I. Moral Shopping
In a recent NY Times column, David Brooks described a visit to the Pomegranate kosher supermarket and described the shoppers’ experience as “moral” (link). Many readers objected to the column but I did not. He did an excellent job as a community outsider describing kosher shopping to other outsiders.
In particular, some questioned his description of kosher shopping as “minutely governed by an external moral order.” From a technical perspective, this is certainly accurate. One of the definitions for “morality” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a term used “descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society…” (link). That certainly refers to a religious community’s behavioral guidelines.
However, the question really asked is whether kosher consumption can be considered inherently ethical. On the one hand, somewhere along the production chain, someone or something may have been mistreated. That renders purchase of the product a contribution to that misconduct, and therefore unethical. However, there are multiple levels of ethical propriety. Any purchase that includes sales tax supports the US government and any unethical acts it may commit. Does that mean that buying organic food, if you pay sales tax, is equivalent to buying clothes manufactured in a sweat shop? Certainly not.
Our question, then, is not whether buying kosher food is perfectly ethical but whether it is merely an act reflecting some ethics. This takes us to the underlying reason for the kosher rules. While there are many diverse kosher regulations (e.g. refraining from eating blood, separating milk and meat, slaughtering animals), I will only focus on the limited choice of kosher animals mentioned in this past week’s Torah portion (Lev. 11).
II. Limited Choices
Of the land animals, we may only eat animals that ruminate (chew their cud) and have split hooves. Of the sea animals, we may only eat fish with fins and scales. And of the birds, we may eat any that are not on the biblical list. (Of course, over time things got more complicated as disagreements arose and multiplied.) Does this command stem from an ethical concern?
Commentators and theologians have generally offered one of the following six reasons for the laws of animal limitations:
- Health – Ramban (Lev. 11:13) states that non-kosher animals are physically unhealthy. Rashbam (Lev. 11:3) agrees and Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:48) offers this as a secondary reason for the commands. However, Abarbanel (Lev. 11:13, p. 65) and Akeidas Yitzchak (ch. 60) argue against this approach. First, if this were true, the Torah would be merely a book of medicine. Second, we see that gentiles eat non-kosher animals and do not suffer health-wise. And third, why aren’t poisonous animals mentioned explicitly in the text?
I don’t find these objections particularly convincing. The Torah requires building a ma’akeh (guardrail) around your roof even though that is merely safety related. No one argues that this somehow diminishes the Torah’s value. And the argument is not that non-kosher animals are poisonous, just that they are less healthy. Perhaps they contribute slightly to an earlier death but social differences mask that contribution. Only a controlled study, something with which the Medievals were unaware, could truly answer this. And perhaps the Torah already prohibited eating poisonous food in its general admonition to take care of your health. Refraining from poison is obvious. Refraining from these animals, which we still do not know whether they are truly unhealthy, requires a new prohibition. Not that I find the approach particularly convincing but I believe these two arguments can be rebutted.
- Spiritual Health – Instead, Abarbanel suggest that eating non-kosher animals creates bad character traits. Seforno (Lev. 11:2,43) argues similarly. More recently, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch adopts this approach.[1. Commentary to Lev. 11:10,41; Chorev, ch. 454. See Heineman, ibid., vol. 2 pp. 134-135 for an analysis of R. Hirsch’s views.]
- Symbolism – Prof. Yitzchak Heineman[2. Ta’amei Ha-Mitzvos Be-Sifrus Yisrael, vol. 1 pp. 43-44] quotes Hellenistic sources that interpret the rules symbolically (Philo and Aristeas). For example, the requirements of split hooves and rumination teach us that we need to thoroughly analyze and review our studies.
- Temperance – Rambam[3. Shemonah Perakim, ch. 4; Moreh Nevukhim 3:35] argues that these laws teach man to control his desires. By limiting the foods available, a person will learn that he cannot always eat or do what he wants. Akeidas Yitzchak (ibid.) also adopts this approach. More recently, R. Joseph Hertz and Prof. Jacob Milgrom also maintain this view.[4. Hertz Chumash, intro to Lev. 11; Anchor Bible, Leviticus vol. 1 pp. 718-736]
- Isolation – Ibn Ezra[5. Yesod Mora ch. 5, quoted in Heineman, ibid., p. 70] suggests that the special Jewish diet prevents intermarriage by making mixed meals more difficult. Shadal (Lev. 11:1) also follows this approach, although the footnote quotes an article in which he primarily follows the Temperance approach. Nechama Leibowitz[6. New Studies in Vayikra, vol. 1 p. 154] provides the text of this footnote and, on the previous page, R. David Tzvi Hoffmann’s arguments against the Isolation approach. Because Lev. 20:24 distinguishes between Jews and gentiles and the next verse distinguishes between permissible and forbidden animals, R. Hoffmann argues that Jewish separation precedes the dietary laws rather than being caused by them.
- Normalcy – In 1966, social anthropologist Mary Douglas published a highly original and attractive interpretation of these laws. The normal state for birds is to have two wings to fly and two legs to walk. Similarly, the normal state for fish is to have fins and scales to swim and the normal state for pastoral land animals is to ruminate and have split hooves to walk. Animals which deviate from these boundaries are considered transgressive and impure. Just like Jews who conform to the Torah’s laws are holy, animals that follow these natural rules are also pure.
After significant criticism, Douglas essentially retracted in a 1972 article. Milgrom[7. ibid.] argues at length against this approach and points out many of Douglas’ mistakes. However, others, such as Gordon Wenham,[8. NICOT, Leviticus pp. 169-171] still find her original thesis compelling.
III. Ethical Eating?
According to which, if any, of these approaches is refraining from eating biblically prohibited animals an ethical choice? More specifically, do any of them either reflect decisions on what is right and wrong or educate toward such a distinction? If the reason for the prohibitions is due to physical or spiritual health, the decision to abide by them does not seem like an inherently ethical choice because it does not engender right and wrong, just what is good or bad for a person’s health. Although, if the reason is spiritual health, then perhaps refraining allows you to become a more ethical person.
Similarly, if the rationale is isolation, that is a concern of communal preservation. Some may even argue that it is chauvinistic and unethical. The symbolic reasons are didactic. They teach a lesson to the adherent and to the world about living a proper life. Similarly, the normalcy approach celebrates balance in the world. Arguably, those are ethical ideals of right and wrong that keeping kosher advocates. And finally, the pursuit of temperance is a highly ethical goal, developing a character trait that prevents many evil acts.
Brooks acknowledges that kosher decision-making becomes “like a person’s natural way of being.” However, choosing to shop in a kosher supermarket rather than any of the less expensive and prevalent non-kosher venues expresses the ethical ideals and lessons of the Torah’s rules.