Parashat Shemini

Torah Portion: Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

Toward the end of parashat Shemini, we read about which animals are considered kosher, i.e. permissible to be eaten when properly slaughtered: “These are the animals that can be eaten from amongst all of the animals of the land. All those that have split-hooves and chew their cud . . . [11:2-3]” Thus: cows, goats, sheep — all kosher; pigs and camels — not kosher.

While the Torah’s use of split-hooves and cud-chewing to differentiate prohibited animals from permissible animals provides an easy-to-follow guide for those new to the kosher scene, the reason for choosing split-hooves and cud-chewing as the determinative criteria for what constitutes a kosher animal is all but clear. Unfortunately, neither the rabbinic sages of the Talmud nor the great biblical commentators of the middle ages bring much light to this issue. While Maimonides posits health as a rationale for the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) over all, a rationale that has been roundly rejected over the centuries, he doesn’t ever venture a guess as to why God deems those animals with split hooves and who chew their cud as more clean than those who have just one or neither of these traits.

It is easy to say, “because God says so” to all those rules and regulations in the Torah that are beyond our comprehension, the rule about hooves and cud being one of them. I don’t entirely reject that notion. Sometimes doing something because “that’s what Jews do,” even when we don’t know why, has its own value: it can instill self-discipline and mindfulness and theoretically unite the Jewish people through uniformity of practice. Even so, I for one would like a “real” reason for this dictate.

While there might not be a practical reason for defining a kosher animal as one whose hooves are cloven and who chews its cud, there is an ethical rationale: to teach us about the importance of integrity. To this end, the pig is a case-in-point. The rabbis write: “When the pig pauses from his gluttony and lies down to rest he stretches out his foot to show his cloven hoof, and pretends that he belongs to the clean kind of animals” (Genesis Rabba 65). The pig wants us to think he’s kosher by showing us his cloven hoof. In reality, though, he fails the second test of a kosher animal: pigs don’t chew their cud. By presenting himself as a kosher animal, the pig stands out as the consummate hypocrite.

Another lesson about integrity comes from a midrash in the Talmud about why the Holy Ark was gilded with gold inside and out: “Raba said: Any scholar whose inside is not like his outside, is no scholar… woe unto the enemies of the scholars, who occupy themselves with the Torah, but have no fear of heaven!” (Yoma 72b). Clearly, the rabbis place a premium on having one’s outer being reflect one’s inner being. They consider it deplorable to present oneself as righteous and erudite while engaging in activities that debase one’s fellow human beings.

The list of people in public life who defy the rabbis’ standard of integrity is all too lengthy. Too many people in whom we place our trust show themselves to be “pigs,” appearing pure and holy but, in truth, seeking their own gratification and power. Perhaps we even know some people like this in our own lives. Perhaps, too, we find ourselves lapsing into hypocrisy and self-interest from time to time. Let’s face it: when it comes to maintaining our integrity, we can all use a reminder from time to time.

Let the Torah’s criteria for what constitutes a kosher animal be our criteria for what constitutes a “kosher” person, i.e. that our inner lives be in concert with our outer lives. This lesson alone is sufficient rationale, in my opinion, for requiring kosher animals to have split hooves on the outside and to chew their cud on the inside.

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