Why the Dietary Laws?

Commentary, June 1994.


A core document of Western civilization, the Torah or Pentateuch has at its center a set of dietary regulations, presented in the eleventh chapter of Leviticus. Though these now strike even many Jewish believers as quaint, and though the tradition (especially among Christians) now regards them as much less important than the so-called ethical teachings of the Bible (for example, the Decalogue), the Bible itself makes no such distinction. At the very least, we risk ignorance of our own Judeo-Christian tradition if we do not try to understand even these seemingly irrational rules of eating and their place in the way of life set forth by the Bible.

But understanding the dietary laws may yield more than cultural self-knowledge. Indeed, I believe that they embody and reflect a more or less true understanding not only of the problematic character of eating but, more significantly, of the nature of nature and of the place of man within the whole. They implicitly pay homage to the articulated order of the world and the dignity of life and living form; they incorporate into the act of eating an acknowledgment of the problematic character of eating as a threat to order, life, and form; and they celebrate, in gratitude and reverence, the mysterious source of the articulated world and its generous hospitality in providing food, both for life and for thought.