Thursday, 21 October 2010

An Entirely Partisan Guide to the Denominations, in the Company of Genesis 18:8


I’m usually wary of speaking on behalf of other denominations, but I’ll venture an attempt on this occasion with apologies for the inevitable infelicity of generality.


Genesis 18:8 presents a classic Rabbinical problem. Abraham is entertaining the angels who come to visit him after his circumcision and he serves them ‘butter, milk and the calf he had prepared.’ To a Rabbinic mind this could suggest that Abraham served milk and meat together.


The Talmud (BM 86b) suggests, and Rashi adopts the following response; ‘He prepared and then brought each food [separately] before them.’ In other words Abraham brought the dairy products first. He then took the dairy away before bringing the meaty products. For the authors of Midrash Ha-Heifetz this verse teaches us that ‘one starts with butter and milk, and follows with meat,’ with Halachah prohibiting only consumption of dairy AFTER milk. Abraham’s Halachic bona fides is thereby preserved. He is capable of serving (as the Rabbinic leader of one of Britain’s most well-established Orthodox Synagogues suggested to me in a meeting this week) as the first Orthodox Jew.


To a Reform Jew the notion that Kashrut played a part in Abraham’s menu selection seems nonsensical. To a Reform Jew the verse teaches us a message about hospitality and welcoming guests and has no connection to Kashrut one way or another.


And to a Masorti Jew – to me – both sides are both right and wrong. The Reform Jew is right, surely, in suggesting that Abraham did not separate between milk and meat. To claim otherwise seems to rely on a level of Midrashic gymnastics that defies sense. But that is not to agree that the verse has nothing to say about Kashrut. This verse, indeed all verses, exists as part of a Masorah – a tradition. Each verse trickles down through the generations that separate us from its origins developing its force precisely through the process of transmission. Over time Genesis 18:8 has indeed become a verse about the permissibility of eating milk before, but not after, meat in the same way that the verses outlawing boiling a kid in its mother’s milk can indeed be said to explain the impermissibility of chicken parmesan (fowls, of course, do not lactate). Kashrut is formed in the process of transmission, it’s not a historical artefact to be excavated and defaced in order to make whatever we dig up agree with whatever we now practice. Jewish observance in general is not an attempt to escape the developments of history, but a desire to become part of the way the past infuses the present on its way forward into the future.


I love this Rashi and I believe that this Rashi speaks to my obligations as a Kosher-keeping Jew, as a descendent of Abraham and as an inheritor of the Masorah. But I don’t think Abraham separated milk and meat.

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