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Sustainable Judaism

Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

by Rabbi Haim Ovadia

January 25, 2011 | 5:55 pm

We are told that Pharaoh was punished harshly for enslaving the Israelites. But why does the Torah sanction slavery? And how am I supposed to respect the weaker strata of society — such as the converts, the sojourners, the widows and orphans — if I allow myself to enslave another human being and treat him as my property?

The Torah’s true intention is to abolish slavery, but because the phenomenon was so widespread and accepted in antiquity, people would not have followed a Torah that forbade slavery. The Torah modified and limited slavery, with the goal of eventually abolishing it completely. The “slave” is not his master’s property, but rather an employee with a more comprehensive contract. The master must provide for all his needs, treat him respectfully and avoid corporeal punishment. On top of all that, the slavery is limited to a maximum of six years, and the master must give the released slave a generous bonus from the choicest of his produce.

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that most Orthodox rabbis support this theory. They all admit that the Torah addresses a certain reality and, in some cases, made concessions to accommodate people so as to not drive them away with what would seem to them insurmountable obstacles. Even rabbis who generally would deny the concept of evolving times and constantly adapting halachah will agree that there is a difference between overriding a biblical prohibition (issur), not performing a required act (mitzvah) or avoiding an optional one (reshut).

With these facts in mind, it is indeed surprising that there is only a handful of rabbis who would view in the same manner another aspect of Jewish life, which appears in our parasha: the famous, “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19).

This prohibition, our rabbis explain, is not limited to goats or to cooking the offspring in its mother’s milk, but rather includes the cooking of any meat in any milk, as long as they are both from mammals. It is interesting, however, to note the phrasing of the prohibition. Why wasn’t it written simply, “You shall not cook meat and milk together”?

The answer is that this is also a concession. If it were possible, the Torah would completely forbid the consumption of animal-based foods.

Torah allowed limited consumption of meat to pacify the people. The prohibition of cooking milk and meat together is to remind us of the cruelty of killing an animal to feed ourselves when there are other means to do so. Don’t add to this cruelty by cooking the meat in the milk that was meant to give life to the young mammal.

This understanding of the text is extremely important today as we face diseases that are related to our consumption habits, such as mad cow and avian flu. In the past, eating meat daily was considered a sign of great wealth. Today, cheap meat meals are within everyone’s reach, and they’re lovin’ it.

The ratio of poultry to humans is almost 3-to-1, and humans to cattle is almost 7-to-1. Many of these animals don’t graze or live naturally anymore; instead, they are confined to tiny spaces and subsist on a diet of processed feed. It is not meant to be that way. Even if you decide to eat animal-based foods, the natural way is for animals to graze. It’s good for the animals, it’s good for the vegetation, and it’s good for the planet.

The situation is especially horrible when it comes to the treatment of calves, which the religiously conscious consumer should declare completely nonkosher for moral reasons.

As Jews, we are used to being called on for higher standards and to respond to a higher authority. We have to remember that the laws of ritual slaughter were put in place to avoid over-consumption of meat and to ensure that the shochet will be a learned, hopefully more sensitive man who will not rejoice in his gruesome profession.

The higher authority that we have to respond to today is that of the Creator of the Universe, who has placed mankind on this Earth, the Garden of Eden, in order to protect and cultivate it, not destroy it. It is our responsibility toward the planet and mankind as well as our own spirituality and sensitivity. We should all make an effort to reduce, if not eliminate, the use of animal-based foods, and demand that kosher standards include humane treatment and ecological awareness.

Haim Ovadia is the rabbi of Congregation Magen David of Beverly Hills (magendavid.org), a Sephardic Orthodox synagogue, and a faculty member with the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. He can be reached via e-mail at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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