The moment I truly grasped the meaning of the phrase “Do not cook a baby goat in its mother’s milk” was during my son, Ezzy’s infancy. Being in the continuous presence of breast feeding, with all the love and sustenance it exudes, clarified to me what the Torah is talking about here. A baby is given life by his mother’s milk; Physical life through the milk itself, and spiritual life through the comfort and love she receives from her mother, as expressed in the act of breast feeding. The milk is not only a symbol of the physical life, but of love; of the miraculous nature of our bodies, gifts of the divine, and the miraculous nature of our souls, who can but give gifts of love. It is the unification of divine and human love, which is the only food any baby mammal can live on. The Hebrew word דוד means both lover, and the breast of a woman. The word שדי refers either to God’s most intense name, her innermost essence — or it can mean “my breasts.”
The Torah knows us well. It understands that just like we may use something for the obvious purpose it was intended to perform, we may also use it otherwise. We may, in fact, use this life-giving force on which babies depend to kill them. And then eat that baby soaked in the substance we turned from sustainer to killer. We may, through our תאווה, or unchecked desire, turn the life and love into death and hate. Not only could we mindlessly destroy the love that brings together God and humanity, but we could do so by subjugating the life force to the purpose of death.
This poetic verse fragment, out of which flowed the most elaborate section of Jewish law, captures humanity’s incredible capabilities when it comes to cruelty. We are capable of a mindlessness that erases all wrong, of a twisted sadism that requires creativity and inventiveness, of acts of deep horror, which we claim to do in the name of God or goodness, of ignoring and burying our instincts toward decency under the thickest layers of excuses, all the while maintaining our high opinion not only of ourselves but even of our actions. This fragment comes to reflect these capabilities back to us, so that we draw a line in the sand between inflicting pain, and inflicting unspeakable pain. In Judaism, the fragment tells us, cruelty is not always forbidden. Excess cruelty always is.
This evening, as part of the Kumah Festival we will be gathering to think on our relationship with the food we eat. With leaders in the field of food justice and food ritual we will seek a mindfulness with regards to what goes into our bodies. This mindfulness is at the heart of the Torah’s demand on our kitchens. Join us tonight at 8pm for a musical, thought-provoking evening of ritual pickling. Don’t forget a cabbage!