Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Clean and Unclean - Reflections on Kosher (Part I)

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Cow and Chicken. Both clean.

Lessons We Can Learn From Clean Animals

I was asked by a friend why God called some animal’s clean and others unclean. Why? What’s the difference between beef and pork? At the time, I hadn’t really thought about it, and so had no good answer.

I know this is a subject that has been debated and speculated on by people for a long, long time. But I suppose it wouldn’t do any harm to add my own speculations onto the pile. Why speculate? Well, that’s a matter of worldview. From a conservative Jewish perspective, it doesn’t matter. Commands are given to obey, not to question or understand. The Modern perspective is that these are silly rules given by a silly religious leader and have no deeper meaning. But my perspective is neither; I think I might have a Medieval perspective: that there is deep meaning in everything, especially Scripture.

Leviticus describes (and Deuteronomy repeats) the rules for Kosher. Observant Jews, to this day, observe these very old laws. And indeed: if one knows the what of a Divine command but not the why, obedience is clearly called for. But, as it says in Proverbs, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; it is the glory of kings to search out a matter.”  So here are the rules and my speculations.

Rule Number One: You can eat animals that both A) Have split hooves B) Chew the cud.  Leviticus is explicit about animals needing to meet both criteria. This includes cows, sheep and goats; it excludes pigs, rabbits and reptiles.

Rule Number Two: You can eat animals from rivers and seas that have scales (e.g. most fish).

Rule Number Three: You can eat all birds (except for 20 explicitly listed).

Rule Number Four: You can eat insects if they fly and have long, jointed legs (e.g. Grasshoppers).

The first hint I found for finding some meaning in this was in Lev 11:41-43. It talks a lot about the “creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Though I don’t think Leviticus has the overly-aggressive and not-at-all-suave guy with bad pick-up lines in view here, the same disgust is suggested. The phrase seemed a bit redundant, and redundancy generally is a flag for meaning or importance. Why is it important that the thing ‘creepeth upon the earth’. It may suggest that this was the problem with those kinds of creatures: they were too close to the earth. Perhaps what is in view symbolically or mystically here is a connection with the earth. The only insects that are Kosher are those which fly and have some special feature of its feet.

Does this hypothesis pan out? Consider the other classes of creatures. The birds is the only “everything except” category. Birds by nature have a light connection with the earth; they travel in the skies. The one in the Hebrew mind that didn’t, happened to be on the list (the ostrich). Rule Number One talks about the footwear of the cattle: only those that had hooves could be eaten; only those that had some keratin insulation from the earth were clean. It seems that there is some repetition in this theme: holiness demands that a creature be not too close to the earth. And this is perfectly consistent with Jewish and Christian Theology. We should not put our trust in the world; we should not cling to material things or the customs and practices of the world around us. We should have our hope in God, and for the Christians, our eyes on His Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, we even put on bumper stickers and wear really cool branded shirts that tell people that we are “Not Of This World.”

---> On to Part II

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