Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Unlike the ethical and moral precepts of Judaism, the dietary laws seem to defy human reasoning. Why should it matter to religion what a man eats and, if it does matter, why are these particular items of food singled out as forbidden?
The reason given for the prohibition of the sciatic nerve is that this was the site of Jacob’s wound when he wrestled with the angel; fat and blood are forbidden because these were offered on the altar; but no reasons are given for the other dietary laws. Generally in the Talmudic tradition no special reasons are advanced. The Torah repeats that these laws are essential in promoting a life of holiness (Exodus 22:30; Leviticus 11:44-5; Deuteronomy 14:21) and that it is God’s will that they be obeyed. Why should man wish to fathom the divine will? God has His reasons and the devout Jew will obey these laws for this entirely sufficient reason. In fact, there is a definite tendency in rabbinic thought to consider the quest for reasons for the precepts as bordering on the impious or as a questioning of God’s wisdom. In a famous rabbinic statement,”A man should not say, ‘I dislike intensely the meat of the pig.’ But he should rather say, ‘I would like to eat it but my Father in heaven has declared it to be forbidden.'”
Nevertheless, the medieval Jewish philosophers did try to provide a rationale for the mysterious details of the dietary laws. These thinkers had a threefold motivation in trying to demonstrate rationally why the otherwise obscure precepts of the Torah must be seen to be reasonable. They argued that if a Jew knows the reasons for the dietary laws he will be more enthusiastic in following them than if he simply followed them as an act of blind obedience. Secondly, to stress unreasoning obedience tends to lead men to think of God as tyrannically imposing unreasonable laws on His creatures. Thirdly, there is the apologetic motivation: Jewish thinkers felt themselves obliged to react to attacks from without on Judaism on the grounds that some its laws seem to be unreasonable and even bizarre.
Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed III:48) understands the dietary laws chiefly as a means of keeping the body healthy. The meat of the forbidden animals, birds, and fishes is unwholesome and indigestible. Surprisingly, Maimonides says that, at first glance, this does not apply to pork, to eat which does not seem to be harmful. Yet, Maimonides observes, the pig is a filthy animal and if swine were used for food, marketplaces and even houses would be dirtier than latrines, as may be seen, continues Maimonides, among the Franks in Western Europe. He is obviously contrasting the Muslims, who do not eat pork, with the Christians, who do.
Maimonides refuses to see the signs for the permitted animals and fishes as anything more than simple indications of the types of animal and fish that are permitted. An animal is not kosher because its chews the cud and has cloven hooves, nor is a fish kosher because it has fins and scales. These are only the means of identifying which species are wholesome and which unwholesome. The prohibition of eating meat cooked in milk is similarly seen by Maimonides to be because such a mixture constitutes gross and very filling food. But he surmises that a reaction to idolatry may have something to do with the prohibition, in that the idolatrous priests may have mingled meat and milk to encourage the earth to give its yield.
Nahmanides, in his commentary to the Pentateuch [the Torah], tends to see the dietary laws as beneficial to the soul rather than the body. Nahmanides observes that the forbidden animals and birds are predators, so that for man to eat of their flesh will have an adverse effect on his character, whereas the permitted animals and birds are calmer and far less violent. As for fishes, those that have fins and scales are able to swim nearer to the surface of the water where they can inhale the fresher air, whereas the other fish lurk in the murky waters of the deep, and their flesh is less clear and refined.
In the Kabbalah, this idea of human refinement is developed in a mystical way. The forbidden animals, birds, and fishes are in the realms of the demonic powers. To eat their flesh is to imbibe a spirit of impurity, making the mind dull and the soul impure.
© Louis Jacobs, 1995. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be stored, transmitted, retransmitted, lent, or reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of Oxford University Press.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs, a prominent British rabbi and theologian and a prolific author of popular and scholarly works, was born in Manchester in 1920. He served for decades as a congregational rabbi in London and has held appointments as a professor of Jewish studies in several British universities. The Chief Rabbi’s veto of his appointment as principal of Jews’ College in 1960 precipitated a controversy that led Jacobs and much of his congregation to split off from Orthodoxy.