Parshat Mishpatim – On Milk and Meat

When I was sixteen and in Grade XII, I went with some of my friends to a restaurant in what was then Chinatown in Toronto and is now a walking boulevard on the west side of the City Hall Plaza immediately east of Osgood Hall. The restaurant was called “9 1/2” I am not sure whether that was its real name or not. But it was the address on the door which led to a second- floor restaurant that was really the long hall of a semi-detached house with the walls of the rooms torn down to make room for tables. 9 ½ served Chinese food.

When Gandhi lived in London as a student, he too went to a restaurant with a Muslim friend. For the very first time, he ate meat. For the very first time, his friend ate pork. The event remained memorable for the rest of Gandhi’s life. When I went to 9 1/2, for the first time ever I ate barbecued spareribs. I ate pork and I can still taste how delicious those ribs were 66 years later.

But what I could never eat was milk with meat. I have never had a cheeseburger to the best of my knowledge. I have never had a glass of milk with a steak; at the present, that combination remains appalling to me. But it is a gut reaction, not one based on any reflection or deep commitment. Yet, of all the prohibitions from my orthodox early upbringing, it remains the most powerful. It does not bother me at all to turn on a light switch on shabat. But I still cannot eat milk and meat together even though one of the results of following the prohibition became an addiction to drinking coca cola with meat, a far from health practice.

Since I attended Talmud Torah, I have always known the source of the prohibition. It occurs in this week’s parashat in Exodus 23:19 which reads,

יט  רֵאשִׁית, בִּכּוּרֵי אַדְמָתְךָ, תָּבִיא, בֵּית יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ; לֹא-תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי, בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ.  {פ}19 The choicest first-fruits of thy land thou shalt bring into the house of the LORD thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.    

It is a prohibition repeated in almost identical terms in Exodus 34:26, but in Deuteronomy, the third time the prohibition occurs, the wording and context are somewhat different and clearly suggest a dietary rather than just a cooking prohibition. In the two occurrences in Exodus, the prohibition is connected in the context bringing to YHWH the first fruits of your soil. A kid who is the first fruit of its mother, however, should not be torn away from that mother while it is still suckling, but only after it is weaned. God would not do anything to intervene in the developing attachment of a mother and its babe.

Deuteronomy 14:21 reads:

כא  לֹא תֹאכְלוּ כָל-נְבֵלָה לַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר-בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ תִּתְּנֶנָּה וַאֲכָלָהּ, אוֹ מָכֹר לְנָכְרִי–כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ; לֹא-תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי, בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ. 21 Ye shall not eat of any thing that dieth of itself; thou mayest give it unto the stranger that is within thy gates, that he may eat it; or thou mayest sell it unto a foreigner; for thou art a holy people unto the LORD thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk. 

Here, the prohibition is connected with a holy people banned from eating an animal that dies of natural causes and, thus, clearly implies a dietary and not just a cooking restriction. The intent seems to be the opposite of that in Exodus, namely, that a kid still suckling and then cooked is contaminated. The issue then is not one of intervening between the bonding of a babe with its mother so much as a suckling newborn connected to rotting flesh of an animal.

However, whatever the differences, the prohibition seems to be the same – do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. In Exodus, it is a prohibition about cooking, not about eating. And it is not about all meat, not even all goat meat, but about a baby goat still suckling from its mother. This is the interpretation both Augustine and Martin Luther adopted – what is prohibited is eating a sucking still at its mother’s breast. On the other hand, in an opposite direction the intent is interpreted as referring to not letting the suckling get too fat before it is sacrificed to God.

Now I remember a game the boys in Yeshiva used to play with us when they were not entertaining us with scatological interpretations of biblical texts. If you pour sour milk down a drain, then put scraps of meat down and you pour boiling water down the drain to clear it, are you not boiling meat in milk? Is pouring boiling water over scraps of meat and milk really cooking? What if the scraps were previously cooked – does that get around the prohibition? What if they were put down the drain at separate times and by different people, in which case the second person would be abysmally ignorant that there were scraps down the drain. And even if they were put down the drain by the same person, if the intent in pouring the boiling water down was to clear the drain, would that be cooking?

This is pilpul, the process of making endless further distinctions in examining arguments to either drag the argument down a rabbit hole or, alternatively, to mock that form of argument altogether, though the exercise was excellent in training my analytical mind even though exercised on esoterica and irrelevant issues. I took the questions seriously.

What if the mixture consisted of meat and cheese rather than meat and milk? In any case, the prohibition was against cooking, not eating. Yet it was clearly a very important prohibition. After all, the angels in heaven were forbidden from receiving the Torah because they were accused eating milk and meat together.

In any case, the deeper question was not the rule itself but the intent of the prohibition. Why is it prohibited not simply to cook a newborn kid in its mother’s milk, but, as Deuteronomy suggests in the third iteration of the mitzvot, why are we forbidden to eat the two products together. There have been a plethora of suggestions over the ages. Meat represents nutrition. A baby kid suckling at its mother’s breast entails taking in more than nourishment but a mother’s love. The prohibition is intended to make sacred aspects of eating related to reproduction and emotional memory rather than simply nourishment.

Food as our lifeblood has two distinct roles, a profane one – eating to stay healthy – and eating to imprint an emotional connection as well. It is this aspect of emotional imprinting that interests me rather than the great variety of textual interpretations and the defenses for each of them.

Further, my interest in imprinting is not because I am concerned with reinforcing positive emotions but because we are going through a terrible period of polarization in which opposing camps have been imprinted with an interpretation framework that denies legitimacy to alternatives. In Israel, the polarization is primarily between the secular versus the ultra-orthodox Israelis much more than between the Palestinians and the Jews.

Secularists, presumably led and manipulated by Reform Judaism, has imprinted a mindset that displaces orthodox Judaism. The leaders of Reform imbue secularists not simply with a critical attitude towards orthodoxy but with hatred. How many times have you hear that the ultra-orthodox because they do not serve in the army live off the security provided by the secularists but are unwilling to sacrifice themselves for the preservation of their own Jewish state? But the same accuser of others spreading hatred and stereotyping, Yisrael Eichler, a member of the Israeli Knesset, has described secularists human beasts who behave like two-legged animals. They belong to an abomination culture ridden with snakes and scorpions.

In North America, in the debates over how to respond to the covid pandemic, Anthony Fauci has been venerated as the scientific Moses who will lead his people to safety. But he has also been vilified as the numbers of popular protests against mandates and closures and requirements for documentation of vaccination increase. In Canada, truckers are cheered on as they head in a convoy to Ottawa to protest against imposed vaccination.

In Ontario, over 11,000 have died from the pandemic. In the US, the death toll now exceeds 900,000. Insults fly in both directions. Those who refuse to get vaccinated or who simply support the right of individuals to refuse to get vaccinated are accused of putting selfish personal interest before the common good. Rage as well as delusion mark not only the protesters but the defenders of the dominant system for tackling the virus. Fauci called an opponent a moron – and to me, he sounded like one. Prime Minister Trudeau called opponents misogynists, fringe types and racists – at least some of them, thereby protecting himself from accusations of stereotyping while managing to imply his opponents were, at the very least, dupes of these anti-vaccine dogmatists, though the evidence clearly indicated that 90% of the protesters were vaccinated and some of the others joined the opposition not because they opposed vaccination but because of justice ethics and the insistence that those in need in other countries should get the vaccine before they do.

What we are witnessing is critical thinking on both sides mixed with dogmatism and opportunism, extreme behaviour and extreme language. Fauci is not Mengele. As citizens retreat more and more into their silos, they accuse the other side of abandoning real science, falsifiability and the pursuit of facts and hypotheses as a result of experiment and evidence. Even the virtue of saving lives gets lost in the rhetorical flights pushed and reinforced by dogmatic imprinting.

Instead of shared data and collaboration among those with differing views and arguments, we witness the rise and leadership of charlatans. In the US, under the leadership of an ex-President, they falsely claim the election was stolen and in the process undermine democracy, critical thinking and the role of evidence in establishing truth.

For what is at work in Canada, in our neighbour to the south, in Israel and around the world has been not simply imprinting, but imprinting that is more a tattoo, an identifier, rather than one interpretation among many. Fauci, the saintly leader of the vaccination campaign, is accused of promoting his view because of thigh salary he receives and because his personal stock portfolio benefits. Lies, lies and more lies rather than a pursuit of truth. The fight is unnerving to those who love critical discourse and dialogue versus insults and food fights.

It is not that the pandemic has hijacked civilized behaviour so much as it has facilitated uncivil behavioir. Our governments are no longer trusted. Our bureaucracies and mandarins have lost control.  Changing positions are not rested as responses to more accurate scientific conclusions but to hypocrisy and ignorance, the pandemic continues in spite of false promises about its termination, not simply because of disproven assumptions and unforeseen mutations but because our leadership led us down a false path, just as the Israelites accused Moses whenever they ran into seemingly insurmountable challenges.

I am not against imprinting. I am against tattooing. Our beliefs should not br pasted on our skins as they are tested by our intellects and our trials. Much worse than the pandemic has been the deterioration of our civility and our ability to both listen and hear.


5 comments on “Parshat Mishpatim – On Milk and Meat

  1. elaine lesniak says:

    Dear Howard,

    How is the packing going and do you need any help with anything,let me know please

    I love reading your morning posts, I’m excited by your level of analysis and detail and interest in so many aspects of culture, politics, health and the arts, it’s so refreshing to wake up with that intellectual stimulation shabbat shalom,

    Elaine Sent from my iPhone


  2. Ira Basen says:

    Hi Howard:
    Interesting post. However, I do have to take exception with this statement…
    “the evidence clearly indicated that 90% of the protesters were vaccinated and some of the others joined the opposition not because they opposed vaccination but because of justice ethics and the insistence that those in need in other countries should get the vaccine before they do. What we are witnessing is critical thinking on both sides”
    I’m wondering what evidence you have that 90% of the protesters are vaccinated. It’s true that apparently 90% of Canadian truckers are vaccinated, but I’d be curious how anyone can determine what percentage of protesters are vaccinated. The Canadian Trucking Alliance has condemned the protest, which leads me to think the protesters are not a representative sample of drivers.
    Second, I haven’t seen any indication that these “freedom fighters” are heading to Ottawa in the cause of “justice ethics.” What evidence do you have that they support vaccinations elsewhere in the world?
    Third, can you give me an example of “critical thinking” being demonstrated by members of the “freedom convoy”? I must have missed it.
    I believe the problem here stems from your mis-characterization of Trudeau’s comments. When he called people misogynists, fringe types and racists, he was speaking specifically of the people in the convoy, not of his “opponents” who might object to vaccinations for a variety of reasons. The Prime Minister was careful to make that distinction and I think you need to do that as well. I’m not sure you really want to be providing intellerctual cover for these people. The “freedom” that they are advocating for is the freedom to infect other people.
    Finally, as to Fauci….. his “moron” comment was actually not directed at someone questioning his support for vaccines. At a Senate hearing, he was challenged by a Senator from Kansas for failing to provide records of his past and present financial investments. Fauci responded by saying that his financial disclosure records have been available for 37 years, as is required by federal law, and he couldn’t understand how the Senator wouldn’t know that before making that accusation. Sounds like a moron to me.

  3. John Morrissey says:

    Hi Howard

    Re: restaurant

    Was that a restaurant on Elizabeth Street called Kwong Chow? I used to eat there, every so often, in about 1974 – early 1976. My main memory is that they had an 85 cent lunch on weekdays! That was a bargain in the mid 1970s.


  4. No. Kwong Chow was much more famous. In any case, Kwong Chow opened when I was in university. The incident I wrote about took place five years earlier.

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