Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
Though I was raised observant of the commandments in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, I woke up one day recently and realized that I don’t understand the ban on cooking or eating dishes that combine dairy and meat ingredients. The logic of those laws suddenly puzzles me. If the milk and meat foods are kosher separately, why are they forbidden when they are mixed together?
Flustered in Fair Lawn
You do understand that most of the time, each religion is based on its own brand of logic. You don’t apply the general laws of deduction and inference to a religion. You accept how the system works internally, and you build on it. That buy-in and acceptance of the reasoning of your own religion is a big part of what we call faith.
Apparently, you do accept that God decreed that his chosen people avoid mixing milk and meat. Unique beliefs and practices like this one can be found in Judaism — and in all the major world religions.
You would like to apprehend the deeper meanings in this set of Jewish rules.
Jews have been questioning the relevance of these laws for some time. In 1885, classical Reform Judaism officially scuttled the laws of kashrut, calling them “foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”
But in 1979, backtracking speedily (that is, speedily for religious leaders), the Reform rabbinical association proclaimed that “It is reasonable to ask the Reform Jew to study and consider kashrut so as to develop a valid personal position.” In 2011, the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis published “The Sacred Table,” which encourages an “ethical, health-based, spiritual approach to culinary culture in the Progressive Jewish community.”
We know that Orthodox and Conservative Jews endorse laws of kashrut that are not spelled out explicitly in the Torah text, since they accept the authority of the Oral Torah, those rabbinic laws thought to be equal in importance to those spelled out in the Torah. Since 2008 the Conservative movement has promoted Magen Tzedek, the certification of kosher food products “based on a whole spectrum of food issues from labor practices to health concerns.”
I’m guessing that while your question may be about mixing milk and meat on the surface, it’s more likely you may be awakening from a simple acceptance of your faith to a more complicated encounter with some of its components. Maybe you are in the midst of developing “a valid personal position” to your own devotions.
So it’s not going to be enough for me to tell you to cherish these practices solely because they define a major part of rabbinic Judaism over two millennia.
Let’s see if in this case of milk-meat taboos some background explanation of the origins and working of the system will pacify your doubts. I know that’s not a direct answer, but in the tradition of our people, presenting myriad details may distract you, dazzle you, and encourage you to go back to the roots of keeping your faith. That’s one approach rabbis can take to “explain” the rules. For many people that suffices.
And trust me. The laws of kashrut in general and milk and meat taboos in specific are complex and varied. In my rabbinic training, I cherished most highly of all mastering the details of the arcane chemistries of the laws of forbidden mixtures that are part of the Shulhan Arukh, the codes of Jewish law of Rabbi Joseph Caro. The laws of kosher food, including the separation of milk and meat, are a major part of the curriculum in the course of study for traditional rabbinic ordination.
After I was ordained, I spent several years in academic research studying and translating the entire rabbinic Talmud tractate of Hullin, which addresses the kosher laws from all angles.
But I won’t go into all that, since I suspect you are looking for a more direct and to-the-point explanation to satisfy your needs for this religious observance, an explanation that is consistent with general logic, or at least with general religious or ethical instructions. You want to know the meaning of the mixing ban.
Oddly, in your quest for larger meaning you picked out one set of rules that resists explanation in logical or in other terms. Strange as it may seem, there aren’t any obvious valid meanings in the meat-dairy taboo system.
I won’t try to dazzle and distract you with spelling out what in all this massive system is biblical, rabbinic, science, health, culinary, what has social impact, what has tribal impact.
But perhaps it would help if I review some of the classic explanations: That the quintessential case of mixing milk and meat — seething a kid in its mother’s milk — was an idolatrous practice in the ancient Near East. (Maimonides suggested that view.) Or that it was a magical practice to increase the fertility of the land. (Some Protestant scholars thought this was the case.) Or that it was deemed by some to be too indulgent, or too cruel and unethical. (Philo of Alexandria opined along this line.) It does seem inhumane to kill a baby animal and cook it in the milk of its own mother.
Other authorities feel that no logical explanation is needed, and we do this mitzvah “because it is a commandment.” Or we do this as “a bulwark against intermarriage and assimilation.” For someone who keeps kosher, eating and socializing with non-Jewishly observant people can be awkward or challenging.
If all the above discussion fails to satisfy your query, I’m glad to report that beyond such traditional reasons and explanations I discovered a fresh spin on the issue, which I hope will serve as a more “meaningful” potential answer for you.
At the end of a 2012 article, “Once Again Seething a Kid in its Mother’s Milk,” Professor Alan Cooper, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, provides a new and interesting angle into your query.
After reviewing many sources, texts, and previous studies, Cooper found significant meaning for this taboo in the work of those who view the practice of separating meat and milk through the prism of gender studies.
In specific, Cooper’s student Nicole Ruane, an anthropologically oriented biblical scholar, sees milk as a quintessential feminine fluid. That instantly makes sense to us all. In contrast, she (and others) see meat as a masculine substance. This makes sense in large degree because the animal sacrifices of the biblical Temple were designed and run by men in an entirely patriarchal mode. And beyond that we know that in today’s world, red meat often is related to a manly image.
The sacrificial offerings in the Temple focused on masculine animal meat and blood, along with grains and oils and wines. No overtly feminine entities such as milk and honey were offered up in the cultic worship in ancient Israel. Yes, Israelite women were entitled to bring some sacrifices to God at the ancient temple. After childbirth they could offer the burnt offering of a bull, ram, goat, doves, or pigeons, and sin-offering of fine flour or an animal. But the priestly men ran the sacrifice system.
As Cooper sums up the novel interpretation of his student, “Seething a kid in its mother’s milk might have been acceptable quotidian practice, but in the sacrificial cult, the feminine fluid could not be blended with the masculine flesh. Meat (masculine) is the officially sanctioned ritual substance in a sacred activity in which milk (feminine) has no part.”
I’ll extend this insight further. We rabbinic Jews believe that our kitchens and dining tables represent an image of the Temple, that we ordinary Jews try to act in purity and sanctity at home, as if we were priests carrying out the rituals of the sacred space of the Beit Hamiqdash, the holy Temple of antiquity.
For ancient Israelites and for contemporary Orthodox Jews, sanctity is achieved by the segregation of the feminine and masculine, represented today in synagogues by the mechitzah separating the seating areas of men and women, and, for the most part, in Orthodox education by maintaining separate classes or schools for boys and girls, and separate seminaries for women and men.
Such segregation is not accidental to Orthodoxy — it is essential to the fiber of its religious society. In Orthodox terms, the separation of male and female is a critical way that we sanctify our lives.
And yes, it means that to foster sanctity we also segregate and separate the feminine milk foods from the masculine meat dishes on a deeply symbolic level. I believe that is a powerful deep meaning that we can point to in our religious rules for cuisine.
Of course, our modern American culture does not embrace such gender segregation values. Quite the contrary. Liberal society considers gender segregation to be a profane anathema. Hence Orthodoxy finds itself in a tense relationship with secular culture at large. And, respectfully, that is not something we can address or resolve in this advice column.
I do hope you appreciate this discussion, especially the final fresh perspective on the meaning inherent in the laws of segregating milk and meat foods, and that it provokes for you even more such questions about our food practices and beyond. And of course, I wish you a hearty kosher bon appetit!
Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has been a professor of advanced Talmud, halachic and Jewish law codes, Jewish liturgy, Jewish history, Near Eastern and Jewish studies, and religious studies at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He is a prolific author who has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish texts. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Visit www.tzvee.com for details.