Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mishpatim, Keeping Kosher and Weaving Meaning

“You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” (Exodus 23:19)

With this seemingly obscure verse, repeated three times, a mountain of laws is built. From this one verse the kosher laws requiring the separation of milk and meat are spun. Jewish law derives three prohibitions: cooking milk and meat together, eating any combination of these and as well deriving benefit from this mixture.

Why? The traditional explanation is that a mother’s milk sustains life. It must therefore never be combined with an animal’s flesh. Eating meat is seen as a compromise to human wants, and perhaps needs. It must then be framed by certain constraints. We cannot eat any meat we want. Hence the lists of permitted and prohibited animals. We cannot eat hunted animals. Our tradition argues that they might have suffered too much. We cannot eat meat with the milk that would have sustained its life.

Such are our tradition’s reasons. It is of course possible that all the Torah meant was that we are forbidden from cooking a young goat in a pot of boiling milk. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that this was a practice of Israel’s neighbors. Perhaps the Torah’s law was one more version of its singular refrain: Don’t do what they do. Don’t follow the practices of those idolaters.

Sometimes I wonder if the Torah’s lack of details and explanations surrounding this verse suggests that its meaning was clear to the ancient ear. The Torah states: “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” And the people looked to the North (I once saw such a recipe in a Syrian cookbook) and then to the East and together nodded in agreement. No more needs to be said. The Torah’s message, repeated over and over again and in many different forms, is heard: we will never be like them. We will never do what they do.

And yet thousands of years later this is not what Judaism says the verse means. We are not literalists. We are dependent on years and years of interpretation. At first the rabbis argued whether or not chicken should be considered meat since it does not nurse its young. The ancient chicken farmers must have lost that argument. It looks too much like meat the rabbis argued. And so chicken is now meat.

And the mountain of interpretation keeps growing.

After eating meat we wait before eating milk. Some wait one hour. Others wait six hours. We have separate dishes for milk and others for meat. We have separate cooking utensils. No cheeseburgers. No ice cream for dessert after a steak dinner. The lists grow and grow.

The original intent was long ago obscured. And yet years ago Susie and I decided to build our kitchen according to these lists. No one coerced us. No one demanded this of us. Somewhere along our journey we discovered these lists and decided to make them our own. Now we have two sets of everything. Sometimes we sit down for a meat meal. Other times we take out the milk dishes. No one said, “You must keep kosher.” One day we decided to makes these seemingly arbitrary, but uniquely Jewish, lists our own.

More than anything else this set of rules define our day to day lives as Jewish. Every time we prepare a meal, we have to ask, “Milk or meat?” Every time the question is asked our Jewish consciousness is raised. Every time I reach for a cup or a plate I am reminded of my Jewishness. Buying kosher meat does little to raise this awareness. The refrigerator and freezer hold only kosher choices. “Milk or meat?” becomes the all-important daily Jewish question.

Are the rules illogical? Perhaps. But their meaning transcends their logic. They are meaningful precisely because they are not our own. It is not the logic of the rules that we have adopted but instead a discipline above and beyond ourselves. It is this discipline that binds us to the Jewish community near and far, past and future. It is these rules that daily renew our commitments to our God. The great Jewish teaching is that while eating should be enjoyable it must also be about more than just pleasure. It is as well about discipline.

Sure you can eat anything you want. You can also pause and say a blessing and then allow gratitude to soothe your heart. You can as well, in that instant when you begin the preparations for a meal marvel that even this mundane, every day moment, can be infused with Jewish meaning by the simplest of questions, “Milk or meat?”

Standing on mountains of interpretation “You shall not a boil a kid in its mother’s milk” continues to weave its way into my heart.

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