Not Health But Holiness – Shemini 5782

D'var Torah | Leviticus

One of the more common explanations for the dietary laws in the Torah is hygiene. Restrictions on the eating of certain animals and animal parts was intended to protect Israelites from a rash of diseases common to the ancient world. The fact that Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, ed. Friedlander, p. 253) – both rabbi and physician – puts forward this explanation makes it even more authoritative. However, Professor Jacob Milgrom dismisses this explanation despite its pedigree.


Rather than arguing against some of Maimonides more spurious medical claims (like forbidden fat destroys the abdomen while creating cold and clammy blood and that mixtures of milk and meat render a person overly full), Milgrom looks at the dietary laws in their totality. He notes that while there are no restrictions whatsoever on fruits and vegetables, there are startlingly few species of animals that are permitted as food. And even those animals that do qualify cannot be eaten unless the animal is slaughtered as painlessly as possible by only the most pious of people. And even then, the slaughtered animals cannot be eaten until all the blood – the symbol of life -­has been drained.


The rationale at root is that the Torah puts forward a regimen that is intended to tame the killer instinct in people. The dietary laws are designed to teach the inviolability of life and the only reason that animals are permitted at all (no animals were allowed to serve as food for the human residents of Garden of Eden) is as a divine compromise after the Flood, a concession to human lust for meat. In disciplining human appetites for meat, human beings are directed to a higher level of life: that of holiness. Consequently, it is no coincidence that the passages that describe and define the dietary laws conclude with the adjuration to be holy (Leviticus 11:44).


Still today there are those who would argue that efficient and effective government supervision of food production makes the dietary laws redundant, if not entirely unnecessary.  But this would be a misreading of the scriptural text. The idea behind the dietary laws is not health, but holiness. Today, as much as at any time in human history, people need to aspire to holiness.



Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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