Parashat Shemini contains a major piece of the laws pertaining to what came to be known as Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. It describes criteria for animals that are fit for sacrifice. Animals must have split hooves AND chew their cud (such as the cows of my tie). Fish must have both fins and scales. The text lists a number of birds that are forbidden, with the general conclusion that they are birds of peer.
Interestingly, if Leviticus were the only book of the Torah, it’s very possible that Judaism would ban consumption of meat except in the sacred context of sacrifice–communal meals under the watchful eyes of the Celtic priesthood. Deuteronomy (12: 20-21) permits eating meat outside the sacrificial system, and that practice has remained normative.
Michael Pollan’s recent best seller, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” describes the power of a community watching an animal cooked over an open flame. He makes a compelling case from an anthropological perspective that eating meat–consuming the flesh of another living creature–is a powerful act that requires regulation by a society. The Israelite priests closely regulated meat consumption in the he context of sacrifices that were sacred communal meals.
My critique of Michael Pollan is that he draws upon the anthropological wisdom of Leviticus as partial justification for partaking in communal pig roasts. Pollan never hides the fact that he’s Jewish–he even describes once keeping a pet pig that he named “Kosher.” I owe a great deal of my awareness of deficiencies in the modern, Western food system to Pollan’s writing over the years. However, I had to read the first chapter of “Cooked” with a split mind. I admired the compelling use of Leviticus for wisdom on mindful consumption of animals. At the the same time, I found it personally repulsive that a well-known writer who happens to be Jewish, was describing travelling the country to find the most authentic pig barbecue, in violation of
Jonathan Schorsch writes an extensive critique of Pollan on this point. In the meantime, in an era in which Michael Pollan and others have helped society rediscover mindful eating, I think it’s pretty amazing that kashrut as a practice of mindful eating has been embedded in Jewish consciousness and practice for thousands of years.