This is the week of the golden calf. This is the week where the children of Israel are described as the “stiff-necked people.” This is the parsha that describes Israel as “the land of milk and honey.”
We take it for granted, but it is so remarkable that we have carried these ancient stories with us. We carried them to Greece and Rome; carried them to Babylon and Isfahan; carried them to the Rhine and the Danube, to Manchester and Brooklyn and Brookline and Pico-Robertson; carried them, indeed, back to Jerusalem and Tiberias, to Tel Aviv and Hadera. Carried them, read them, learned from them, expanded and contracted our understanding of them.
This week’s parsha includes the famous line, for instance, lo tvashel g’di b’chalev imo – don’t seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.
If in any way you separate “milk” and “meat,” it traces back to the rabbinical expansion of this line, and it’s threefold replication in the Torah. From not eating steak with a glass of milk, to the world of separate dishwashers and blue- and red-coded kitchenware, the Jewish people have learned from this line and brought it to life, generation after generation.
As those who know me know, I keep kosher in a traditional sense. Our kitchen is fairly scrupulously kosher, by standards my parents, grandparents or great-grandparents would be familiar with.
Yet the contents of our fridge would be less familiar to my grandparents. There’s a hekhsher on our tofu and our tempeh. Our almond milk is OU. But of course my grandma didn’t have any of those things in her fridge.
Where did this line: “do not seethe your kid in its mother’s milk” come from? Surely it connects to what’s known as “shiluach haken” – the line in Devarim 22:6, “you shall not take the mother bird together with her young.”
The heart of Jewish tradition is about kefiyat yetzer, focusing our will. It’s a central theme, played out over and over. It lies at the heart of Shabbat and kashrut. It is why Jews traditionally wear tzitzit. It’s why we have the notion of “s’yag l’torah,” a fence around the Torah.
And in relation to meat and milk, and shiluach haken, it points us to larger issues today. As we start to develop our Hazon Seal of Sustainability, we’re encouraging Jewish institutions – and Jewish families – to expand the notion of their kashrut policy to a food policy – encompassing kashrut, traditionally understood, but expanding its concerns in a deeper sense. Can a tradition that was against the inherent cruelty of seething a kid in its mother’s milk, or taking a mother bird together with her young, seriously countenance our support of the industrialization of animals? The programs that we have developed at our Food Conference that raise these issues have been called “Lifting The Cellophane Veil.” It’s an apposite title, because our cruelty is enabled only by the invisibility of the consequences of our choices. When we lift the cellophane veil – when we look at what lies behind many of our “normal” food choices, it slowly becomes untenable to make those choices. And, conversely, when one – for instance – sees happy chickens, at Isabella Freedman, living happy chicken-like lives (and when one eats their eggs, and tastes not merely how good they are, but how different in all respects from store-bought eggs), then one starts to understand what our aspirations could and perhaps should be.
So… go to shul this Shabbat, and read the parsha even if you don’t. But whether you read it or not, if you care about Jewish tradition, if you care about the world, and if you strive to be a force for good rather than ill, I commend to you – for instance – the new website (in beta), Buying Poultry. It’s a clear and simple way to understand some of the consequences of our choices, slowly to change our practices, and thus in some small way to help make a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community, and a better world for all.