Why is it kosher to eat beef but not pork?
Why is it okay to eat locusts (!) but not lobster?
What’s so wrong with eating a vulture or an eagle?
The origins of the Jewish dietary laws are found in Leviticus 11 and are repeated in Deuteronomy 14. For one of my rabbinical school courses, we spent several weeks studying the biblical origins and theological ideas behind these laws, and what makes some foods kosher and others treif. For class, we translated them, made comparison lists, and tried to notice patterns in the categories – as well note differences between the two texts. Then, we read some of the top theological/sociological/historical theories on these laws.
What the rules of kashrut “really mean” is one of those topics people have debated for centuries. Everyone has a theory of what they really are about, and the most popular explanation is that they were primarily about hygiene. According to this line of thought, the ancient Israelites somehow figured out that meats like pork and shellfish were prone to food poisoning, and unlike our less-savvy neighbors, the Israelites wisely decided to ban them.
It’s a nice idea, I’ll admit. It makes us sound smarter than the rest of the world. The truth though, is that there is very little truth to this theory, and in fact it is one of the more weakly supported theories out there.
After our studies on this topic, what I walked away with was an appreciation for how difficult it is to grasp what these laws were about without understanding Jewish theology at the time the laws were written — and that is no small feat. It isn’t that it’s rocket science; rather it involves a whole way of looking at the world that is so alien to how we think today, it’s simply hard to wrap your mind around it!
That said, I’m not copping out! Here is the extremely abbreviated version of the origins of the dietary laws, as I understand them. My sources are three fine pieces of scholarship by three leading thinkers in the field. While they disagree with each other on some subtle areas, in the bigger picture they are largely in agreement.
Levine, Baruch A. Leviticus. Philadelphia: JPS, 1989, pp. 243-248.
Milgrom, Jacob “Ethics and Ritual: The Foundations of the Biblical Dietary Laws.” Religion and Law: Biblical-Judaic and Islamic Perspectives. 1990. pp. 159-191.
Wright, David. “Observations on the Ethical Foundations of the Biblical Dietary Laws: A Response to Jacob Milgrom.” 1990. pp. 193-198
1) In a word, the Jewish dietary laws come down to holiness: the belief they made the Jewish people holy.
In biblical Judaism, and unlike the widespread animism that existed in surrounding pagan communities, holiness was not an innate quality.
It was something assigned by God alone.
“The emulation of God’s holiness demands following the ethics associated with his nature. Since the demand for holiness occurs with greater frequency and emphasis in the food prohibitions than in any other commandment, I conclude they are the Torah’s personal recommendation as the best way of achieving this higher ethical life.” (Milgrom)
2) The laws set the Israelites apart from non-Jews, as they believed they had been specifically selected for a special and unique relationship.
“Israel’s attainment of holiness is dependent on setting itself apart from the nations and the prohibited animal foods. The dietary system is thus a reflection and reinforcement of Israel’s election.” (Milgrom)
“The main reason for their formulation is to provide a means of making and maintaining Israel as a holy people, setting them apart from other nations.” (Wright)
“Pure creatures are to impure creatures as the Israelites are to the other nations. A pure people eats pure creatures in a pure state.” (Levine)
“The Israelites must adhere to this ideal way of life although other nations do not. Required along with avoidance of improper sexual unions, which would corrupt the family of Israel, the avoidance of pagan worship, which would alienate Israel from God, is the avoidance of unfit food. By such avoidance, Israelites are kept from bestiality, their humaneness is enhanced. Such a pure people deserves to live in its own land, unmolested.” (Levine)
3) It is no accident that one of the first acts of Christianity was to abolish the dietary laws.
“Historians have claimed that the purpose was to ease the process of converting to Gentiles. This explanation is, at best, a partial truth. Abolishing the dietary laws, according to Scripture, also abolishes the distinction between Gentile and Jew, and that is exactly what the founders of Christianity intended to accomplish — to end once and for all the notion that God had covenanted himself with a certain people who would keep itself apart from all the other nations. Further, it is these distinguishing criteria, the dietary laws (and circumcision) that were done away with. Christianity’s intuition was correct: Israel’s restrictive diet is a daily reminder to be apart from the nations.” (Milgrom)
4) The Jewish value of reverence for life was something fairly unique in that time and place in the world, and that value was reinforced by a myriad of laws, of which the dietary laws are just one of them. “The list of prohibited animals forms a unified and coherent dietary system with the blood prohibition and the prescribed slaughtering technique whose clear, unambiguous purpose is to inculcate reverence for life.” (Milgrom)
5) Those rabbis didn’t like boundary-crossing: As for the exact nature of the categories of what is or is not forbidden, they actually follow a subtle but clear pattern.
“In Genesis I, there are three elements of creation; water, air and earth. Each sphere has a peculiar mode of motion associated with it. However, creatures that cross boundaries are anomalies. Insects that fly but have four or more legs are an abomination, but if they have two legs to hop with they are edible. Birds that are carnivores are taboo because carrion contains blood and creepers engage in an indeterminate form of locomotion.” (Milgrom)
Creepers are neither fish, flesh nor fowl, and those that walked on the sea floor were viewed similarly as scavengers who ate the ‘life blood’ of other animals.
6) Forget the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ : Most interestingly, the theory most often recited in lay circles — that the dietary laws are mostly about hygiene — is the theory that holds the least water, although it’s not hard to see why it is so popular. Famous Jewish theologians of the Middle Ages, including Maimonides, wrote in support of that position.
“The hygiene hypothesis says that the forbidden animals are carriers of disease. The ancients discovered the harmful animals empirically and modern science has verified their findings: the pig is a bearer of trichinosis, the hare of tularemia, carrion eating birds harbor disease and fish without fins and scales attract disease because they are mud burrowers. … But there are weighty objections to this theory. For example, a camel, a prohibited animal, is a succulent delicacy for the Arabs to this day and there is no evidence that they suffer gastronomically. Also, if hygiene were the sole reason for the diet laws, why were they restricted to the animal kingdom? Why were poisonous plants not prohibited?” (Milgrom)
“There is no evidence of a broad nutritional or health-related basis for the specific dietary classifications of the Torah. It is more reasonable to assume a socioreligious basis for them.” (Levine)
I don’t know about you, dear readers, but these scholars completed convined me.
What do you think? If you disagree, what is your “proof”?