The most elaborate, comprehensive and effective system for the prevention of animal cruelty was not invented by the FDA or even PETA; it was devised by the Book of Leviticus. This may seem a strange idea. Without question, it swims rather roughly against that trusty river of intuition. Pigeon slaughter is rarely good for pigeons. Bull offerings are not something cows easily stomach. As far as “becoming a sacrificial lamb,” I have it on good authority that this is not what most sheep dream about when they are kids.
To an untrained imagination, a “bustling Tabernacle” is a strange cross between an abattoir and a synagogue. A PETA activist might describe its practices as “murder in the name of God, differing from the Crusades only by the choice of its victims.” Well, my friends, I believe this is wrong on many counts.
There is a peculiar phrase that accompanies nearly every mention of sheep, goat and cattle offerings throughout the Bible. In the Torah, where no word is out-of-place and no letter believed superfluous, repetition is a cause of interest, and should never be dismissed as careless writing. The word I refer to is “tamim,” and it means “whole, complete, unharmed, pure, without blemish.” At the start of Leviticus, we read: “A person who brings an elevation offering ... shall bring an offering without blemish [tamim]” (Leviticus 1:2-3). Concerning peace offerings, they, too, are brought “without blemish” (Leviticus 3:1). Similarly, the paschal lamb had to be tamim, just as the red heifer (parah aduma temima) had to perfect in every way. To bring a blemished animal to the Lord was sinful, and Leviticus states this repeatedly.
What this meant for any animal potentially destined for the altar is that it could not be harmed, injured or mistreated. Remarkably, if we compare the rules of blemishes to the sort of miseries and maladies routinely inflicted upon factory-farmed animals, something astonishing comes to light. Factory-farmed meat, served in our homes, would never be offered in the House of the Lord.
Animals that are surgically mutilated or castrated, a regular practice among meat growers wanting more malleable livestock, would be grounds alone for disqualification (Kiddushin 25b). Animals pinioned in cages of their own muck could be disqualified on account of their disgusting odor (Temurah 28b). Most birds and cattle pumped with near lethal amounts of antibiotics to prevent their succumbing to illness would be disqualified for their being sickly (ibid).
One often reads of meat growers stimulating rapid growth through steroids, genetic chicanery, artificial lighting, hormone-enhanced feed, all in an attempt to get meat faster to market. Such practices would be eliminated by the routine biblical requirement that offerings of sheep, goats or calves be minimally 1 or 2 years old (Leviticus 9:3; Rosh Hashana 10a). A 3-month-old calf the size of an elephant would be barred from the Temple gates.
This week’s Torah Portion, Shemini, shifts away — from sacrifices to general food prohibitions: kashrut. Numerous beasts are prohibited from the hog to the hare, to kites, crocodiles and chameleons. The many (often confounding) dietary laws are often believed to be beyond the pale of rationale explanation, yet that has not stopped commentators from trying to explain them. Historically, there are two well-known schools of thought. One is based on ethics. Laws such as, “Do not stew a kid in its mother’s milk,” and “shooing away the mother-bird,” teach us to be merciful. If we eschew animal cruelty, all the more so, we should eschew cruelty to our fellow human beings (R. Bachaya ben Asher; Ibn-Ezra). Another approach explains kosher laws as a means to teach people “temperance and self-control” (Philo, Maimonides).
In the sacrificial system, each view is valid. To raise an animal fit for sacrifice required both constant discipline and tenderness toward the animal in one’s keep. Farmers sacrificed time and resources to raise fowl, herd and flock. In approaching the altar, both animal and owner had to be tamim.
Today, we live without the Temple, and therefore without the mitigating requirement that meat not only be fit for eating but fit for sacrifice. It happens that in our day, thank God, modern Jewry has ready access to kosher products. Meat, rinsed and salted, is easily obtained. In Los Angeles, with little ado, we order cooked lamb, chicken, beef, bison in restaurants and supermarkets. Yet with so much available, lessons of temperance and ethics fall away.
“Kosher” means “fit” or “proper,” but how “fit” is an animal when the finest moment of its life was the day its life of misery was ended in a slaughterhouse? Moreover, how tamim are we who celebrate our faith, and sanctify the Lord, by consuming endless plates of chicken and beef in our homes? With several meanings in mind, one might ask: “Can there be kosher without sacrifice?”
Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who teaches at Ziegler Rabbinic School, The Academy of Jewish Religion, and runs an independent Modern Orthodox minyan in Beverlywood. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.