Parshat Shemini

Egg packaging with kosher label

Leviticus (9:1-3)
The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them: Speak to the Israelite people thus: These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hoofs, with clefts through hoofs, and that chews the cud—
such you may eat.

Leviticus will introduce many mitzvot (commandments or obligations), and here in this Parshah we are introduced to the laws of kashrut. What is the relationship of Mussar to the system of mitzvot in the Torah, particularly those mitzvot that have less immediate ethical implications? Clearly, the commandment not to kill does not need much explanation to understand why it is connected to moral development. But why is not eating shrimp, pork, or a cheeseburger morally significant?

For the nineteenth century Mussar teachers, based in the Lithuanian-Polish Yeshiva world, the system of mitzvot is taken-for-granted as normal, expected framework for observant Jews. In this context, Mussar serves as a method to improve adherence to mitzvot, to develop a deeper intentionality, or to prevent misuse of mitzvot that may harm others.

For example, several of the Rabbi Israel Salanter’s interventions are about desisting from performing mitzvot that are causing harm to others. However, earlier Mussar texts from the Middle Ages display a more complex relationship between mitzvot and spiritual or moral development.

Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda, Duties of the Heart
[to induce service to God] it is important to employ something that [will not depend on immediate gratification] And that thing is the Torah. … we see that we are obliged to induce man to serve God by means of Torah (both the explicable mitzvahs, and the ones based on authority alone), and to elevate him to the style of service his own reason concurs with, which is the basis for his having been brought into the world in the first place.

Rabbi Yaakov Feldman, commenting on the above passage
For when we are in the thick of our desires we can neither see nor think, and we overturn everything we hold to be otherwise reasonable. Having Torah to turn to, we can rethink–out beliefs and be restored by truth.

For Ibn Pakuda, the mitzvot act as a scaffolding to allow a person to develop sufficient internal resources — maturity — to regulate physical desires.

Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam, The Guide to Serving God
The way of the Torah, which extends endlessly in fulfillment of the goals of the Torah, comprises two roads—one common to all and one for the intimate servants of God. We advance on the common road by fulfilling the explicit mitzvos — performing the positive ones and avoiding the negative ones, in accordance with the requirement of each Jew … The intimate road is a way of life attuned to the objectives and secrets (underlying reasons) of the mitzvos, the implicit goals of the Torah …

Rabbi Avraham sees the mitzvot as being obligated to all Jews, but that some persons may seek a deeper mystical connection.

Rabbi Yonah of Gerona, Shaarei Teshuvah
The foundation of Divine reward and the root of Divine compensation, that is, the primary reward a person receives from Hashem, is for service of Him through the mitzvah-obligations…Know that the loftiest spiritual virtues that we must strive to acquire were imparted to us through mitzvah-obligations …

In this view, the mitzvot are fundamental and are the vehicle to developing a deeper connection to God.

Thinking of kashrut, how might you understand them in these three different ways:

  1. Ibn Pakuda: How might the laws of kashrut act to protect people from their physical desires? What kind of maturity with respect to food would be developed by observing kashrut?
  2. Avraham ben HaRambam: What would be ways of being more mindful around food? What might be the deeper meaning underlying the laws of kashrut? (Hint: The Rambam supported vegetarianism and recommended various additional limitations on meat-eating in his medical texts.)
  3. Yonah of Gerona: What traits are developed through observance of kashrut? How might humility and trust be related to kashrut observance?