So what kind of food person are you? Do you define yourself by what you eat, or by what you don’t eat? When you notice a new product at the supermarket, do you decide to try it right away, or do you carefully examine the ingredients and nutritional information before you put it in your shopping cart?
The Jewish religious tradition is all about checking the box – does it contain animal products? Meat and milk together? Is the animal kosher? Did you offer tithes for it? Is it insect free?
The Torah is full of precise instructions about what is permitted and, especially, what is forbidden, to eat. Leviticus 11, for example, presents a detailed list of each animal that is forbidden to eat. It seems that the most well-known restriction is: “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 34:26), which appears in this week’s parasha. Out of this commandment came a variety of interpretations – the general prohibition of eating meat and milk together and the need to wait several hours between eating milk and meat.
But wait a minute – this verse does not state: “You shall not eat a kid in its mother’s milk,” but rather, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Therefore, this commandment is not about the act of eating itself, but rather, it's about the process of preparation. It's about our relationship with animals and the way that we cook them.
The commandment “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” does not necessarily belong to the group of halachic teachings about which animals are permitted and prohibited for us to eat, but rather, it belongs to the multitude of verses and halachic teachings about our relationship to living animals: from the Ten Commandments (and from the Kiddush blessing on Shabbat) “You shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements;” to the commandment of Shiluach Haken – “Do not take the mother together with her young;” and through commandments regarding carrying heavy loads – “When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” All of the Torah’s commandments that can be categorized under “cruelty to animals,” require us to stop, think about our relationship with animals, and show empathy and compassion for them.
Today, we are unlikely to encounter an animal lying in the street, or a nest near our home, or even a recipe that includes a kid and goat’s milk. Today, the question about our relationship with animals becomes much more complex. On the one hand, many of us are concerned with the welfare of the animals, the pets, that are close to us, that live with us – their suffering is our suffering. On the other hand, we know less about the suffering of the many animals that are used for food and we do not know if they receive a weekly day of rest as written in the Ten Commandments (this presumably not the case), nor do we know how much of the mercy, which the Torah requires of us, these animals actually receive.
It would be absurd to claim that the Torah requires us to be vegan. After all, the Torah has “70 faces,” and endless justifications and contradictions can be found in the text for many positions. However, we cannot ignore the fact that Judaism is a religion that stops in front of the shelf at the supermarket, flips over the box and carefully examines its ingredients. Even if we do not follow Jewish law, the request that we open our eyes, carefully read about what we put in our bodies and think about “the act of cooking” – that is, about the animal before it became a food product, it's grief and suffering – and not just about “the act of eating,” – this is what should guide our shopping cart.