Rabbi Hugo Gryn z’l who echoes Philo of Alexandria by suggesting that the passage was in reality an imperative not to add insult to injury – that is, not to use the thing meant to nurture a child as the agent of its destruction. This isn’t about mixing milk with meat, but about cooking with mother’s milk – about bringing together life and death in some terrible symbolic fusion.
Judaism has a profound respect for life – even that of a herd animal. Hence our system of shechita (kosher slaughter) so that a life taken for food is taken reflectively and respectfully. This respect for life is also demonstrated in the value we must place on every human being, no matter what their social status or their state of health and ability to contribute to the community.
Life is a gift, to be enjoyed and valued, respected at all times. Whatever happens in our lived experience, we should take care not to add insult to injury but to treat everyone with the same respect and sensitivity.

parashat shemini

The laws of Kashrut can be sourced back to this sidra – the types of animals, fish, birds and insects that we as Jews may eat, and those we may not.  There is no explanation for these laws, just as there is no explanation for what happened to Nadav and Avihu the sons of Aaron who died after offering an inappropriate sacrifice – but both stem from a system that is both rigorous and spiritual. Both are about the spiritual discipline acted out in life. Judaism creates holiness out of the ordinary. Kashrut in relation to food is partly about choosing to partake or abstain, and in so doing to show that we are not ruled by our animal instincts, but always remember that we are human beings who have been created in the image of God.

 Kashrut is also a way to make choices in order to encourage spiritual enhancement – for example treifa (meaning torn) has at its base meaning a food that has been torn from its source, either through violence or disease.  And Nachmanides teaches that the character of the animal we eat will in some way influence us – so we should eat only peaceful and kind animals, and not animals who are predatory or vicious.

 The sacredness of food – be it as an offering to be burned or waved before God, or be it the food that we consume – is a primal sense. In the bible, Jews understood about God through food – be it drought or plenty, manna or abundant fruits and grains.  Through a consciousness of food, by choosing what, where and when to eat, Jews developed an awareness of the Source of all. Food was the symbol of our relationship with the earth, and that itself is a symbol of our relationship with God. Think back to Genesis when Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden for eating the wrong fruit – and now they are told that they must earn their own food and work the earth hard for it in order to get what God had given so freely before. Food is the medium through which we learn about our tradition and theology – matza at pesach, cheesecake at Shavuot, the seven species that grow in Israel during Sukkot and so on. Two loaves of bread at each meal on Shabbat – teaching us through food about rest – the manna was given in a double portion in time for Shabbat so that we would not have to go out searching – and working – on that day. Food connects us to the seasons, to the earth and to God. So how we choose to use it, or to abuse it; how we choose to partake or abstain – this can be an important spiritual tool for us to learn, to experience, to teach.