This is the Statute of the Torah

The Torah reading for this week begins with an intricate series of laws regarding purity, impurity and purification. This involved many details which appear to some to be, excessive, a complaint commonly heard about Jewish law in general. I would like to explain one idea behind all this detail: consistency.

Consistency is much more difficult to achieve than one might expect. Imagine someone waking up one morning and making a firm decision to become a vegetarian. “From now on,” he declares, “I will not benefit from the suffering of animals.  I do not believe animals should have to suffer for human beings.  It’s wrong.”  Let’s see what happens when he tries to act consistently with his commitment.

Okay, time to get dressed. He is about to reach for his clothes when he sees his leather shoes and leather belt. “Oh, no!” he groans. It’s decision time.  Well, would it be wrong to wear these things?  The animal is already dead, so it wouldn’t cause direct harm to any living being.  But by supporting this industry, the person thinks to himself, I am essentially encouraging people to make animals suffer for the sake of human beings.  Would wearing such articles of clothing be consistent with my commitment?  After some more deliberation, he decides to keep wearing the articles he already owns, but never again to purchase leather goods.  He feels satisfied that this is consistent with his philosophy.

Now it’s time for breakfast.  He walks to the nearest restaurant, asks the waiter what he recommends, and is startled by the response: “Steak and eggs.”

“I can’t have that,” he snaps at the waiter.  The waiter looks at him quizzically.

“Why not, sir?”

“Because,” our vegetarian answers, “I believe animals shouldn’t have to suffer for the sake of human beings.”   At this, the waiter’s anxious look melts into a smile.

“Don’t worry about that, sir.  You see, these steaks are from the Happy Valley Ranch, where the steers are permitted to roam free on the range and never hear a discouraging word.  There are no fences, they may eat all manner of herbs and grasses, drink only beer, and they receive a Shiatsu massage every day.  Eventually, a steer dies, and then we make steaks out of it.  So you see, sir — the steak that you would be eating is from a contented, happy animal and therefore this steak is kosher for vegetarians.”

This sounds convincing, so our vegetarian orders a double helping and buys a few extra pounds to take home.  That Sunday, he invites his friends for a barbecue.  Just as he is putting the steaks on the grill, however, a disturbing thought occurs to him.  “Wait a minute; is this consistent with my philosophy?  I mean, I know these steaks are from the Happy Valley Ranch, but what about my friends and neighbors?  They will think that I’m a big hypocrite. And what about the other people in my neighborhood?  They’ll smell the steaks and think, ‘Hmm, I’m in the mood for a steak,’ and they’ll go the supermarket and buy a regular steak, and then more animals will have to be butchered! But then again, how far do I have to go with this commitment?  Do I have to take such things into account?”  Upon further consideration our vegetarian decides to dispose of the steaks. His friends are served salad and French fries.

The next day, at the supermarket, he heads directly to the dairy section, where he begins stacking his cart with food.  “You must love cheese,” a fellow shopper comments to him.   “Not really,” answers our vegetarian. “It’s just that I’ve made a decision to stop eating meat.  I’m against animals suffering for the sake of humans.  I have nothing else to eat, so I have to get used to this stuff.”  The fellow shopper has a good laugh.

“Tell me,” he says to the vegetarian, “do you think cows naturally produce milk all of their lives?”

“I don’t know, to tell you the truth, I never thought about it before.”

“Well, I have news for you – they don’t. You know why?  Because they start lactating when their calves are born, and they stop lactating when their calves grow older and stop suckling.”

“Okay,” says the vegetarian, “so far that makes sense.”

“Well, the reason cows on dairy farms continue lactating for so long is that their calves end up in the veal section of the freezer over there, while they are injected with hormones and the electric pumps keep milking and milking them, for years afterward.  Pretty cruel, huh?”

Our vegetarian is astounded by this revelation.  In stunned silence, he empties his cart and heads over to the natural food section, where he picks up a high-energy power-bar.  Now what possibly could be wrong with a power bar?  He reads the label, but he can’t decipher any of the ingredients, so he takes out his handy food technology manual and decodes it.  “Who would think this innocent-looking bar is full of products made from animal fat?” he gasps.  “It’s even got red food coloring, which is made from the cochineal beetle – I can’t have this!”

By this time he is positively starving, so he goes to his grandmother’s house. She serves him a steak.  Now he has a value conflict.  He has decided not to cause animals to suffer, but if he refuses to eat the food his sweet, little Jewish grandmother has served him, she will suffer!

“Is this consistent with my principles?” our vegetarian asks himself yet again. “Whose suffering is more important?  My grandmother’s or the cow’s?”

We will leave our friend now as he agonizes, for the point is clear.  We tracked a single person who made a commitment to uphold one ostensibly simple and straightforward moral directive, and in no time at all he was confronted by dozens of perplexing situations demanding complex and difficult decisions.  Imagine what would happen if such a commitment would be made not by a single person, but by an entire nation that would live for several thousand years in every conceivable geopolitical and socio-economic circumstance.  Would it be easy for them to behave consistently with this principle?  What would they have to do in order to increase their chances of success?

They would have to write a Talmud, containing thousands of laws governing every aspect of life, investigating how to behave in all possible scenarios, establishing principles that could deal with any question that could arise. It all has one purpose — the pursuit of consistency.

The Torah is the ultimate guidebook that shows Jews how to behave consistently with the principles they received at Mount Sinai. The 613 commandments are really the details and explanations of the Ten Commandments27 which enable us to properly observe these principles in all times and places.28 When the goal of an entire nation is to live consistently according to certain ethical imperative, things must be spelled out very clearly.  And that means many laws and regulations.

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