This week’s Torah reading, parshat Mishpatim, has some very controversial and challenging laws. Statements about witches and slaves and seducing virgins seem to fade into the background as compared with the tiny statement about not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk.
For many people, the parameters of kosher revolve around not eating pork or bacon, not eating any shellfish, and separating milk and meat. When my kids were little, my father would tell them they were so delicious he could eat them up. One of my kids looked at him and said ‘silly Zaidy, people aren’t kosher.’ It was a sweet moment for me because my dad usually didn’t tease that way (grandparenting is a whole new way of expressing) and I got to see that my kid understood that people are animals who don’t have split hooves or chew cud. Win/win.
But living in a community that keeps kosher creates a familiarity with something we easily forget is so foreign to others. A friend of mine once told me about a time that he had non-Jewish colleagues over for dinner for the first time. They planned to cook a meal together. He explained to them how his kitchen was laid out and that he keeps meat and dairy separate. Every cabinet and drawer was labelled in advance and meat and dairy were colour coordinated so things were pretty easy to navigate. Dinner went great and while they were cleaning after and he was doing the dishes, he decided to have a moment of what he thought would be levity. He turned to his friends and said ‘Oh no! You put the dairy garbage into the meat garbage!!’ He went back to washing dishes chuckling to himself about how cute and funny he was but when he turned back around his friends were rummaging through the garbage separating the meat from the dairy. When he told me the story I started laughing and he chuckled again, this time at my reaction. He asked me why separating the garbage was any more ridiculous to them than anything else about his kitchen.
He was right.
In fact, there are two different categories of keeping kosher in the Torah: the rational and the irrational. An irrational law in Judaism is called a ‘hok’. That is where we find the categories of kosher animals and the list of birds we can and cannot eat. They are irrational because left to our own devices we would never have figured out not to eat a pig. Once we can eat another living thing, why would we be limited to some and not others? It does not lie within the realm of logic, it lies within the realm of meaningfulness and so each Jewish approach will give it meaning in different ways.
Then there are the rational laws, ‘mishpatim’, the laws we would have derived on our own because they are the result of logical thinking. Laws like not stealing or murdering fall in this domain. The laws in this week’s parshah fall in this domain…and so does separating milk and meat.
We mark this separation because the Torah forbids cooking a kid in its own mother’s milk. Since we can never be sure which animal belonged to which mother, we separate all meat from milk. The law has grown into separating our dishes, our utensils and in some communities, separating appliances as well. But how is it logical?
There is definitely a cruelty to taking a baby animal, slaughtering it and then cooking it in the milk its own mother made. But the cruelty only exists within us, the animals would never know. The Torah is teaching us the logical understanding of cruel concepts that embed within innocuous actions. And that’s just the start.
The milk a mother produces is specifically there for her offspring. Its purpose is to nourish and secure a new life. It has no other purpose and most animals become milk intolerant once their digestive systems mature. Milk’s function is to promote life and begin the relationships of bonding and trust with another. (See my blog on Parshat Beshalach for other “mother’s milk” imagery in the Torah.)
Eating meat, according to the Torah, is self-indulgent. Something Judaism tells us is a concession on God’s part introduced into the world after the Flood. It is understood as more of a lust than a reasoned choice. Immediately after the Flood, the Torah lists the 7 Noahide laws, one of which is to never eat the limb off a living animal. Humanity may eat meat but must kill the animal first. In other words, eating meat must now necessitate interacting with death.
So while milk exclusively supports life, meat must interact with death. As Judaism often reminds us to choose life, it is now crucial that we understand the images and symbols we use everyday.
It is logical to not inculcate cruel concepts within us; to recognize that hurting anything must begin with an internal dismissal that it matters. We would never cook a baby animal in the milk its mother made to nourish it. And growing in holiness, we would understand what we see when we see milk and what we have done when we see meat. Both are permitted but both must be allowed to speak to us separately.
The complexities layer on top of each other so much, you yearn for the irrational laws that just say ‘do this…don’t ask because it will never make sense anyway’. But in a parshah that discusses the logic of building a society that tries to give people rights and fairness, how subtle and humbling to see that even the baby kid should be on our minds.
It’s not about how complicated I can make my kitchen, so much as knowing that avoiding concepts of cruelty and building clarity in my world could bring me to endless layers of meaning. When symbols work properly, they have no limit to their meanings. I may separate my food but not my dishes or I may separate my dishes but not my sinks, or my sinks but not my dishwasher racks, or… but I could never judge someone who is so struck by the profound message of clarity between life and death that they separate it every way they can.
The only reason we don’t separate our garbage is because, well, that would be irrational.