Parashat Re'eh

Traditions and Counter-Traditions

Dealing with disagreements in interpretation of the law

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

This week's Parashah, Re'eh, contains a wonderful juxtaposition of mitzvot, which, when taken together, provide an insight into how Jews deal with novel situations and the disagreements that arise from them, and also allows me to share a peculiarity of my own family history. One of the commandments which the Jewish people have found most difficult to follow in practice is found in Deuteronomy 14:1: "lo titgodedu." The plain sense of the verse is "You should not gash yourselves... because of the dead." One must avoid pagan mourning customs that include self-mutilation. The rabbinic interpretation of the verse, however, is that Jews should not form themselves into multiple subgroups "agudot agudot" (B. Yevamot 13b) each following a different understanding of the law. Therefore, there should not be two Jewish courts in one city, one permitting a particular practice, the other forbidding it.

All of this brings us to the humble turkey. For most families, disagreements over turkey fall into simple categories like who gets the drumstick, the lumpiness of the gravy, or whose parents to go to for Thanksgiving. For my family, (and the Jewish family as a whole, really) the issues are weightier than one might expect.

Kosher Animals

The next verses of Deuteronomy 14 take as their main theme the laws of kosher animals. These laws have already been stated in Leviticus, but take on new relevance in Deuteronomy as the Israelites are about to enter the land of Israel and will now be permitted to eat meat more freely than they could in the desert (Deuteronomy 12:20).

For certain types of animals, the Bible provides specific examples and criteria. For instance, Deuteronomy 14:4-5 lists the kosher land mammals, and goes on to explain that they must chew their cud and have split hooves. Just to be sure, the text also lists those animals like the pig and the camel that one might mistakenly believe to be kosher because they have one of these characteristics and not the other. Kosher fish are not listed by name, but must have fins and scales. Therefore, if one were to encounter a new species of fish or mammal, one could usually tell by simple examination whether the species is kosher or not.

The situation with birds is more complicated. The Bible says (Deuteronomy 14:11) "You may eat any clean bird." One might then expect a set of characteristics, or a list of species, but in fact the Bible does not provide any way to identify an edible bird. Instead, it goes on to list 20 specific types and families of non-kosher birds, plus the bat for good measure, expanded to 24 non-kosher birds in total in accordance with rabbinic interpretation of the phrase "and their kind."

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Rabbi Joshua Heller

Rabbi Joshua Heller is the rabbi at Congregation B'nai Torah in Atlanta, GA. Previous to that, he served as director of the Distance Learning Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.