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.

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