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Halakha, Reform Judaism, and Informed Choice

In this week’s parsha, mishpatim, we are given many new laws. In the first verse of the chapter, we read: (וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים) “These are the laws” (אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃) “which you shall set before them.”

Included in the list are rules regarding the treatment of slaves and of the poor, observances for the Sabbath and the festivals, punishments for cases of murder and injury [specifically: (עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן) eye for eye (שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת שֵׁ֑ן) tooth for tooth… and so on (Ex. 21:24)]. This is also the first time we see the prohibition against mixing meat and milk.

In her women's commentary, The Five Books of Miriam, Ellen Frankel offers multiple perspectives on this law. Her entire commentary is written in the format of a conversation between the many generations of Jewish people.

The characters Frankel presents in this story include: our daughters (which can really be read as “our children”), the sages of our time (meaning modern scholars and rabbis), the Rabbis (referring to the great rabbis who codified books like the Mishnah and the Talmud), Sarah (you know, the biblical Sarah), and our mothers (referring to all Jewish mothers throughout time).

It goes as follows...

Our daughters ask: Why are we forbidden to mix milk and meat? As it is written: (לֹֽא־תְבַשֵּׁ֥ל גְּדִ֖י בַּחֲלֵ֥ב אִמּֽ) "You shall not boil a calf in its mother's milk” (Ex. 23:19) Is it really sacrilegious to eat a cheeseburger or chicken parmesan‽

The Sages in our own time answer: Some scholars mistakenly claim that the basis of this law was to ensure that the Israelites would remain separate from their neighbors’ pagan rites in which sacrificial goats were boiled in milk. But others teach: No, this is designed to keep life and death apart - to make a ritual separation between the dead flesh of the goat and the milk produced by a living animal.

The Rabbis disagree: Because this prohibition is repeated three times in the Torah, it has given us much food for thought. Some teach that this verse is designed to sensitize us to an animal’s feelings. Another opinion: It is to teach us to discipline our eating to make it a more conscious, holy act. We thus conclude: All of these are the words of Adonai! Thus - one of the laws of kashrut is that we do not mix milk products with meat.

Sarah the ancient one adds: Apart from its role in the dietary laws, milk is a powerful symbol, representing the bounty of the land of Israel, which in Numbers is called “A land flowing with milk and honey.” (14:8). In Job milk is the source and sustenance of new life, as it is written: “You poured me out like milk, curdled me like cheese.” (10:10). And in the Song of Songs, which we read from just two Shabbats ago, milk refers to the words of the holy Torah, as it is written: “Honey and milk are under your tongue.” (4:11)

Our mothers conclude: So… although milk is taboo for boiling calves, it has its uses.

Now you might be thinking to yourself: “why is she talking about kashrut? We almost NEVER discuss Kosher law ”

Well this is precisely why I think it is important to start the conversation. The first time I can remember really learning about kashrut was in my early twenties... and my learning inspired practice.

As we can tell from Frankel’s commentary on this law, the reason we are commanded not to boil a calf in its mother's milk is nuanced and rather unclear. Most of Torah is this way, which is why we have other books, like the Mishnah, Talmud, and Torah Commentaries to help us make meaning of the cryptic ancient text.

Torah commentary is presented to us in two main formats, peshat and derash. The term peshat refers to commentary that reads the text as it is, limiting its meaning to the time and place it was written. Derash on the other hand is about making meaning of the text in the present time, which is what generations of Jewish commentators have done.

So what do we do with this kashrut thing? Well, as Reform Jew’s it is up to each one of us to make that decision for ourselves. Our obligation in the matter is to learn about the tradition and the many opinions that have been shared throughout history, so that we can each make an informed choice to follow or not to follow.

This Shabbat, may we fill our minds with knowledge to nourish our souls through ritual and tradition.


Sources: Frankel, Ellen. The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah. p. 127.


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