Tag Archives: food

Creation, Animals, and Diet: A View from Torah and Soloveitchik

Between Heaven and Earth from Eden to the Flood and Beyond:

a Torah study by Rabbi Rick Brody

Genesis, theology, and the role of humanity in relation to other animalsin conversation with the wisdom of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik and classical commentaries

[Some material adapted from Rabbi Yonatan Neril and Evonne Marzouk of Canfei Nesharim]

[Translations of Biblical Hebrew adapted by Rabbi Rick Brody]

Soloveitchik citations from: The Emergence of Ethical Man, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2005, pp. 31-38

I. The basis for the relationship between human and non-human creatures

בראשית א:כד–ל

כד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים תּוֹצֵא הָאָרֶץ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה לְמִינָהּ בְּהֵמָה וָרֶמֶשׂ וְחַיְתוֹ־אֶרֶץ לְמִינָהּ וַיְהִי־כֵן: כה וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹקים אֶת־חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ לְמִינָהּ וְאֶת־הַבְּהֵמָה לְמִינָהּ וְאֵת כָּל־רֶמֶשׂ הָאֲדָמָה לְמִינֵהוּ וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים כִּי־טוֹב: כו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל־הָאָרֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל־הָאָרֶץ: כז וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹקים ׀ אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם: כח וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹקים וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹקים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁהָ וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּה הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל־הָאָרֶץ: כט וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת־כָּל־עֵשֶׂב ׀ זֹרֵעַ זֶרַע אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי כָל־הָאָרֶץ וְאֶת־כָּל־הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ פְרִי־עֵץ זֹרֵעַ זָרַע לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה: ל וּלְכָל־חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וּלְכָל־עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּלְכֹל ׀ רוֹמֵשׂ עַל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה אֶת־כָּל־יֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב לְאָכְלָה וַיְהִי־כֵן:

Genesis 1:24-30

And God said, Let the earth bring forth animated life, [each] according to its species, beast and creeper, and earth-life, [each] according to its species; and it was so. 25 And God made the earth-life, [each] according to its species, and the beast(s) according to its species, and every ground-creeper according to its species; and God saw that it was good. 26 And God said, Let us make a grounds-keeper (humanity) with our imprint, like our character; and let them have dominion with the fish of the sea, and with the fowl of the sky, and with the beast(s), and with all the earth, and with the entire [range of] creeper that creeps upon the earth. 27 So God created the grounds-keeper with God’s imprint, with the Divine imprint God created it; male and female God created them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion with the fish of the sea, and with the fowl of the sky, and with all life that creeps upon the earth.” 29 And God said, “Look, I have given you every seed-bearing herb, which is upon the face of all the earth, and the entire [range of] tree that has a seed-bearing tree-fruit on it: to you it shall be for food. 30 And to all earth-life, and to all fowl of the sky, and to every creeper upon the earth that has animated life in it, [I have given] every green herb for food;” and it was so.

Soloveitchik

Let us be clear that this rule [regarding diet] was not given to man as an ethical norm but as a natural tendency; it is absurd to speak of a law imposed upon ʻevery beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps upon the earth.ʼ …. [T]his injunction was a physiological pattern that dominated manʼs sensory drive. Primordial man neither desired nor was tempted by any food other than of the vegetative realm. The verse concludes ʻand it was soʼ: the ethical norm became a behavior pattern, an expression of the ontic order. Man and animal were not driven toward killing or devouring other living creatures.”

Questions

  1. Soloveitchik points to a similarity between human beings and other animals, a shared place in the cosmic order and a shared reception of a natural tendency. Is the word “species”) / min used in reference to the creation of humanity? Is humanity / adam a “species” in the same way the other creatures are categorized? What might our answer teach us?

    1. God says “Let the earth bring forth…” in regard to animal life, but then the text says “God made.” Then, God says, “Let us make…” in regard to the grounds-keeper, but then the text says, “God created.” What is going on here?

    2. Was God talking to the animals when God said “Let us make adam…”? Do (or did) the animals possess the Divine imprint and character (since God says “our”)? Did the appointing of a grounds-keeper take some of that quality away from the other creatures? If so, is that Divine quality ever available to them again? Can any creature be adam? (See question 3.)

    3. What is the difference between the dietary rules for adam and for the other creatures? Why might this distinction exist and what might it teach us about our relationship to food today?

  1. We know that this (mythic) natural order did not persist, either for human beings or for many other animal species. How might the Torah want us to understand that divergence in real life (i.e. not simply through the flood narrative)? Should we understand that divergence to have occurred similarly for humanity and the other species?

  1. What, then, distinguishes humanity? Is this distinction guaranteed or might it be conditional? Is it fully realized from the start or is it a potential state within an evolving humanity? Is it a distinction that is necessarily limited to the biological species homo sapiens?

בראשית רבה ח:יב

:יב וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם: אמר רבי חנינא: אם זכה, רדו ואם לאו ירדו. אמר רבי יעקב דכפר חנין

את שהוא בצלמנו כדמותנו ורדו, את שאינו בצלמנו כדמותנו ירדו

רבי יעקב דמן כפר חנן אמר: יבא צלמנו ודמותנו, וירדה לשאינו דומה לצלמנו כדמותנו

Bereishit Rabbah 8:12

AND HAVE DOMINION (REDU) OVER THE FISH OF THE SEA (Gen. 1:28).

Rabbi Chanina said: If [humanity] has merit, [God says,] ‘ur-du’ (and have dominion); while if they do not have merit, [God says,] ‘yerdu’ (let them descend) [or ‘yeradu’(they shall be dominated) / they will be taken down / let other [creatures] rule over them)].

רשי בראשית א:כו

זכה רודה בחיות ובבהמות. לא זכה נעשה ירוד לפניהם והחיה מושלת בו

Rashi: If he merits, he rules over the living things and over the beasts. If he does not merit, he becomes subservient to them, and the living things rule over him.

Rabbi Ya’akov of Kefar Hanin said: Of one who is with our imprint and like our character [I say] ‘ur-du’ (and have dominion); but of one who is not with our imprint and like our character, [I say] ‘yerdu’ [or ‘yeradu’].

Rabbi Ya’akov of Kefar Hanan said: Let [the one who possesses] ‘our [Divine] imprint and character’ come and have dominion over the one who is not characteristic of ‘our [Divine] imprint and character.’

Questions

  1. What does dominion here suggest?

  2. What does merit refer to?

  3. What might it mean for other creatures to have dominion over humanity? Is this the same dominion that humanity would have over them?

II. The shift in the relationship

בראשית ט:א–ד

א וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹקים אֶת־נֹחַ וְאֶת־בָּנָיו וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ: ב וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם וְחִתְּכֶם יִהְיֶה עַל כָּל־חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וְעַל כָּל־עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּרְמֹשׂ הָאֲדָמָה וּבְכָל־דְּגֵי הַיָּם בְּיֶדְכֶם נִתָּנוּ: ג כָּל־רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא־חַי לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת־כֹּל: ד אַךְ־בָּשָׂר בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ:

Genesis 9:1-4

And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth. 2 And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon all earth-life, and upon all fowl of the sky, with all that shall creep on the ground, and with all the fishes of the sea; in your hand are they delivered. 3 Every creeper thing that lives shall be food for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. 4 But flesh with its animation—its blood—you shall not eat.’

Soloveitchik

“Man-animal became a life-killer, an animal-eater. He became blood-thirsty and flesh-hungry.
“Is the Torah very happy about this change? Somehow we intuitively feel the silent, tragic note that pervades the whole chapter. The Torah was compelled to concede defeat to human nature that was corrupted by man himself and willy-nilly approved the radical change in him. ….
“Animal-hunters and flesh-eaters are people that lust. Of course it is legalized, approved. Yet it is classified as taavah [Num. 11:4, 34], lust, repulsive and brutish.
“The real motif that prompts such unquestionable antagonism toward slaying of animals is the aboriginal Jewish thought [that]….man and animal are almost identical in their organic dynamics that is equated with life, and there is no justifiable reason why one life should fall prey to another. Why should a cunning intelligence that granted man dominion over his fellow animals also give him license to kill?”

Questions

  1. According to Soloveitchik, what fundamental distinction exists between human beings and their “fellow animals”?

  2. How far does he believe that distinction should extend?

  3. What other fundamental value does that distinction come up against?

Ramban, Commentary on Torah, Bereishit 1:29 Flesh was not permitted for human consumption until the children of Noach, as our Sages have explained. And this goes according to the plain meaning of the Torah’s text. The reason for it is that mobile creatures have a certain spiritual attribute which in this respect makes them similar to those who possess intellect (i.e. people); they are capable of looking after their welfare and their food and they flee from pain and death. And the verse says, “Who knows that the human’s spirit is that which ascends on high and the beast’s spirit is that which descends below to the earth?” (Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 3:21) …

רמב׳ן, בראשית א:כט

הבשר לא הורשו בו עד בני נח כדעת רבותינו. והוא פשוטו של מקרא: והיה זה, מפני שבעלי נפש התנועה יש להם קצת מעלה בנפשם, נדמו בה לבעלי הנפש המשכלת, ויש להם בחירה בטובתם ומזוניהם, ויברחו מן הצער והמיתה. והכתוב אומר ׳מי יודע רוח בני האדם העולה היא למעלה ורוח הבהמה היורדת היא

… (למטה לארץ׳ )קהלת ג כא

Nevertheless, humanity was not given reign over the [animals’] life-force, for it was still forbidden to eat a limb off of a live animal. At this point it also became forbidden to consume blood, for it is blood that maintains life, as the verse states, “the blood of every living creature is associated with its life-force; tell the Israelites not to eat any blood, since the life-force of all flesh is in its blood.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 17:14). All that was permitted was the body of the non-speaking (i.e. non-human) animal after it has died, but not the life-force itself. This is the reason for shechitah (ritual slaughter); even though it is otherwise prohibited by the Torah to cause pain to animals (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metziah 32b), we nevertheless make a blessing “who has sanctified us with Divine commandments and commanded us regarding the shechitah.

ועם כל זה לא נתן להם הרשות בנפש ואסר להם אבר מן החי. והוסיף לנו במצות לאסור כל דם, מפני שהוא מעמד לנפש, כדכתיב )ויקרא יז יד( ‘כי נפש כל בשר דמו בנפשו הוא ואמר לבני ישראל דם כל בשר לא תאכלו כי נפש כל בשר דמו הוא,’ כי התיר הגוף בחי שאינו מדבר אחר המיתה, לא הנפש עצמה. וזה טעם השחיטה, ומה שאמרו )ב“מ לב ב( ‘צער בעלי חיים דאורייתאוזו ברכתנו שמברך אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו על השחיטה

Question: Why would God forbid the consuming of a creature’s life-force? What would such an act do or represent?

  1. After Noah: Continued limitations in the relationship to non-human animals

ויקרא יז:ג–ד

ג אִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁחַט שׁוֹר אוֹ־כֶשֶׂב אוֹ־עֵז בַּמַּחֲנֶה אוֹ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁחָט מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה: ד וְאֶל־פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֹא הֱבִיאוֹ לְהַקְרִיב קָרְבָּן לַהלִפְנֵי מִשְׁכַּן הדָּם יֵחָשֵׁב לָאִישׁ הַהוּא דָּם

שָׁפָךְ וְנִכְרַת הָאִישׁ הַהוּא מִקֶּרֶב עַמּוֹ:

Leviticus 17:3-4

3 Any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox, or lamb, or goat, in the camp, or who slaughters it out of the camp, 4 and does not bring it to the door of the Tent of Meeting, to offer an offering to the Eternal before the tabernacle of the Eternal: blood shall be imputed to that man; he has shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people;

Soloveitchik

The implication is clear. Whoever kills an animal for non-sacramental purposes is guilty of bloodshed, of murder; the term shefikhut damim applies equally to the slaughter of man and animal. Under a certain aspect, the life of the animal has been placed on equal plane with that of man.”

The Torah has not yet explicitly allowed for the non-ritual consumption of animal flesh (let alone a completely gratuitous taking of animal life).

דברים יב:כ–כא

כ כִּי־יַרְחִיב האֱלֹקיךָ אֶת־גְּבֻלְךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר־לָךְ וְאָמַרְתָּ אֹכְלָה בָשָׂר כִּי־תְאַוֶּה נַפְשְׁךָ לֶאֱכֹל בָּשָׂר בְּכָל־אַוַּת נַפְשְׁךָ תֹּאכַל בָּשָׂר: כא כִּי־יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר האֱלֹקיךָ לָשׂוּם שְׁמוֹ שָׁם וְזָבַחְתָּ מִבְּקָרְךָ וּמִצֹּאנְךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן הלְךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּכֹל אַוַּת נַפְשֶׁךָ:

Deuteronomy 12:20-21

20 When the Eternal your God shall enlarge your border, as God has promised you, and you shall say, I will eat flesh, because your life-force lusts to eat flesh; you may eat flesh, with all the lust of your life-force. 21 If the place which the Eternal your God has chosen to put the Divine name there is too far from you, then you shall slay from your herd and from your flock, which the Eternal has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat in your gates, with all the lust of your life-force.

Soloveitchik

Nevertheless, the Torah again calls a desire for meat ta’avah, lust; while the Torah tolerates it, it is far from fully approving it.”

Questions:

  1. What have we learned about life-force / nefesh?

  2. Could we interpret the permission to consume flesh as contingent upon the continued existence of the Divine name in the place God has chosen (the Temple)?

  3. What might be the relationship between the expanding of borders and the lust of the life-force?

  4. How could we read “expand your borders” metaphorically and creatively—and potentially in a way that differs from or can prevent the lustful results that Deuteronomy anticipates?

 

A Vegan Rosh Hashanah

A Vegan Rosh HaShanah

by Rabbi Rick Brody

Some practical suggestions for celebrating the new year with plant-based foods and some reflections on having your dietary choices help usher in a year of goodness, health, and holiness.

Here in funky Austin there is a new little craze sweeping the Jewish community, as two health practitioners (a doctor and a weight-management coach), both members of the local Conservative synagogue, have started promoting a new diet that emphasizes plant-based foods, decreasing meat, and basically eliminating dairy. Many Jews here who are becoming increasingly concerned about their health and weight have jumped onto the bandwagon, which is great news for vegans as well as the animals that tend to suffer miserable lives and deaths, even if compassion towards other creatures isn’t the primary motivation behind this effort. They have a Facebook page that you’re welcome to check out.

One of my congregants, who has jumped on this bandwagon, just asked me about recommendations for what to cook for the holidays. The first thing that came to mind was the series of foods that have word-play blessings associated with them. I found (and slightly modified) the below list after a very quick search and discovery of these pages, including a couple that have full-fledged recipes. I invite you to check the links in the previous sentence for more detail, including specific culinary suggestions.

Some brief comments:

1) In general, the wonderful idea here is that through the food that we eat — and certain intentions associated with those foods — we renew our year and recommit ourselves to our quest for wholeness and holiness in our lives. This outlook is precisely what motivates vegans and I would say especially Torah-oriented vegans who see their veganism as an expression of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws.

With a couple of exceptions, these traditional foods are all vegan. Eating them can connect us with the richness of the natural world and the foods it provides for us without our causing harm to sentient beings. Furthermore, eating them can challenge us to make the connection between the foods we eat and the ethical choices we make — those directly related to our eating as well as those that  enable us to extend our compassion to all other aspects of our lives.

2) I say yes, eat nuts – and that would be like consuming our sins! If the Israelites were forced to drink the powdered remains of the Golden Calf, why shouldn’t we ingest a food that symbolizes transgression? Perhaps the only way to fully confront our shortcomings is to devour them. Plus, nuts are nutrient-rich and delicious!

3) It is interesting that there’s a tradition to use sugar instead of honey on the challah.

4) Obviously, vegans prefer our fish swimming in their native waters rather than dead on our tables. And no comment on the ram’s head, except to ask what might be a suitable substitute? A head of lettuce? Something else from the plant world that can symbolize a “head”? And how about a symbolic “tail” while we’re at it?

I wish everyone a cruelty-free new year filled with good health for all!

Say Nuts to Nuts
Some Jews avoid eating nuts on Rosh Hashanah because the Hebrew word for nut is “eh-goze” which has the same numerical values as “chet,” meaning sin. On the Day of Judgment, the thinking goes, its worthwhile to avoid all shades of sin even numerical ones.

Black-Eyed Peas
Egyptian Jews and others eat black-eyed peas because they are called Rubya, related to the Hebrew word rov meaning a lot, many. Black-eyed pea dishes, such as Hoppin’ Jack, are traditional New Year’s eats in the American Southeast. One wonders if the slave trade had something to do the migration this dish.

Couscous with Seven Vegetables
The many tiny couscous grains represent a wish for a year with blessings aplenty. Tossing seven different vegetables plays on the number seven, which represents goodness in the natural order. Seven earns this distinction because God created the world in seven days.

Sugar or Salt on the Challah
Some Sephardic Jews deliberately avoid honey because it was a fouling agent if added to the Temple incense. Challah is dipped into sugar instead. Jews who observe this sugar custom might dip their bread three times in sugar and three times in salt. Throughout the year, challah is dipped into salt in remembrance of the sacrifices that had salt sprinkled on them.

To Fish or Not to Fish
Fish multiply in great number. They never sleep. They swim in water. Believe it or not these are reasons why they are eaten by some Jews on Rosh Hashanah. We hope the year will be one of plenty, just as fish are extremely fruitful. Just as fish never sleep, we hope to maintain a constant awareness of our mission in life and to remain cognizant of God’s expectations at all times. Since fish are underwater the evil eye cannot penetrate the depths, and we wish to be free of any negative wishes.

Yet there are some Jews, among them certain Sephardim, who will not eat fish on Rosh Hashanah. In Hebrew fish is “dag” and that sounds too close to “da’ahgah,” worry, for comfort.

Animal Heads
When Jews were closer to agriculture and to the ways of the marketplace butcher, the following custom probably didn’t sound as nauseating. With the prayer “May it be God’s will that we will be the head and not the tail,” Jews kept a sheep, rooster, or a fish head on the Rosh Hashanah table.

Gourds
Rabbi Abaye mentioned gourd eating in his list of New Year’s symbolic foods because of two puns that may be made on the gourd’s Hebrew name “k’rah.” The word means “read out, proclaim” as in “May our merits be proclaimed before God.” K’rah also means “rip up” as in “May harsh decrees be torn.”

The two meanings are combined in the following short prayer:

May it be your will Eternal God that our harsh decrees are torn up and our merits are proclaimed before You.

Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloheinu she’yee-korah g’zar dee’nay-nu v’yee-kar-oo l’fah-necha zechu-yo-tay-nu.

Fenugreek
Fenugreek is known as “rubia,” increase, and is eaten with the short prayer:

Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloheinu sheh’yirbu ze’chu-yo-taynu.
May it be your will Eternal God that our merits increase.”

Leeks or Cabbage
These vegetables are known as karsi, related to the word karet, to cut off or destroy.

Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloheinu sheh’yee-kar-tu soh-nay-nu.
May it be your will Eternal God that our enemies will be cut off.

Beets
Beets are known as “silka,” related to the word “siluk,” meaning removal. The adversaries referred to in the prayer before eating the beet are the spiritual roadblocks created by the past year’s missteps that must be removed before a sweet New Year is granted.

Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloheinu sheh-ye’stal-ku oy-vay-nu.
May it be your will Eternal God that our adversaries will be removed.

Dates
Dates are known as “tamri” is related to the word “tamri,” meaning consume or finish. This food is similar to the beets and leeks in that it is eaten with the intent that all enemies will end their detrimental wrath.

Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloheinu sheh-yee-tahm’u oy-vay-nu.
May it be your will Eternal God that our enemies will be finished.

Pomegranates

Yehi Ratzon Mil’fa’necha, Adonai Eloheinu She nirbeh zechuyot ke rimon.

May it be Your will, Lord our God and the God of our fathers, that we be filled with mitzvot like a pomegranate [is filled with seeds].

Responding to Cherry-Picked Derision of the Mitzvot

It is quite the fad among those who oppose fundamentalism — especially those who advocate for a more humane approach to the reality of same-sex romantic relationships in our contemporary world — to respond to “Bible-thumpers” by pointing out their hypocrisy: “What about all the other Scriptural prohibitions that you don’t spend any time preaching about, or might even violate yourself?!” This basic approach is important and has its place. We observant Jews, I think, find it especially laughable that non-Jews would be so adamant about the absolute authority of certain mitzvot while completely ignoring others.

However, this tactic of alerting the fundamentalist to his or her fallacies often moves in a different direction, especially when employed by those who seem to hate religion in general. Such people tend to equate all religiosity with fundamentalism and seem to find ridiculous, backward, and indeed threatening to modern life any practice that doesn’t have an immediately discernible rational explanation. Their inability to see that such practices might still have meaning for others leads them to dismiss the entire idea of adhering to a code of behavior that dates further back than last week, especially if any concept of a relationship to Divinity is expressed as part of the motivation for the practices or the system itself.

The Huffington Post has just published a typical sortie in this ongoing “battle” between atheists and fundamentalists. After reading it, I decided I’ve had enough and that it was time for me to weigh in with some advocacy for nuance and moderation in such discussions. I’m sure the haters on either extreme are yelling too loudly to hear me, but perhaps those in the middle who might be interested in a more intelligent conversation will find something worthwhile in my response.

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As an observant Jew, I agree with many other comments here that it makes little sense for Christians to cite some commandments from the Hebrew Bible as authoritative and to ignore others. And, like all Jews, I see all the commandments within the context of a much larger interpretive tradition that maintains that “anyone who translates a verse literally is a liar” (Babyl. Talmud, Kiddushin 49a), that essentially legislated out of any practical application many of the “archaic” laws of the Torah such as the stoning of disobedient children and capital punishment in general, that ultimately saw slavery (permitted in the Torah) as abhorrent, that transformed the basic Biblical practices of marriage through the banning of polygyny, etc. So, I agree that one — whether or not he or she plans on adhering to the commandments of the Hebrew Bible — ought to view them skeptically at first reading (skepticism is very Jewish; fundamentalism is not).

However, I am offended by the approach of this post in its attempt to casually suggest that the whole corpus of laws from the Hebrew Bible is ridiculous, and I’m probably even more offended by many of the specific prohibitions cited as efforts to prove the author’s point. As for the approach: It seems that the author deliberately chose the most archaic English translations of the material (lots of “thee”s and “thou”s), a technique that seems similar to a litigator’s act of “leading the witness.” Yes, these commandments were delivered in an ancient language, but to their original readers (and the original readers of various translations in historical context), they likely sounded much more felicitous than the words here do to readers of English in 2012. Other translations exist today with language that is much less “off-putting” than the language used here.

More importantly, this approach ignores the social and literary context of many of these laws. I believe that we need to be closer readers of the texts that have played such a significant role in shaping the values and laws that define our society. I believe that the proper correction for the myopic, “cherry-picking” use of Leviticus 18:22 by bigots, autocrats, and demagogues is not the same kind of cherry-picking in our rebuttal but rather a different kind of conversation about the Bible, its history of interpretation, and ethics — not more of the same decontextualized readings of other verses.

More egregious is the dismissal of many of the values (and practices) underlying the laws cited as examples here. At the very least, the problem with this current post is that in many cases, it focused on the “wrong” commandments to ridicule (i.e. practices not deserving of ridicule). The author seems to suggest that since most people gossip, it must be okay. What a terrible approach! I would prefer that people who have any ethical moorings argue with a little more nuance for intelligent adults to try navigating through the array of behavioral choices available to them by working to discern which ones have serious implications for those around them and which ones do not. In other words, we have much to learn about the Biblical abhorrence of inappropriate speech; not simply because the Bible says so, but because the Bible happens to be right on this issue — the abuse we commit with our words is much more destructive to another human being and to society as a whole than are the sexual acts of two consenting adults.

As for the other laws derided in this post, several have been “legislated out” of relevance even within normative Judaism in the manner mentioned above. In these cases, the author betrays ignorance about context. Others, however, remain at the foundation of a contemporary Jewish life in the pursuit of holiness and meaning and are anything but archaic, irrelevant, or inoperative to serious, observant contemporary Jews. Many Jews continue to take dietary prohibitions and Sabbath observance seriously for a variety of reasons. Such practices have had significant positive impact on the connectedness that Jews feel towards a tradition that forges a unique identity, that instills in us a sense of discipline, that emphasizes that we be conscientious about what we consume in our mastery of the world around us, that celebrates taking time away from a daily grind that depletes our energy and that blinds us from what really matters in the world, and that sensitizes us to living humbly in our quest for sanctity.

If more people were strict about adhering to some of these other “13 laws” than they were about preaching about other people’s apparent disobedience of other Biblical commandments, I believe the world would be a much more civilized and sanctified place. We don’t accomplish much by “throwing the baby out with the bath water” and ridiculing the entirety of ancient religion. Narrow readings of any text are generally not helpful. If we read more openly — including in a manner that pays attention to the world around us rather than just the actual words on the page — we can discover not only which ancient texts are truly problematic as we move forward but we can also discover deep possibilities for meaning and goodness within many texts and practices, both ancient and modern.