All posts by Leslie Cook

I am the mother of two sons, the mother-in-law of two daughters and the grandmother of one grandson. I raised a family, owned a farm and enjoyed tending a large organic garden and orchard 40 years ago. I restored a log cabin and enjoyed it as an energy conscious home way before energy consciousness was publicly conscious. I hold a number of advanced degrees focused on religion, literature and languages. I published a chapter in a book on women's rituals in Judaism. I have enjoyed a variety of careers including teaching, educational programming in the not-for-profit sector, technology and web management. For the last eight years I have owned a five-star (YELP) vegetarian cafe. This year we were voted best vegetarian dining experience in McHenry County by the readers of the Northwest Herald. I write articles on food for a local newspaper. My current task is to figure out how this all fits together and what to do with it.

Quick Instant Pot Soup From Kitchen Basics

Last year was the “Year of the Pulse.” Fancy word for beans. Despite the low-carb craze, beans are still an incredibly potent health food. They were good before the carb thing, during it and yes, are still good. As one writer said, they “scour” your veins. And that’s not to mention they are loaded with B-vitamins and iron (in case you don’t get enough from your cast iron cookware). Now those are important vitamins and minerals in a vegan household.

My Instant Pot lets me throw in dried beans and usually have them perfectly cooked within half an hour (with the exception of chickpeas, which usually cook longer, and lentils, which usually cook shorter). So I said to my husband, Andy, “We should eat more beans.” To which he responded, “I don’t like them.” To which I responded, “Trust me.”

The only problem is, I haven’t been in the mood for cooking as much lately, winter doldrums maybe, after long weeks of zigzagging temperatures from -60 degrees (with the windchill) to +30 degrees overnight, ice, snow, salt, slush and high winds. Oh, and did I mention the coyote having a party in my backyard? So I needed something quick and easy.

I looked through my kitchen library of beans and chose lentils because they cook quickly, small red beans (really, Goya calls them that) because they’re pretty, and then I thought barley might be a nice, chewy and substantial addition. I had almost a pound of Crimini mushrooms I needed to use up before my new CSA box arrived from Andy’s office, and as always I had carrots and celery in the ‘fridge and onions. And that’s all I needed plus five minutes prep-time and thirty minutes Instant Pot time.

Oh, and one more thing: I always keep Vegeta in the cabinet. I usually make my soup broths from the veggies I saute when I start to make a soup, but every once in a while, I throw in the Vegeta, and it’s very good! I can county on Andy liking something when I use the Vegeta, and since I was making a point with the beans, I figured that would help me make my case.

One thing I should have used but didn’t this time was turmeric, which I should be putting into our food every day for best benefits and beautiful dishes.

Quick Instant Pot Soup From Kitchen Basics

Ingredients

  • Extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup
  • Garlic, 1 large clove
  • Onion, 1/2 large
  • Carrots, 3 med.-large
  • Celery, 3 stalks, med.-large
  • Mushrooms, Crimini, 3/4-1 lb.
  • Lentils, 1/2 cup
  • Barley, 1/2 cup
  • Small Red Beans, 1/4 cup
  • Water, 3 quarts
  • Vegeta, 1 tsp/cup water (4 TB)

Instructions

  1. Prepare the veggies: peel and mince the garlic, petite-dice/chop the onion, slice carrots and celery on the bias, dry-wipe the mushrooms to clean them and slice.
  2. Add the extra virgin olive oil to the Instant Pot and turn on to Saute for 10-20 minutes.
  3. Add the veggies in this order and saute briefly after each addition: minced garlic, chopped onion, sliced carrots and celery, and finally, sliced mushrooms.
  4. Add 3 quarts of water to the Instant Pot along with 4 TB Vegeta, and continue cooking on Saute.
  5. Rinse the lentils and beans and add to the pot along with the barley (I wanted a brothy soup, but if you like a thicker soup, just add more beans and barley).
  6. Cancel Saute. Set Pressure to High for 30 minutes, and close the lid and vent.
  7. At the end of the cooking time, you can do either a Natural Release or a Quick Release, and check the beans. These small beans and the barley should be cooked at this point, but if they’re not, put them back under Pressure for a few minutes longer.
  8. If you’d like to add some fresh greens, chop and add them when the soup is ready to serve.

Guess what? This soup took me no time, was delicious, and had beans in it. And best of all . . . Andy liked it!

All the world is a narrow bridge…and the main thing is not to be afraid

Tuesday evening the wind picked up in the wetlands where I live. As it grew dark, I heard it whistling around our home, shaking the windows. The back door was frozen shut. A lot of things come to mind on nights like this, but before there was time for my imagination to go to work, the coyote who live out in those wetlands started their shrilly jubilant yelping and howling when they caught some poor creature for dinner.

The sound of the coyote always terrifies me. As a person with an imagination that works overtime on picturing catastrophe, I can’t get the image out of my head of my little 12 pound dog accidentally slipping out the door to the wetlands. He must also picture catastrophe because his head always pops up when the coyote cry, and often he will retreat to a safe and snuggly corner of our home.

I try to counter the terrible things that go through my head by picturing coyote pups waiting for their mom and dad to come home with food for them. They need to eat too, I tell myself. But I wish things were as the first three chapters of Genesis describe them. I wish all creatures were vegan and that we lived in safe and loving harmony with each other.

In these moments I also think of the Torah portion Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41). The Israelites are poised outside the Land of Israel. Spies go ahead and return with their report, some describing it as a land of milk and honey, others describing it as a terrifying home of giants, all in terms that make clear that the Israelites, like their fellow creatures on the planet, can as well be prey as predator:

“ . . . the evil report of the spies is framed in terms of food: “The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof…” (Num. 13:32). The people pick up that motif and view themselves as “animal food” for predators: “And wherefore doth the LORD bring us unto this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be a prey…’” (Num. 14:3) Joshua and Caleb reverse that theme, turning it on the current inhabitants of the land, when they say, “…neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us…’

“Finally G-d picks up the theme, returning to the idea of the Israelites as animal food: “…your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness.” (Num. 14:29) … and “…your little ones, that ye said would be a prey, them will I bring in…” (Num. 14:31), and then, “But as for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness” (Num. 14:32) and “…until your carcasses be consumed in the wilderness (Num. 14:33).”

This acute awareness, that one can be prey as easily as predator, probably shapes a different perspective on things. Certainly part of one’s worldview would be a constant and profound sense of vulnerability. That is an environment and a worldview that doesn’t so much inspire as demand faith. And that turns out to be the message of that portion as G-d exercises some tough love with the Israelites, denying those who falter the opportunity to enter the Land, telling them their worst fears are self-fulfilling: as prey, they will become carcasses.

Ironically entering the Land is a first step in a journey toward greater security and away from vulnerability, a first step in the Israelites’ separation from the wilderness where they are both predator and prey and toward civilization.

Today we are far down that path. Most of us have never worked on a farm much less lived in the wilderness. We are little connected to the sources of the food that sustains us. And it’s worth considering that as our sense of vulnerability decreases, as we are more alienated from our natural world and our food sources, faith is no longer a demand or requirement for forging ahead in a dangerous world but a choice. And because the easier choice is not to think about it too much — just as it’s easier not to think too much about life and death and our vulnerability in the economy of nature — we are perhaps less likely to experience the kind of profound faith described in the Torah.

Conversely, I know from my own experience of depression that engaging with one’s own survival, that is with food (planting it, growing it, harvesting it and cooking it), is a strong antidote to depression. Yet any full time independent farmer knows the fear that accompanies a season when the crop fails from too much or too little rain or pests destroy it or fires ravage the land. In the hunter-gatherer life that preceded the agricultural revolution, perhaps symbolized by the wilderness, life was less dependable, sudden fears in the night closer, and faith an imperative to moving forward.

So back to the coyote who live behind me. I do work on a farm, and I’m very much aware of the sources of my food — all of it. I’m aware of how much work is involved in it. But I am not dependent on the farm to support myself or my family, and my engagement in this work is physically taxing but still a luxury. That has a different effect on my worldview than if my life and the lives of my family members were dependent on it.

Maybe the coyote are my reminder that under the veneer of culture and technology, there are more basic and primitive realities for all of us. That we too are vulnerable to becoming prey as much as we are predators. But for an accident of birth and through no merit of my own, I could have been a coyote in that wetland behind me — or the meal that caused such terrifying jubilation Tuesday evening. These are realities that for a human being drive not only fear but faith and a profound sense of gratitude.

These are also realities to consider when I make decisions about what I eat. To enter life as a human being is an unearned gift, just as it was an unearned gift to enter the Land of Israel. Our gift of humanity requires faith, humility, gratitude — and compassion.

If we could live happy and healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we? – Pam Ahern, Edgar’s Mission

Mushroom Wraps for Dinner from My Air Fryer

I got an Air Fryer for my birthday! It’s not quite as quick a study as the Instant Pot, but I do better with it once I put out of my head that things are going to taste exactly as though they were deep-fried. But it is a good kitchen tool, and I feel as though I’m just at the beginning of learning what I can do.

Pictured are some Mushroom Wraps I made for dinner last night (and am enjoying right now for lunch). I used a simple filling — very simple — my favorite for anything I stuff, cabbage, peppers, and now this:

Mushroom Filling

Ingredients 

  • Brown Basmati rice, 3 cups cooked
  • Mushrooms, sliced and pan roasted, 1 lb.
  • Salt, 1/2 tsp.
  • Za’atar, 1-1/2 tsp. (Za’atar is a Middle Eastern mix of herbs, available in bags at Butera, Garden Fresh and online – substitute with thyme and oregano to taste)
  • Olive oil, 1/4 cup
  • Tomato juice
  • Lemons, juice of 1-2

Directions

  1. Cook 1 cup of dried brown Basmati rice with a teaspoon of salt in the Instant Pot or with your usual method (which will make 3 cups cooked).
  2. Pan roast the sliced mushrooms until the liquid cooks off — or Saute in the Instant Pot.
  3. Cut up the mushrooms loosely and pulse two or three times in a food processor.
  4. Add the rice, 1⁄4 cup of olive oil, seasonings, lemon juice and a half teaspoon of salt to the processor, and pulse a
    few times. The mixture should be gravelly and cohesive. Do not over-process.

I used wonton wraps, wrapped up the mushroom filling in each one and brushed lightly with extra virgin olive oil. I set the air fryer at 350 degrees for 15 minutes.

Next time I’ll use something larger because it was a little tedious to wrap all of these, and I don’t have that much patience. They could have been a little more beautiful if someone with more patience had been doing it.

Another time I’ll also make a sauce. Maybe a mustard sauce would be nice. And I’ll reduce the air frying time. Ten minutes would probably have been enough.

But they’re still good! Now back to the Instant Pot for my evening meal with Manali’s Instant Pot Aloo Saag, which I love, love, love.

Torah Ecology: Bingo — Shofetim (Deut. 16:18-21:9)

February 1, 2017, I began a Torah study project. These words described my intention: “Today I begin a new project of looking at the weekly Torah portions, searching for insights on food, ‘animal rights,’ agriculture and ecology.”

The name of the section I created to hold my weekly notes suggested my starting assumption based on prior studies: “Ecology is the “study of interactions among organisms and their environment.” It is a study, therefore, of relationships, and one thing I’m pretty sure I’ll find again and again as I study these pages is that Torah is a study of relationships. There are three domains in Torah:  Transcendence/G-d, human, the rest of creation . . . I want to look at relationships between and within those categories, Torah ecology.”

Over time my focus narrowed to the relationship between human beings and other animals.  One of my key questions as I entered this stage of my study was, what rationale does the Torah provide for the superiority of human life over animal life? Because my assumption was that only a hierarchical notion of value could provide a moral basis for killing animals in sacrificial rites or for food. As so often happens in a course of study, I discovered I was asking the wrong question. What I should have asked (since I have some familiarity with Hebrew scripture) was, what compelling experience drove the constant assertion of the supreme value of human life to the extent that it became an overarching theme of scripture?

As a way of organizing my study, I used the framework of Torah portions, which initially I moved through on pace with the Jewish calendar of weekly readings. Somewhere in Numbers it became more difficult to keep up. I missed Deuteronomy during the first year — and again during the second year when I got stuck in Leviticus — but am returning to it now. Too bad! It might have brought me more quickly to the heart of the matter, but it makes no difference. It is the journey it has become, and that has been extraordinary in many ways.

KEY UNDERSTANDINGS

Other than discovering I was asking the wrong question, here are key points in my journey:

  • According to the Torah, animals, like humans, are both body (basar/carcass) and “soul” (nefesh/breath of G-d/being).
  • Only one statement is made describing humans that doesn’t describe other animals: in the image of G-d (b’tzelem/image). Brown, Driver, Briggs offers the following definition/s of b’tzelem, which as nearly as I can understand it suggests a shadowy version of the body of G-d (see The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel by Benjamin D. Sommer):
Strong’s Number: 6754 Browse Lexicon
Original Word Word Origin
~lc from an unused root meaning to shade
Definition
  1. image
    1. images (of tumours, mice, heathen gods)
    2. image, likeness (of resemblance)
    3. mere, empty, image, semblance (fig.)
NAS Word Usage – Total: 16
form 1, image 5, images 6, likenesses 3, phantom 1
  • The Torah tells a story in which animals “begin” on an equal plane with humans — all are part of a whole system in which each has unique capabilities and all live in harmony. A serpent, like humans and unlike its fellow beasts of the field, is hairless, talks and has the ability to plan strategically. All animals, including humans, are vegan, and there is no death. The ideal vision that begins the Torah story is one in which all of creation is interdependent and creation itself is interdependent with G-d/transcendence.
  • The ongoing Torah story following the third chapter of Genesis is of a real world in which humans are permitted to “use” animals even though they are required not to waste and to exercise compassion for these other beings who, like them, have souls in addition to physical bodies. Meat-eating is ringed with prohibitions, and the Israelites are chastised, sometimes sarcastically, for gluttony.
  • In the vision of the Garden and in the ongoing Torah story, animals are morally accountable (evident in the Noah story).
  • Periodically the underlying vision of creation surfaces as in the Ten Words/Commandments (where domestic animals also rest) or the story of Balak and Balaam (and the talking donkey, who sees what his human counterpart, a “seer,” cannot and who experiences moral indignation).

Still, I was left with nagging questions, how could a text that puts forward such an extraordinary vision of creation in its first words also put forward such a barrage of clinical detail about dissecting living beings at its center? For not only is Leviticus placed (structurally) at the center of the Torah narrative, but the Yom Kippur ritual of the two goats is at the center of the Leviticus narrative. Of course, there is the supreme value of human life, but how did a text that has a different worldview at its root (that all beings sit at the spiritual round table) arrive at that position? In addition, what was the source of the pervasive sense of sin that permeates the text of the Torah alongside the idea of the goodness and sanctity of human life?

I thought perhaps I could find some understanding if I became emotionally embedded in the text of Leviticus. Maybe I would come to understand how it could possibly be religiously or spiritually meaningful to experience the sights and aromas of terrified animals taken to and killed on an altar and dissected and burned. I read slowly and imagined deeply. I simply couldn’t get there, and on my second reading in this particular cycle of studying Torah, I had to stop. I was overwhelmed with the horror that stood behind the clinical details I read. It wasn’t a spiritual or religious experience for me, and I couldn’t grasp how it was for anyone.

DEUTERONOMY: RE’EH

After an extended hiatus, I returned to Deuteronomy to try to complete what I began, a reading of the Torah from a particular perspective. Something was missing for me in terms of understanding. I could feel it but couldn’t place my finger on it. It centered around the emotional and spiritual meaning of sacrifice, something deeper than an intellectual rationale. Why the clinical focus on sacrifice at the structural center of a text that began with the aspirational vision of Gen 1-3?

By the time of my re-entry, we were reading Re’eh (Deut. 11:26-16:17). As I read the rationale “for the harsh destruction the Israelites bring to the inhabitants of the Land and their altars: the Canaanites who preceded them performed “for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods,” I realized something: “With Moloch worship (child sacrifice) in the background, animal sacrifice was a step forward in consciousness.” Reading about Moloch worship deepened my sense of shock with regard to this practice but also provided me a clue to unravel what puzzled me, what drove the intense biblical focus on the superiority of human life despite so much material that suggests another worldview.

A consistent theme in Deuteronomy is that it centralizes sacrifice, removing it from the daily life of ordinary Israelites. At first, I thought the primary effect of this might be to routinize killing animals. Then I realized another possible intention of the text: “If the Torah represents a step forward in consciousness in its vehement assertion of the superiority of human life in a context where child sacrifice is the norm . . . “ Deuteronomy might represent “another step forward in consciousness as it attempts to wean the Israelites from a dependence on a sacrificial cult and the idea that human beings can transfer their sins to another living being who pays in their place.”

Anyone who reads the Torah understands that meat-eating was allowed as a concession to the violence in human nature. The idea was to channel that violent impulse and limit killing. The important understanding I missed until I grasped the reality of Moloch worship and child sacrifice is that the concession wasn’t based on an intellectual abstraction but on a real practice that horrified segments of the population that saw it. I can’t help but think of the projects of many animal rights activists, whose work I could not do, who seek to expose horrifying practices with animals on factory farms to the general public, making the crime visible and real.

SHOFETIM

I had a professor once who told me the way to write a paper is to write it, then take the conclusion and move it to the beginning, then be certain that every paragraph that follows builds an irrefutable case leading to a repeat of the conclusion at the end. With that in mind, I’ll share here that the next step in my understanding of the biblical project came with Shofetim when I began to understand the text as both polemic and compromise “constitution.”

Shofetim returns to the Moloch theme in two passages, one direct and one indirect through use of the word “abhorrent” (to’evah), a word that occurs more frequently in Deuteronomy than in any other book of the Torah much less the Bible. We might say that Deuteronomy, in comparison to the rest of the Torah text, is obsessed with ridding the nation of “abhorrent” practices, primary among them child sacrifice:

Deut. 16:21-17:7

לֹֽא־תִטַּ֥ע לְךָ֛ אֲשֵׁרָ֖ה כָּל־עֵ֑ץ אֵ֗צֶל מִזְבַּ֛ח יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּעֲשֶׂה־לָּֽךְ׃

You shall not set up a sacred post—any kind of pole beside the altar of the LORD your God that you may make—

וְלֹֽא־תָקִ֥ים לְךָ֖ מַצֵּבָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר שָׂנֵ֖א יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃

or erect a stone pillar; for such the LORD your God detests.

לֹא־תִזְבַּח֩ לַיהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ שׁ֣וֹר וָשֶׂ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִהְיֶ֥ה בוֹ֙ מ֔וּם כֹּ֖ל דָּבָ֣ר רָ֑ע כִּ֧י תוֹעֲבַ֛ת יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ הֽוּא׃

You shall not sacrifice to the LORD your God an ox or a sheep that has any defect of a serious kind, for that is abhorrent to the LORD your God.

כִּֽי־יִמָּצֵ֤א בְקִרְבְּךָ֙ בְּאַחַ֣ד שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֑ךְ אִ֣ישׁ אוֹ־אִשָּׁ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֧ה אֶת־הָרַ֛ע בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְהוָֽה־אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לַעֲבֹ֥ר בְּרִיתֽוֹ׃

If there is found among you, in one of the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who has affronted the LORD your God and transgressed His covenant—

וַיֵּ֗לֶךְ וַֽיַּעֲבֹד֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ לָהֶ֑ם וְלַשֶּׁ֣מֶשׁ ׀ א֣וֹ לַיָּרֵ֗חַ א֛וֹ לְכָל־צְבָ֥א הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־צִוִּֽיתִי׃

turning to the worship of other gods and bowing down to them, to the sun or the moon or any of the heavenly host, something I never commanded—

וְהֻֽגַּד־לְךָ֖ וְשָׁמָ֑עְתָּ וְדָרַשְׁתָּ֣ הֵיטֵ֔ב וְהִנֵּ֤ה אֱמֶת֙ נָכ֣וֹן הַדָּבָ֔ר נֶעֶשְׂתָ֛ה הַתּוֹעֵבָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

and you have been informed or have learned of it, then you shall make a thorough inquiry. If it is true, the fact is established, that abhorrent thing was perpetrated in Israel,

וְהֽוֹצֵאתָ֣ אֶת־הָאִ֣ישׁ הַה֡וּא אוֹ֩ אֶת־הָאִשָּׁ֨ה הַהִ֜וא אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָ֠שׂוּ אֶת־הַדָּבָ֨ר הָרָ֤ע הַזֶּה֙ אֶל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֶת־הָאִ֕ישׁ א֖וֹ אֶת־הָאִשָּׁ֑ה וּסְקַלְתָּ֥ם בָּאֲבָנִ֖ים וָמֵֽתוּ׃

you shall take the man or the woman who did that wicked thing out to the public place, and you shall stone them, man or woman, to death.—

עַל־פִּ֣י ׀ שְׁנַ֣יִם עֵדִ֗ים א֛וֹ שְׁלֹשָׁ֥ה עֵדִ֖ים יוּמַ֣ת הַמֵּ֑ת לֹ֣א יוּמַ֔ת עַל־פִּ֖י עֵ֥ד אֶחָֽד׃

A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses; he must not be put to death on the testimony of a single witness.—

יַ֣ד הָעֵדִ֞ים תִּֽהְיֶה־בּ֤וֹ בָרִאשֹׁנָה֙ לַהֲמִית֔וֹ וְיַ֥ד כָּל־הָעָ֖ם בָּאַחֲרֹנָ֑ה וּבִֽעַרְתָּ֥ הָרָ֖ע מִקִּרְבֶּֽךָ׃

Let the hands of the witnesses be the first against him to put him to death, and the hands of the rest of the people thereafter. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst.

Deut. 18:9-14

כִּ֤י אַתָּה֙ בָּ֣א אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֑ךְ לֹֽא־תִלְמַ֣ד לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּתוֹעֲבֹ֖ת הַגּוֹיִ֥ם הָהֵֽם׃

When you enter the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations.

לֹֽא־יִמָּצֵ֣א בְךָ֔ מַעֲבִ֥יר בְּנֽוֹ־וּבִתּ֖וֹ בָּאֵ֑שׁ קֹסֵ֣ם קְסָמִ֔ים מְעוֹנֵ֥ן וּמְנַחֵ֖שׁ וּמְכַשֵּֽׁף׃

Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer,

וְחֹבֵ֖ר חָ֑בֶר וְשֹׁאֵ֥ל אוֹב֙ וְיִדְּעֹנִ֔י וְדֹרֵ֖שׁ אֶל־הַמֵּתִֽים׃

one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.

כִּֽי־תוֹעֲבַ֥ת יְהוָ֖ה כָּל־עֹ֣שֵׂה אֵ֑לֶּה וּבִגְלַל֙ הַתּוֹעֵבֹ֣ת הָאֵ֔לֶּה יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ מוֹרִ֥ישׁ אוֹתָ֖ם מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃

For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the LORD, and it is because of these abhorrent things that the LORD your God is dispossessing them before you.

תָּמִ֣ים תִּֽהְיֶ֔ה עִ֖ם יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃

You must be wholehearted with the LORD your God.

כִּ֣י ׀ הַגּוֹיִ֣ם הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ יוֹרֵ֣שׁ אוֹתָ֔ם אֶל־מְעֹנְנִ֥ים וְאֶל־קֹסְמִ֖ים יִשְׁמָ֑עוּ וְאַתָּ֕ה לֹ֣א כֵ֔ן נָ֛תַן לְךָ֖ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃

Those nations that you are about to dispossess do indeed resort to soothsayers and augurs; to you, however, the LORD your God has not assigned the like.


Scholars argue about the existence of this practice of child sacrifice, the extent of its existence in Israel and whether it is indigenous to Israelite religion or copied from surrounding cultures. The scholarly work and rabbinic traditions that confirm its existence are authoritative for me. The extent of the practice and whether or not it is indigenous to Israelite religion are not material questions from my perspective. What is material is the effect of the practice in shaping Israelite consciousness, the Torah text and other biblical books.

A Little Sourcing
Those who follow my posts know I’m not a friend of source criticism of the text and prefer to read it as a whole and unified story. I am better able to get at meanings in that way. This is one place, though, where source criticism and historical context does contribute meaning for me.

For the historical setting and provenance of the books of the Torah, in particular Deuteronomy, I’ll quote from summaries in various Wikipedia articles, first a Wikipedia article on Deuteronomy: “Presented as the words of Moses delivered before the conquest of Canaan, a broad consensus of modern scholars see its origin in traditions from Israel (the northern kingdom) brought south to the Kingdom of Judah in the wake of the Assyrian conquest of Aram (8th century BC) and then adapted to a program of nationalist reform in the time of Josiah (late 7th century BC), with the final form of the modern book emerging in the milieu of the return from the Babylonian captivity during the late 6th century BC.[3]

So hypothetically Deuteronomy came into its present form and location in the text in three stages: 1) 8th century northern kingdom, 2) 7th century Judah under Josiah, 3) 6th century post-exilic Judah.

It seems to me that Deuteronomy shares themes with J (the Jahwist) who provides Gen 2, a key part of what I have called the aspirational vision of Gen 1-3: “Michael D. Coogan suggests three recurring themes in the Jahwist tradition: the relationship between humans and soil, separation between humans and God, and progressive human corruption.” Conversely the Priestly text shares themes and motifs with the Elohist of Gen 1, most obvious to me the ritualized nature of the creation process.

The Wikipedia article on the Jahwist indicates 7th century Judah as the earliest possible date (and historical context) for the work: “. . . a crucial 1976 study by H. H. Schmid, Der sogenannte Jahwist (“The So-called Jahwist”), argued that J knew the prophetic books of the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, while the prophets did not know the traditions of the Torah, meaning J could not be earlier than the 7th century.[14]A number of current theories place J even later, in the exilic and/or post-exilic period (6th–5th centuries BCE).[15] 

. . . The modern scholarly consensus is that the Torah has multiple authors and that its composition took place over centuries.[21]This contemporary common hypothesis among biblical scholars states that the first major comprehensive draft of the Pentateuch was composed in the late 7th or the 6th century BCE (the Jahwist source), and that this was later expanded by the addition of various narratives and laws (the Priestly source) into a work very like the one existing today . . .

. . . According to Jewish tradition, Torah was recompiled by prophet Ezra during Second Temple period,[23][24]and he recited it to the assembled Israelites in order to enforce the observance of Torah.[25]

In short, this leads to a very general hypothesis that several streams of Torah traditions emerged during the 8th to 7th, even 6th, centuries bce. Another Wikipedia article on the Deuteronomist diagrams the geographical and timeline links between J and the Deuteronomist with a northern kingdom point of origin that transferred to the southern kingdom during and after the Assyrian conquest.

In any case, these traditions were formulated into a “unified” document (i.e., redacted with additional creative material) during the 6th to possibly even the 5th centuries bce. Some scholars propose that this creative redaction occurred after 538 when Persia not only authorized a return to the Land from the first (Babylonian) exile but hypothetically mandated a constitution of sorts that would allow the returnees to form a unified nation. This possibility suggests Persian, therefore Zoroastrian, influence on the final redaction.

Back to Shofetim
And this brings me to my point. As difficult as it is for Americans to understand, who are weaned on separation of church and state and who generally view sacred scriptures as “religious” or “spiritual” documents, the biblical text is as much political as it is religious. There were many voices in ancient Israel just as there are today in, for example, the United States. In stressful times, those voices are sometimes more diverse and strident — and sometimes more unified. A historical time period that witnesses a civil war (between northern Israel and southern Judah), two national destructions, first of the Northern Kingdom, then of the Southern Kingdom, a local exile from north to south, a national exile and a painful and difficult return to reestablish a nation, is nothing if not stressful. The Torah reflects those stresses and a diversity of voices woven together into an extraordinarily unified text that served far beyond its hypothetical original purpose of building a unified nation.

In the contemporary study of religions, we say that religions are embedded in culture, time and place, and culture, time and place are embedded in religions. This means there is change over time or they would not be relevant to future generations — and there are inherent contradictions. Religions are not static. This fluidity and richness with all its complexity, depth, and contradiction is in evidence in the Torah story. It is what makes the Torah story relevant more than two-and-a-half millennia later.

So as I again came to this theme in Deuteronomy of abhorrent practices and, in particular, child sacrifice, the thought occurred to me that the entire Torah story, indeed the entire Bible, is first, polemic, and second, political compromise. My hypothesis became clear to me through my increasingly narrow focus on the relationship between humans and animals. This view of Hebrew scripture, that it is both polemic and political compromise, is the missing piece for me and is explanatory.

A hypothesis is just that: an idea about what something might be. And now I’ll need to go back once again and review the evidence of the text, examine if that’s really where it leads. But first, I’ll point to a couple of details in addition to the Moloch material that brought me to this hypothesis.

Polemic
In documents that frequently use chiasm as a literary structure, priestly material and, in particular, animal sacrifice have pride of place in the Torah story, at the center. Or do they? Deuteronomy and compatible material in Gen 2, along with some Priestly material that complements it in Gen 1, envelopes the story. Deuteronomy coming last among the five books points toward a different future, much like the function of II Chronicles at the end of Hebrew scripture and Malachi at the end of the Old Testament. In regard to animals and animal sacrifice, it seems related to the worldview of Gen 2, beginning to apply that idea of the interrelatedness of all of creation and the value of all life in the real world through compromise steps. That would make the chiastic arrangement of material one example of a compromise between different traditions as they are woven into a whole.

Deuteronomy rails against the abhorrent practices (toevot), primary among them child sacrifice, at the very least known, tolerated and even recognized to be effective, in other portions of the biblical text. Whether or not child sacrifice was inherently part of Israelite tradition or was imitative, at some point, it was part of Israelite religious culture, and significant portions of the text refute it vigorously and consistently. It is refuted not only in the strong words of Deuteronomy but in the basic and overriding message of the entire text, the sanctity of human life. It is as if there is a basic Torah instinct that recognizes all life is precious — but the reality of child sacrifice is so critical that it requires a massive and comprehensive reaction that includes a hierarchy of value in regard to life and replacing human sacrifice with animal sacrifice and its corollary, meat-eating. The sanctity of human life is one theme of the text that provides an overarching unity to it.

Shofetim ties the practice of human sacrifice, child sacrifice in particular, to expulsion from the land/soil of Israel. Continued presence in that space depends on expelling that and related evils from the community — and the entire community must participate in removing it through stoning the guilty human being/s.

Finally, the one characteristic attributed to humans that differentiates them from animals and thereby provides the rationale for human superiority is that they are “in the image” of G-d. As the vocabulary shows, this was a shadowy idea, and it’s completely unclear to me what that means — but from my perspective the most obvious meaning flows from an idea of G-d with a body. Deuteronomy rejects this notion unequivocally, saying G-d has no body, and this became the dominant voice in rabbinic Judaism. Logically that rejection sweeps away a rationale for valuing human life on a higher level.

So the polemic behind the biblical text is that in its overall thematic thrust and structure, it vehemently rejects the notion of human sacrifice through a variety of mechanisms, including valuing human life over all other life.  This polemic explains sufficiently for me how animal sacrifice became central to Israelite religion, at least as the Torah story tells it. It also portrays vividly how religious cultures change with time and situation.

Politics
And this brings me to the politics behind the text. In Re’eh, I noted with regard to the centralization of sacrifice theme that it desacralized Israelite daily life. On the one hand, that concentrated power and wealth in the hands of a priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem. It had another important effect, though, and that was to diminish reliance on priests and a sacrificial system in Israel generally.

Change happens slowly over time, but I believe that had the Temple not been destroyed by the Romans, animal sacrifice would have disappeared eventually anyway. The destruction only hastened the process the Deuteronomist put in motion. This is the power of acculturation. Was it a Deuteronomist plan as they worked out the compromise that included a system of animal sacrifice at the heart of the text? I think so. As animal sacrifice was in the center of the text literarily, it also moved geographically and physically to the center of the land, making it inaccessible and increasingly irrelevant in the daily lives of Israelites.

The structure of the Torah story, the way common and diverse motifs and voices are woven together, reveals a common impulse among most of the leading voices in ancient Israel, a polemic against human sacrifice. It is a polemic that overlays another strand of thought, that all life is equally precious, all is animated with a soul, the breath of G-d. But life is never simple, and moving forward toward the aspirational vision of justice and harmony throughout creation happens in small steps involving fierce political struggles to arrive at a compromise represented in the very structure of the Torah story.

Of course another possibility is that the strand of thought that has all creatures at the spiritual round table was not indigenous to the text but was influenced by Zoroastrianism. In this scenario, it would have been back-edited into the text by the redactors along with the version of the Binding of Isaac story that we have in which Abraham is prevented from sacrificing his son. This possibility would be consistent with a Deuteronomist who so vehemently opposed child sacrifice, constructed a program to desacralize Israelite life and marginalize the priestly sacrificial system — and, I think, ultimately get rid of it.

If everyone who could testify directly to the meaning of the Constitution of the United States disappeared from the earth, and beings from outer space arrived on our planet and discovered the document — they would study the document deeply to understand what it said and what motivated its composition. They would see the shards of the struggle with a historical circumstance that resulted in an intense emphasis on individual liberty and rights. Although they might be puzzled by the amendments, they might also catch in them a glimpse of the same theme from somewhat different positions in history. Ultimately the grandeur of the concept and its expression would move them in their own time and place even as they struggled to understand the specifics and apparent conflicts.

That is our position today with regard to ancient Israel. Behind the American Constitution is a polemic. The Constitution is a lofty document that represents a compromise between the voices speaking at the time of its composition with amendments as history progresses and situations change. Most importantly, The Constitution is a process, not a static document, and in the same way, the Bible is a process which those who read it are invited to continue today.

And now that I have finally arrived at a point of answering some questions I have about the text with regard to the relationship between humans and animals, it’s time to begin. I am reminded of the story about Rabbi Hillel when asked to explain Judaism while standing on one foot. He said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary. Go and study it.” (דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד. זו היא כל התורה כולה, ואידך פירושה הוא: זיל גמור) – Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a

A purpose-driven life? Not so fast…

I read an article today in The Conversation that started me thinking. It talked about a demonstrable psychological link between those who believe in “creationism” and those who believe in conspiracy theories. The article reports that “The new study takes the role of conspiratorial thought in creationism a step further. It suggests that creationism itself could be seen as a belief system involving the ultimate conspiracy theory: the purposeful creation of all things.”

Yet rejecting the teleological idea of “the purposeful creation of all things” is hardly “a step further.” Koheleth (The Preacher of Ecclesiastes) begins:

הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃

Utter futility!—said Koheleth— Utter futility! All is futile! (Ecc. 1:2)

He proceeds to observe the workings of nature and to test out each thing a person might do with his or her life and decides all is purposeless and futile. Koheleth goes so far (Ecc. 3:18-21) as to counter what I see as a bedrock biblical belief, the sanctity and uniqueness of human life in relation to other animals with whom we share the planet:

אָמַ֤רְתִּֽי אֲנִי֙ בְּלִבִּ֔י עַל־דִּבְרַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י הָאָדָ֔ם לְבָרָ֖ם הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְלִרְא֕וֹת שְׁהֶם־בְּהֵמָ֥ה הֵ֖מָּה לָהֶֽם׃

So I decided, as regards men, to dissociate them [from] the divine beings and to face the fact that they are beasts.

כִּי֩ מִקְרֶ֨ה בְֽנֵי־הָאָדָ֜ם וּמִקְרֶ֣ה הַבְּהֵמָ֗ה וּמִקְרֶ֤ה אֶחָד֙ לָהֶ֔ם כְּמ֥וֹת זֶה֙ כֵּ֣ן מ֣וֹת זֶ֔ה וְר֥וּחַ אֶחָ֖ד לַכֹּ֑ל וּמוֹתַ֨ר הָאָדָ֤ם מִן־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ אָ֔יִן כִּ֥י הַכֹּ֖ל הָֽבֶל׃

For in respect of the fate of man and the fate of beast, they have one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other, and both have the same life breath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing.

הַכֹּ֥ל הוֹלֵ֖ךְ אֶל־מָק֣וֹם אֶחָ֑ד הַכֹּל֙ הָיָ֣ה מִן־הֶֽעָפָ֔ר וְהַכֹּ֖ל שָׁ֥ב אֶל־הֶעָפָֽר׃

Both go to the same place; both came from dust and both return to dust.

מִ֣י יוֹדֵ֗עַ ר֚וּחַ בְּנֵ֣י הָאָדָ֔ם הָעֹלָ֥ה הִ֖יא לְמָ֑עְלָה וְר֙וּחַ֙ הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה הַיֹּרֶ֥דֶת הִ֖יא לְמַ֥טָּה לָאָֽרֶץ׃

Who knows if a man’s life breath does rise upward and if a beast’s breath does sink down into the earth?

Yet the book concludes with:

ס֥וֹף דָּבָ֖ר הַכֹּ֣ל נִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֤ים יְרָא֙ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתָ֣יו שְׁמ֔וֹר כִּי־זֶ֖ה כָּל־הָאָדָֽם׃

The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind:

כִּ֤י אֶת־כָּל־מַֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה הָאֱלֹהִ֛ים יָבִ֥א בְמִשְׁפָּ֖ט עַ֣ל כָּל־נֶעְלָ֑ם אִם־ט֖וֹב וְאִם־רָֽע׃
[סוף דבר הכל נשמע את־האלהים ירא ואת־מצותיו שמור כי־זה כל־האדם]

that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad. The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all humankind. (Ecc. 12:13-14)

After an entire book devoted to demonstrating the utter purposelessness of life, Koheleth exhorts us to revere G-d and observe His commandments. What does this mean?

It means that in the final analysis, all a person can do is make choices, and one of those choices is how will you live your life? On the basis of what belief, what worldview? Yet there is no objective basis for making this choice and no argument to be made to support your choice.

As I wrote in a post a couple of days ago, this is basically my own position. Admittedly this is not a comfortable place to be in relation to my life. I’ve often admired and even envied people like my grandmother who had a deep and very specific religious faith and sense of purpose.

But it’s the only place I can be. Once I say with Steven Hawkings that there is no G-d, or with Neil deGrasse Tyson, that we come from the same material as the stars, and it is an incredible series of coincidences and accidents that resulted in human life, or with Yuval Noah Harari that our human genius is creating fictions that we persuade others to believe and that it’s all fiction, or with Charles Eisenstein that it’s all stories . . . it’s a short step to say we cannot demonstrate that any system of belief or morality is objectively superior to any other. And it is one more short step to say there is no intrinsic purpose to anything. But that’s not the end of the world. It might even be the beginning of one.

Yes, we are left with stark basic choices: will we continue to live knowing there is no objective evidence for purpose in it? And if yes, how will we live? Read the message behind Koheleth’s words: “Revere G-d and observe his commandments!” Recognize and be humbled by what is greater than yourself, the impossible-to-conceive stretch of time and beyond-time, of space and beyond-space. Live according to a set of norms that teaches and guides you to experience your connection to all being because that is all you have. And it turns out, it’s more than sufficient.

Job discovers the same truth: the comforters with their reasoned arguments and judgments are no comfort. Experiencing the unimaginable vastness and beauty of creation in a profound moment of connection is the only thing that touches his pain and heals him.

As I read the article from The Conversation, I thought two things: I understood a little better, perhaps had a little more compassion for, a group of people that I have had great difficulty understanding: anti-science, climate-denying, religious literalists. Existentialism is a scary branch of the tree to sit on. It’s actually not even a branch. It’s more like floating alone in space utterly disconnected and without knowledge of how you got there or where you’re going. Consciousness in this place can be terrifying. I understand how attractive the alternative of certainty is, how attractive it is to imagine that the joy and the suffering we experience in life has purpose and meaning and we know, with utter certainty, what that is.

I also understood a little better the source of my own faith which is both faith and, I think, science. I believe everything is interconnected. Science tells us that every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. It tells us we came from the same substance as the stars. It tells us that we are connected to our planet and that our actions affect the planet.

It is also a belief expressed in the Bible, a text I grew up reading sitting in my Dad’s lap and continue to read today as I approach the eighth decade of my life. The Bible reminds us in every page of our connection to each other, to other animals, and to the planet. When we fail in our responsibility in the social realm, all of creation rises against us.

As I view the world through the prism of that observation and belief, I choose a set of practices and experiences that reinforce it and repeatedly demonstrate its truth. I experience connection and nurture the experience. The experience is self-affirming. It provides me with certainty and encourages me to open the circle of connection wider and wider, to resist or seek to overcome experiences of disconnection.

Here, on the other hand, is an image that contrasts so sharply with that experience of connection. Instead it expresses isolation, loneliness and anger in the midst of a sea of connection between people on the right and the left, throughout a divided nation, and among nations.

The image shows so clearly that this choice for science-denial and creationism doesn’t present an easy or comfortable path either. What are the sources of strength that might carry this person through personal suffering?

And here I return to Koheleth’s final message: recognize and be humbled by what is greater than yourself, the impossible-to-conceive stretch of time and beyond-time, of space and beyond-space. Live according to a set of norms that teaches and guides you to experience your connection to all being because that is all you have. Continually stretch the boundaries of compassion. The truth reveals itself and provides its own evidence.

And so after all, I can see that my belief is evidence-based. To the extent that I experience connection to my world, to family, friends, community, other animals, the planet and even, possibly, beyond, not only does scientific observation support me in that, my life just works better. It is more fulfilling, more beautiful, and I experience purpose. In other words, the experience of faith through connection is true because it works at the simplest levels: I have only to put my hands in the soil, prepare a meal from real foods, or walk with my dog in the snow, an experience of connection because we both love being outdoors, we are both happy, and it’s better together.

“At the end of the world, turn left.” Sof ha-olam smola.  Just be sure you have a friend of any species with you.

The day is short, and the work is much . . .

Yuval Noah Harari says there is no objective evidence to support any moral system much less one system over another. He also says the unique feature of human beings, Sapiens, is our ability to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. And it’s all fiction. I agree with these thoughts, and it keeps me humble.

But I also believe there is purpose in our lives on this planet, as contradictory as that may seem, and it is and has always been to expand the circle of our compassion even as we tend to our own survival needs. That also keeps me humble. It’s hard and constant work. 

My belief in this purpose is what keeps me connected to my religion of choice. The primary purpose of every religion is to provide a framework to guide us toward that objective, expanding our circle of compassion, restraining our less generous instincts and standing against the less generous trends of the society in which we live.

In some ways those less generous instincts are grounded in a perception of the world outside ourselves as “the other” whom we need to defeat or around whom we at least need to be cautious and suspicious. That’s probably a necessary evolutionary characteristic — but we are at our best as humans when we find a balance between self-survival and other- awareness and empathy. Every religion “knows” this.

So I decided to do my work of expanding my circle of compassion, which requires removing some boundaries of perception, by  rethinking my relationship with other animals on the planet. I grew up in a time and culture when meat-eating was taken for granted, and a mental boundary was put in place early on between what was on my plate and where it came from. I find that as I remove those boundaries and blinders, it makes me more aware of other ways I need to widen the circle of compassion and try to see things through the eyes of others. 

Peeking under the curtain to see “the other,” reducing the mental boundaries between myself and “them,” is a task I will never complete and one at which I frequently fail. And often it’s just too painful to lift the curtain. But it’s also a task and purpose I want to remind myself to work on every day.

I think the major obstacle to experiencing and living our lives to the full is our perception of the world outside ourselves as “the other.” Each time we remove a boundary and experience a moment of connection, we realize our potential, meaning and purpose. The interesting thing is, we give that moment to the “other” at the same time.

“The day is short, the work is much, and the laborers are slothful. It is not incumbent upon you to finish the job, however, neither are you free from doing all you can to complete it.” – Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:2)

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. 

Tahina Sauce

Makes 2 Quarts

Ingredients
Tahina, 3 cups
Lemons, juice of 3-4 (1/2 cup)
Garlic, 4 cloves
Sea salt, 1 TB
Cumin, 1 TB
Szeged hot paprika, up to 1/4 tsp (opt.)
Water, 5 cups (bring to 8 c. mark in blender or VitaMix)
Cilantro, ¼ lg. bunch, chopped (opt.)

Place all ingredients in a high-powered blender. Pulse to get started mixing ingredients, then turn up to high and run until smooth.

If cilantro is desired, roughly chop, then add to mix in blender. Pulse a few times until evenly chopped.

Resources: A Work in Progress

I’m going to begin a resources page, books and articles I read (other than Bible) that stimulated my imagination and thinking — and some that I plan to read. I’ll add to it as I come to things that interest me or I think might. For the time being, the list is in no particular order:

Torah Ecology: Re’eh 2018 (Deuteronomy.11.26-16.17)

This portion, Re’eh, includes what I believe is a pivotal statement with regard to animal sacrifice and the relationship between humans and other animals. It is a significant next step in the biblical Story of the Animals:

Deut. 12:15-16
15
רַק֩ בְּכָל־אַוַּ֨ת נַפְשְׁךָ֜ תִּזְבַּ֣ח ׀ וְאָכַלְתָּ֣ בָשָׂ֗ר כְּבִרְכַּ֨ת יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לְךָ֖ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֑יךָ הַטָּמֵ֤א וְהַטָּהוֹר֙ יֹאכְלֶ֔נּוּ כַּצְּבִ֖י וְכָאַיָּֽל
But whenever you desire, you may slaughter and eat meat in any of your settlements, according to the blessing that the LORD your God has granted you. The unclean and the clean alike may partake of it, as of the gazelle and the deer.

16
רַ֥ק הַדָּ֖ם לֹ֣א תֹאכֵ֑לוּ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ תִּשְׁפְּכֶ֖נּוּ כַּמָּֽיִם׃
But you must not partake of the blood; you shall pour it out on the ground like water.

This modification of instruction is repeated in the portion:

Deut. 12:20-24
20
כִּֽי־יַרְחִיב֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֥יךָ אֶֽת־גְּבֽוּלְךָ֮ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֶּר־לָךְ֒ וְאָמַרְתָּ֙ אֹכְלָ֣ה בָשָׂ֔ר כִּֽי־תְאַוֶּ֥ה נַפְשְׁךָ֖ לֶאֱכֹ֣ל בָּשָׂ֑ר בְּכָל־אַוַּ֥ת נַפְשְׁךָ֖ תֹּאכַ֥ל בָּשָֽׂר׃
When the LORD enlarges your territory, as He has promised you, and you say, “I shall eat some meat,” for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish.

21
כִּֽי־יִרְחַ֨ק מִמְּךָ֜ הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִבְחַ֜ר יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ֮ לָשׂ֣וּם שְׁמ֣וֹ שָׁם֒ וְזָבַחְתָּ֞ מִבְּקָרְךָ֣ וּמִצֹּֽאנְךָ֗ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָתַ֤ן יְהוָה֙ לְךָ֔ כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוִּיתִ֑ךָ וְאָֽכַלְתָּ֙ בִּשְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ בְּכֹ֖ל אַוַּ֥ת נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃
If the place where the LORD has chosen to establish His name is too far from you, you may slaughter any of the cattle or sheep that the LORD gives you, as I have instructed you; and you may eat to your heart’s content in your settlements.

22
אַ֗ךְ כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יֵאָכֵ֤ל אֶֽת־הַצְּבִי֙ וְאֶת־הָ֣אַיָּ֔ל כֵּ֖ן תֹּאכְלֶ֑נּוּ הַטָּמֵא֙ וְהַטָּה֔וֹר יַחְדָּ֖ו יֹאכְלֶֽנּוּ׃
Eat it, however, as the gazelle and the deer are eaten: the unclean may eat it together with the clean.

23
רַ֣ק חֲזַ֗ק לְבִלְתִּי֙ אֲכֹ֣ל הַדָּ֔ם כִּ֥י הַדָּ֖ם ה֣וּא הַנָּ֑פֶשׁ וְלֹא־תֹאכַ֥ל הַנֶּ֖פֶשׁ עִם־הַבָּשָֽׂר׃
But make sure that you do not partake of the blood; for the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh.

24
לֹ֖א תֹּאכְלֶ֑נּוּ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ תִּשְׁפְּכֶ֖נּוּ כַּמָּֽיִם׃
You must not partake of it; you must pour it out on the ground like water:

25
לֹ֖א תֹּאכְלֶ֑נּוּ לְמַ֨עַן יִיטַ֤ב לְךָ֙ וּלְבָנֶ֣יךָ אַחֲרֶ֔יךָ כִּֽי־תַעֲשֶׂ֥ה הַיָּשָׁ֖ר בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
you must not partake of it, in order that it may go well with you and with your descendants to come, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the LORD.

In the JPS Torah Commentary to Deuteronomy, commentator Jeffrey H. Tigay describes the content of these passages in this way: “The need to permit secular slaughter eliminated the sacral dimension of meat meals.” This desacralization accords with the general content in Deuteronomy, which in limiting “sacrificial worship to a single place would inevitably remove a sacral dimension from the life of most Israelites.”

Tigay notes that this trend in Deuteronomy has sometimes been termed “secularization,” but he suggests the book is in fact profoundly religious in “seeking unceasingly to teach love and reverence for G-d to every Israelite and to encourage rituals which have that effect. Deuteronomy’s aim is to spiritualize religion by freeing it from excessive dependence on sacrifice and priesthood.” (p. xvii)

These comments were antithetical to my own first thoughts from my contemporary perspective. Initially I intended to write about how the desacralization of meat-eating is another (and major) step in a journey toward thoughtless consumption of animals as food.  This commentary, however, suggests how it might represent not a de-evolution but an evolution in consciousness.

What Is Sacred?
Tigay’s “desacralization” with reference to these excerpts refers not to holiness but to purity, two different biblical taxa. G-d is both holy and pure. Human beings are capable of holiness, associated with ethical commandments. In their natural state, they are impure, subject as they are to death, birth, menstruation, seminal emissions and organic decay represented in leprosy. Impurity is, however, a temporary state which can be changed through purification rituals for the purpose of approaching G-d.

Accordingly, these passages allow Israelites to share and eat non-sacrificial meat in the company of those who are in a state of impurity (without specifying whether this might include non-Israelites). Similarly, the meat is not sacred since it did not pass through the required rituals associated with presentation on the altar in Jerusalem. The blood prohibition, incumbent upon both Israelites and non-Israelites, remains in effect.

Context
These verses occur following a summary of the introductory chapters of Deuteronomy, climaxing in a ceremony at Mounts Ebal and Gerizim where participants are instructed to choose the path of life over death. Deut. 12, the chapter that contains these verses, begins the core of Deuteronomy, which continues through chapter 26. Specifically, Deut. 12 focuses on the place of worship and details “three basic rules: Canaanite places of worship must be destroyed; Israel may perform sacrificial worship at only one place, chosen by G-d; and non-sacrificial slaughter is permitted to those living at a distance from the chosen place.” (JPS Commentary to Deuteronomy,p. 117).

Deut. 12 concludes with an explanation, of sorts, for the harsh destruction the Israelites bring to the inhabitants of the Land and their altars: the Canaanites who preceded them performed “for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods.” This juxtaposition, the focus on food, in particular animal flesh, and the explanation that concludes the chapter, highlights the relationship between Moloch worship, which lured the Israelites, and biblical animal sacrifice. (See postscript note in my post, Eternal Life).

Paradigm shift
It is hard to imagine that I have read and re-read this text as many times as I have and missed the searing implications of the direct and sometimes not-so-direct references to Moloch worship and the extent to which that particular cultural interaction, exacerbated by the guilt of participation (according to the text), shaped Israelite religion.

For a long time I’ve tried to engage with the text at a deep enough level to understand the human motivation behind animal sacrifice. What could possibly make taking an innocent, terrified and probably bleating or otherwise crying animal, slaughtering it and pouring its blood on the altar a religiously or emotionally significant act for people? And it seems stumbling upon descriptions of Moloch worship among the Israelites might be the key for which I searched.

With Moloch worship in the background, animal sacrifice was a step forward in consciousness. This paradigm shift is the focus of Akedat Yitzhak, the Sacrifice of Isaac story in Genesis. Here in Deuteronomy, it leads to another paradigm shift, allowing desacralized meat eating for the Israelites as a way to reduce dependence on the sacrificial cult.

Moloch worship might put not only animal sacrifice in a somewhat more positive light but might also explain the intense and repeated exaltation of human life. There are clear statements that set human life above all other life. In addition to those, in the course of my posts, I theorized that “pure” animals, animals fit to consume, are animals that don’t kill humans for food. I wondered why animals were also sentenced to death in the Flood story and suspected they participated in the generalized violence on earth by killing humans. Legal restitution for animal lives is monetary — for human life, blood. The adamant stance on the sanctity of human life is a vehement rejection of a cultural norm, child sacrifice.

The Passages: A Comparison

The instruction in Deut. 12:15-16 that allows desacralized meat eating is repeated in extended form in Deut. 12:20-24. Both versions of the revised instruction, though, include the same three elements:

  • References to desire
  • The changed instruction to go ahead and satisfy the desire, not delay gratification in order to sacrifice
  • The retained instruction not to eat the blood

In the first (more terse) statement, Deut. 12:15 says, “whenever you desire…” Deut. 12:20 and 21 amplify the theme with “for you have the urge…” and “…to your heart’s content.” This license is uncharacteristic in a text that is otherwise absorbed with restraining human impulse and regulating human behavior. Also uncharacteristic in a text that vehemently separates Israelites from surrounding cultures that might undermine their national task are the statements about “clean” and “unclean” eating together without specifying that should be only Israelites. Deut. 20 may attempt a clarification with “in your settlements” but not necessarily. Who’s to say that only Israelites live in a settlement?

The overall effect of the repetition of references to immediate gratification and an environment of impurity is to suggest gluttony — but only to an extent, since blood is prohibited to the “clean” and the “unclean” alike, encouraging some restraint. As a Noachide law, this prohibition extends to the world at large. This juxtaposition of satisfying desire and refraining from eating the blood accords with an ambivalent attitude to meat consumption I have noted on other occasions:

  • When meat eating is first allowed in Gen. 9:2-5 it is immediately ringed with prohibitions (see my post on Noach).
  • When the Israelites cry for the “fleshpots” of Egypt in Numbers 11:19-20, G-d rains an absurd amount of quail on them following irritated, even sarcastic commentary about their gluttony: “You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.“

On the other hand, as is so often the case, perhaps allusions to gluttony are simply biblical realism, a recognition of human characteristics and the requirements of the current environment. Biblical law looks not toward the perfection of humanity but its improvement.

The instruction not to eat the blood, given once in the first set of verses, Deut. 12:16, is repeated and elaborated three times in the second set, Deut. 12:23, 24 and 25. The latter section provides reinforcement for the instruction, its basis (“…the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh”) and connects it to the ongoing wellbeing of the people (“…in order that it may go well with you and with your descendants to come, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the LORD”). This returns us to a more prominent theme of the biblical narrative, recognition of the sanctity of all life and the connection between action that recognizes that principle and continued life and wellbeing of the people.

Conclusion

Deuteronomy’s move to desacralize meat eating, thereby reducing dependence on the priestly cult in Jerusalem and the sacrificial ritual, could be viewed, then, as a step forward in consciousness with an accompanying recognition of the reality of the environment. The Israelites as sheep herders (and former semi-nomads) depended on animal flesh as part of their diet — and human beings can tend toward gluttony.

Deut. 12 offers a modification of the original instruction that required sacrificing a portion before eating meat. The new instruction supports the view of scripture that all life is “sacred,” that is, comes from G-d who breathes in the breath of life (nefesh), animating flesh (basar) but that human life is superior (b’tzelem Elokim, “in the image of G-d”). At the same time, it takes into account a current existential status (living in the Land sometimes at considerable distance from Jerusalem) and needing, sometimes even coveting, meat.

Additional evolutionary possibilities this paradigm shift suggests is that the Israelites will not be tempted to view animals as divine beings but as creatures with the breath of life like themselves (ref. Golden Calf). And without the possibility of running to an altar to sacrifice an animal in their place for sin, they may begin to build a larger sense of responsibility within themselves.

If the Torah represents a step forward in consciousness in its vehement assertion of the superiority of human life in a context where child sacrifice is the norm . . . and Deuteronomy represents another step forward in consciousness as it attempts to wean the Israelites from a dependence on a sacrificial cult and the idea that human beings can transfer their sins to another living being who pays in their place, is it not possible we are required to continue our evolution of consciousness in our own changed circumstances?

Most of us have options other than killing animals that will allow us to live healthy lives — and our wanton use of animals, our commoditization of them, has had negative effects on our own health and a devastating impact on the environment we share with animals. As the Israelites were urged toward a deeper consciousness of their own responsibility in creation, perhaps we are as well.

Torah invites us to not only constantly reimagine it but to reimagine it in this specific case: as Torah shows within itself an evolution of consciousness with regard to the relationship between the Israelites and animals in a changed situation, so we are required to do the same in our contemporary environment.

The Meaning of Life

My grandson loaned me his copy of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’m struggling to understand it — not because the words don’t make any sense or because of complicated calculations but because of the vastness of time and space and possibility it describes.

In fact, the book is simply and beautifully written, and I understand the words as I’m reading them . . . I just can’t grasp the immensity. It’s the same incomprehension I had as a five-year-old kid when my Dad and I talked about infinity. I insisted space had to have an edge or an end, and my Dad asked me what would come after that? Or what number comes after the highest number in the world? What came before the universe?

And yet, this moves me: the universe had a beginning. We are made of the same substance as it: “Every one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the Big Bang and to the thermonuclear furnaces within high-mass stars that exploded more than five billion years ago…stardust brought to life…” We are part of everything, and everything is part of us. It is so awesome and immense that it literally brings tears to my eyes.

It is miraculous that we are here, a fortuitous series of events, a “Goldilocks moment,” with not too much and not too little. One could regard it all as accidental . . . Yet there are universal physical laws. Ponder that for a moment. In the context of infinity, isn’t one possibility that there could have been no universal laws? And conversely that the Goldilocks moment was not completely serendipitous?

The thought occurs to me that in the context of such incomprehensible vastness and awesomeness, it is as crazy to say there is no G-d as some think it is to say there is. Are we an accidental occurrence, an infinitely small speck of chemical dust in time and space so vast it’s impossible to comprehend? Is our joy and suffering utterly meaningless? Or was there a reason for the series of events and reactions that brought us into being?

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding. Do you know who fixed its dimensions Or who measured it with a line? Onto what were its bases sunk? Who set its cornerstone? When the morning stars sang together And all the divine beings shouted for joy? Who closed the sea behind doors When it gushed forth out of the womb, When I clothed it in clouds, Swaddled it in dense clouds, When I made breakers My limit for it, And set up its bar and doors, And said, “You may come so far and no farther; Here your surging waves will stop”? Have you ever commanded the day to break, Assigned the dawn its place . . . “ (Job 38:4-12)

As I read this little book about astrophysics and contemplate these things, it is impossible not to be humbled. It is impossible not to appreciate the contemplations of our ancestors on the planet, those who produced great bodies of spiritual teachings. These teachings are stories told to remind us of the miraculousness of our being, to tell us life has meaning. It is an audacious claim. This is the story I choose to live within during the infinitely tiny part of a second I have in incomprehensible vastness.

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live…” (Deut. 30:19)