Locusts, Giraffes, and the Meaning of Kashrut

By Meir Soloveichik

The most famous Jewish practice is really about love and national loyalty.

Kass suggests that those insects that have wings but nevertheless walk are incongruous, and therefore forbidden, while the locust is akin to a flying insect and is therefore clean. Later in Leviticus, however, insects that lack wings and utilize legs as their primary means of locomotion are all forbid­den. The Tora thus forbids all flying insects and all walking insects, but not the locust. This surprising: It would appear that in a system that abhors ambiguity, locusts ought to be most detested of all; after all, they cannot be classified as a flying insect or as a scuttling creepy-crawler, but rather as something in between: The leaper. It is also worth noting that in forbidding most insects but allowing the ingestion of locusts, the Tora permitted the living creature perhaps most responsible for wreaking devastation and havoc on God’s created natural order. As one scientist has commented, “this list of kosher insects includes creatures who destroy so much cultivated food that the scant meat they provide hardly compensates for the devastation they cause; their abundance is a curse rather than a blessing.”30 If, as Kass argues, the laws of kashrut celebrate creation through its prohibitions on animals that embody “deformation and destruction,” the locust would appear a prime candidate for such a prohibition. It seems, moreover, that the locust qualifies as a “swarmer,” which Kass suggests is unnatural outside of the water. Finally, it is also worth noting that if the Tora sought to forbid creatures that seem to defy the order of creation because they have wings but do not fly, then the most incongruous, and therefore forbidden, bird should be the chicken—a notion rendered impossible, if not by theology, then by centuries of Jewish tradition.31 The permissibility of the locust, it would seem, thus remains unexplained; none of the cited explanations for kashrut explains adequately the exclusion of the locust from the biblical ban on insects.
A still greater problem with Kass’ explanation, however, is noted by the author himself: The fact that permitted marine life prey on their fellow fish. Kass contends with the problem as follows:
The omission of a dietary criterion for the water creatures may be related to a fact perhaps embarrassing to my suggestion that carnivorous animals are, ipso facto, not to be eaten: Fish eat other fish. Yet this may really pose no great difficulty. Many cultures do not regard fish as animals—some peo­ples of the Far East call fish “the vegetable of the sea”—and this judgment is somehow also reflected in the fact that some vegetarians will eat fish. In the creation of fish in Genesis1, God bade the waters “to swarm swarms” as if fish were a certain exuberant manifestation of the being of the seas themselves. Fish are certainly less separable from and independent of the waters than are the land animals regarding earth. The easier procedures of koshering fish are another sign that they are not regarded as full-bloodedanimals.32
The problem, however, remains. While some cultures may see fish as mere marine vegetation, it is clear that biblical Israel is not such a culture. Adam, before his sin, was prohibited from partaking in marine life, being restricted only to vegetation. This indicates that fish were indeed a distinct, and inviolable, form of life. Indeed, God goes out of his way to permit Noah to eat fish after the flood, implying that allowing the eating of fish is also a postdiluvian concession to man’s bloodthirsty nature: “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast of the earth, on every bird of the air, on all that move on the earth, and on all the fish of the sea. They are given into your hand. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs.”33 Fish, it appears, are not considered akin to vegetation by the Bible at all. Fish that eat other fish would seem to violate the values expressed by the Almighty in Eden; nevertheless, such fish are kosher.
Furthermore, insects were, according to the Bible, once forbidden to man, animal, and bird alike, yet many kosher birds feast on insect life. While Kass is correct that the birds prohibited by the Tora are by and large predators, the medieval Jewish Sages note that what is important is not what the bird eats, but rather how it eats it. A bird, to be defined as a forbidden fowl according to Jewish law, must claw its prey to death or eat it in some other “cruel” fash­ion. This is why the duck, for example, with its wide bill and webbed feet, is considered kosher, even as some types of ducks subsist largely on a diet of fish and insects, and thus violate the primordial dietary laws as much as the eagle. Furthermore, there is no question that the permitted insect-eating birds violate God’s instructions to Adam far more than the prohibited pig, whose hooves are completely cloven, and whose only crime is that he does not “chew the cud.”
There appears, therefore, to be something problematic in the idea that God’s original commandment to the animals of Eden to refrain from eating each other lies at the heart of the Jewish dietary laws, and it would seem that a different answer must be sought. Kass makes several other points that are enormously helpful in this regard. First, he notes that the dietary laws in Leviticus are not the first time that the Bible employs dietary restrictions as a mode of symbolic expression. In Genesis, Jacob’s struggle with an ethereal being, and the injury that he suffers in that encounter, are forever remem­bered by a ban on eating the leg-sinew of animals. We are thus provided with a model in which dietary laws serve, in Kass’ words, “as symbols and reminders—in the highest instance, of the divine and our relation to it.”34 The Jewish diet, then, is utilized as an expression of the Jewish relationship with God.
Kass also points out that the Bible insists that the Jewish lifestyle gen­erally, and its diet in particular, be seen as a reflection of its wisdom and chosenness:
Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should act accordingly in the land whither you go to possess it. Keep them therefore and do them; for this is your wis­dom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who shall hear all the statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, that has God so near to them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for? 35
This passage, Kass argues, provides “biblical warrant” for a human at­tempt to divine God’s purposes in commanding kashrut; for, as he writes, the Bible makes clear that “though the law had to be revealed, once revealed anyone ought to be able to recognize it as wise.” 36
This important point, however, compounds the problem before us. The failure of centuries of Jews to explain sufficiently the specific dietary laws may indicate, as I will suggest further on, that their very purpose is one that we may not be meant to understand fully. At the same time, however, the Tora certainly indicates in the above passage that laws such as kashrut can be in some sense understood not only by the Jewish people, but by the entire world. We must seek an explanation that both exhibits the wisdom of kashrut as a whole and, at the same time, accounts for the mysteriousness of the details.

Though it is often noted that the Bible, in distinguishing between pure and impure animals in Leviticus 11, gives no explanation for its dietary proscriptions, what is often overlooked is that while concluding its larger discussion of the rules of ritual purity in Leviticus 20, the text quite explicitly states the ultimate purpose of kashrut:
I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore distinguish between clean beasts and unclean, and between unclean birds and clean: And you shall not make your souls abominable by beast, or by bird, or by any manner of living thing that creeps on the ground, which I have separated from you as unclean. And you shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peo­ples, that you should be mine.37
Israel is to distinguish and separate among the animals in order to ex­press, and reinforce, its own distinctiveness from other peoples. Kashrut, then, isa symbolic expression of Jewishness: Israel distinguishes between kosher and non-kosher animals, permitted and prohibited fish and fowl, and ingestible and forbidden insects in order to remind itself, and inform others, of the separation between the Jewish people and the other nations of the world. While the Tora leaves as a mystery the reasons for the specific criteria of permitted animals legislated in Leviticus, it is explicit with regard to the overall purpose that these dietary distinctions are meant to achieve: A daily lifestyle that expresses Israel’s chosenness. The nature of kashrut is thus at once mysterious and obvious; while God does not explain the importance of cud-chewing or leaping, of split hooves or scales, the Bible insists that it be perfectly clear to the non-Jew that the Tora-observant Israelite lives a life that reminds him constantly of his unique relationship with God. No other nation, the world will say, insists on expressing one’s connection to the divine through so mundane an act as eating; no other nation, the Bible insists, “has God so near to them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for.” 38

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