Parshat Shemini contains within it many of the basic dietary laws of the Torah, known as kashrut. Anthropologists have viewed the laws of Kashrut as superstitious taboos, or as a reflection of the eating habits and norms of the ancient Near East. One author explained the prohibitions of Kashrut as purely a matter of economic necessity. A number of scholars explain the laws as being an ancient attempt at a health-food diet. The law against consumption of pork for example, is explained as an attempt to avoid contracting trichinosis. The existence of over one billion Chinese people, who eat pork as a staple of their diet, would seem to indicate that pork eaters are not in any imminent danger of extinction. As one of our greatest Biblical scholars once wrote:
Is our Torah merely a medical guide…? We see that those who eat the pig, and all forbidden animals and birds are healthy, great in number and without weakness or disease… And if these laws are only for the purpose of health, what of all the poisonous herbs and plants that cause serious injury and even death, which are not prohibited by the laws of Kashrut?
It is true, as some of Judaism’s greatest philosophers and Sages have pointed out, that the laws of Kashrut do confer certain health benefits. None, however, suggest that this is the sole motivation behind the laws.
Textual evidence indicates as well that Kashrut is not concerned with health, economics or with superstition. When the Torah speaks about these laws it always refers to non-kosher animals as tamei, or spiritually impure. Kosher animals are described as tahor, pure, and the diet is associate with kedushah, holiness. The Torah uses the same concepts of purity, impurity and holiness when discussing sexual ethics, and idolatry. The use of these terms with regard to Kashrut clearly indicates that the ideas behind the dietary laws are spiritually and morally based.16 Nowhere does the Torah refer to non-kosher food as dirty or unhealthy, and nowhere does the Torah give explicit reasons for these laws.
Jewish scholars have always understood these laws as being in the category known as chukim, Divine statutes that the human mind cannot completely comprehend. The purpose of the chukim is to teach us that human understanding is not a prerequisite for doing that which is right, and the criteria for determining good and evil are not within the province of the human being. In Judaism, absolute good and absolute evil do exist and the concepts are neither relative nor subjective, but they must be defined by Divine law. Morality based solely upon human reason or conviction is inadequate; sincerity does not make behavior moral. A sincere, believing Nazi is still doing that which is evil, and an insincere philanthropist is doing that which is morally correct. Our lack of understanding of the laws of Kashrut also teaches us humility. True morality requires humility in our relationship with God, Who is the ultimate source of moral authority.
The Hebrew word for statutes, chukim, is the same as the word used to refer to the laws of nature. The parallel usage of chukim for Torah commandments and natural law teaches us an important lesson in our attitude towards fulfilling the commandments. The laws of nature are completely unaffected by human understanding or lack of understanding. Gravity will cause someone to fall even if he does not understand how it works, and fire will burn even if we do not know the chemistry of combustion. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that in precisely the same way “the components of the Torah remain the law even if we have not discovered the cause and connection of a single one.”