February 23, 2006
Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)
To: My vegetarian husband
From: His guilt-ridden wife, who keeps falling off the vegetable cart
We are both rabbis. We've studied the same texts. We've turned the same verses over and over, examining them like gems under a magnifying glass, full of refractions of color and light. We both understand it was only after Noah's sacrificial offerings God said, "Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses." The sanction on eating meat given the moment after God realizes, "the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth." Perhaps that was the violence God saw Noah's generation commit? The carnivorous drive of both man and beast which horrified heaven so that the ducts of the deep were opened and the land welled over with torrential tears.
We have both turned over the verse, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk." In this week's Torah portion, the verse follows verses on sacrifice, festal offerings and choice first fruits. Biblical scholars understand it to be referring to ancient Egyptian sacrifices, not necessarily how we prepare our food. But we've also drunk from the Talmud, and been fed by the commentators, who understand it as a prohibition against cooking milk and meat. We've encountered into the fences built around that law.
You remember all the late nights when I was finishing my rabbinic thesis, "Animal Sacrifice and the Continual Offering in the Second Temple Period." In my studies, I learned that the deep-rooted instinct to sacrifice grew out of basic archaic taboos on eating flesh, and the need to reconcile mortal frailties with the gods upon whom man believed his well-being depended. After the flood, meat-eating is God's concession to an imperfect mankind, and man being acutely aware of his imperfection, and ashamed before the Creator for his hunger for flesh, attempts to elevate the entire process, legitimizing it by turning the animal into an offering. God, apologetically, is invited to the table. I remember what Jacob Milgrom wrote in "Studies in Cultic Theology and Terminology": "Man will have meat for his food and he will kill to get it. At least let us not let him dehumanize himself in the process."
I remember when we were dating, I felt ashamed when I had a hot dog. I would have a stick of spearmint gum, like a smoker, before seeing you. When I was pregnant, I wanted my body to be like Eden for our child, where only the fruit of most trees and the green of the earth were food, where there was no killing -- an idyllic serenity of species cohabiting. But my body craved more iron than spinach could provide.
I love that there are never bones in our kitchen. I love that when you take me to kosher vegetarian restaurants, I can close my eyes and point to anything on the menu and know it will be fresh, healthy and good. The children wake to the smell of kosher vegetarian bacon. Chicken-less nuggets are packed in their lunches.
I try, when confronted with a burger to remember the starry eyes of the little cow in our daughter's book: "It's time for sleep little calf, little calf. What happened today that made you laugh?" I try to eat low on the food chain: fish before chicken before beef. And then Friday nights the preschool presents trays of savory cholent.
In the end of this week's Torah portion, it is written, "Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and 70 elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel ... they beheld God, and they ate and drank. The gods of Uruk were served two meals a day. Giant feasts were dedicated to the goddess of Mesopotamia. In Egypt, the gods were served even grander feasts, which would then provide food for the entire staff and sometimes the whole city. Here, instead of throwing themselves upon their faces in reverence, the Israelite leaders also play host, inviting God to the table."
Judaism is a step-by-step religion. It awaits no superhero, but commands the efforts of our own hands. It recognizes our yetzer hara (evil inclination), and teaches us to harness it. It understands we crave meat and instead of saying don't eat it, commands us to not mix death with life, to separate out the blood which is its life force, and to not mix it with milk which represents birth and life. To mix them is to accept the world as it is. Fragmented, haphazard, where people die suddenly or too slowly, too young, death and life at random. Rather, we separate them, indicating everything should happen in its proper time. To everything there is a season. And some day, God-willing, there will be that final season, when every day is Shabbat, when we reenter Eden.
Until that day, I repent, and attempt, and repent, and attempt again to express my adoration, God, for Your wild, bristling and breathing world. Until that day, when the lioness with the heart of a lamb will lay down peacefully with her lamb, who has the giant heart of a lion.
Read Rabbi Jonathan Klein's response in First Person on March 3.