Kosher Slaughter and Idol Worship?

Kosher Slaughter and Idol Worship?


Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

The laws around kashrut, including kosher slaughter appear more than once in the Torah. When they are first mentioned in Leviticus, they are primarily discussed in the context of purity and impurity. But in Deuteronomy, they strangely show up in the context of...avodah zarah, or idol worship. What do the laws about kosher animals have to do with idol worship? What do they teach us about idol worship, and conversely, what does idol worship teach us about the meaning behind eating kosher animals? We’ll explore all that in this video.


If you haven’t yet seen Beth Lesch’s video on Kosher Slaughter and kisui dam, the commandment to cover the blood of a slaughtered animal, I’d go check that video out first. I’d also check out our video on Kosher animals. Both of those videos will give you important context for this video, which really adds a new dimension to some of the laws of Kosher Slaughter. 

Our videos on Kosher Animals and on Kosher Slaughter both deal with texts in Leviticus; the first times in the Torah where we get rules on how we should eat meat: which animals are pure and impure, how to slaughter them and cover their blood. But this video deals with a text in Deuteronomy where the laws are seemingly repeated. And I say, seemingly, because when they are retaught, there are often differences, nuances that give us new color on the laws.

Deuteronomy is called Mishneh Torah, by our sages, a “second Torah” if you will. Because so many laws that appeared earlier in the Torah are repeated in that book. Is the Torah just being redundant? I don’t think so. One of the theories that David Block and I allege in our series The Parsha Experiment, is that Deuteronomy is Moshe’s long speech to the people before they enter the land - and the laws that are taught again in the context of entering the land. In the reteaching of some of the laws, the laws sort of mingle and shed light on other laws and give us an entirely new pictures of what they are about.

The laws around kashrut, in Leviticus, are primarily about purity and impurity. But in Deuteronomy, they strangely show up in the context of...avodah zarah, or idol worship. What do the laws about kosher animals have to do with idol worship? What do they teach us about idol worship, and conversely, what does idol worship teach us about the meaning behind eating kosher animals? We’ll explore all that in this video.

This video was originally created as an investigation as to why anyone would ever want to worship foreign idols, and explored a text in parshat re’eh. But as part of that text, if you sit tight, you’ll see that the laws of ritual sacrifice come up, and are actually quite relevant to an understanding of idol worship, and you’ll find that the desire for idol worship is quite relevant to how we eat meat.

Ready? Here goes:

The Bible spares no ink in telling us how terrible Avodah Zarah is. The prohibition against idol worship makes it into the Ten Commandments. It almost spells the doom of Israel at the Golden Calf, and if you read the book of Kings, or even prophet after prophet in Tanach, you know that Israel perpetually struggles with this sin, and ultimately ends up losing this struggle: Avodah Zarah is one of the great sins that lead to the destruction of the first temple and the exile of the people of Israel. 

But this temptation to worship idols - it’s just not something we struggle with anymore. How many of you have a friend, Sally, who tries to catch you on your way to synagogue: "Psst! Come with me, let's pass our children through fire in the worship of Molech!"

And yet, in Tanach, this temptation was very, very real. What was it about avodah zarah that made it so attractive, and therefore so destructive, that God needs to devote law after law to its eradication?

Ok, so maybe, the answer is that back then, there was a temptation for idol worship – but we don't have that temptation anymore. And while that solves our problem, it creates a new one: We believe that the Torah was written lidorot, with applicable lessons for every generation of readers.

Is there a way then, for us to read passage after passage on avodah zarah and not immediately file it away in the "irrelevant" category in our brain? How can we understand this in a way that is relevant and meaningful for us? So the truth is, in order to conduct an investigation into the motivations behind ancient idol worship, and in order to present to you a compelling theory, we’d need to be thorough, we’ve got to take a look at every instance of avodah zarah in the Bible, the teraphim of Lavan, the Egyptian Pantheon, Molech, Baal Zevuv...and - spoiler alert - we’re not going to do that today. 

Instead, I’m going to show you a video I originally put together for Parshat Re’eh. Parshat Re’eh (and much of Deuteronomy) talks a lot about avodah zarah. I think a close read of this chapter may help us with a theory, and it’s only a theory, about what Avodah Zarah is. Once we have that, I think we’ll find that its essence is as present in our lives today as it was thousands of years ago.

Before diving in, though, I want to ask you to pause this video, and read this chapter of text carefully. As you read, all you gotta do is practice the basics of reading comprehension: What is the main idea of this chapter? What is its topic? And then, how does each idea in this chapter flow into the next? Is this just a mishkabobble of random laws? Or is there something that unifies them? [musical interlude] Okay, let’s read this text and see how the many ideas here hang together:

Moses declares: utterly destroy all the places where the other nations – who were there before you – served their gods.

וְנִתַּצְתֶּם אֶת-מִזְבְּחֹתָם – break down their altars,

וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם אֶת-מַצֵּבֹתָם – and shatter their monuments

וַאֲשֵׁרֵיהֶם תִּשְׂרְפוּן בָּאֵשׁ, וּפְסִילֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶם תְּגַדֵּעוּן;
burn their asheira trees, and destroy their idols...

And not only should you destroy everything they use for idol worship, these idols, altars and monuments?

לֹא-תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – don't do the same to God. Don't worship Him the way people worship avodah zarah, building altars in your own backyard.

כִּי אִם-אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם מִכָּל-שִׁבְטֵיכֶם – instead, you must go to the special place that God will choose, to the mishkan or, eventually, the Temple

וַהֲבֵאתֶם שָׁמָּה, עֹלֹתֵיכֶם וְזִבְחֵיכֶם – and there you should bring your offerings.

How do these ideas relate to one another? Presumably, God is telling us, in the same breath as He is decrying the evils of avodah zarah, not to worship Him in the same style as one worships avodah zarah. Idol worshippers make local altars in their homes? God doesn’t want that. He wants you to go to the Temple. But why?

Now, I get why a non-physical God doesn't want to be represented by mere sticks and stones. But what's wrong with building altars? There is a mizbeach in the mishkan! Take Rivky. She is a tzadeikes. She feels SO close to God. It's really inconvenient to schlep out to Jerusalem whenever she feels like she wants to reconnect. She wants to build an altar in her backyard, a special shrine to worship God. What's so wrong with that?

But let's keep reading. Moses continues: There – in the place God chooses – bring your offerings, and your tithes, and the firsts of your flock and your voluntary tributes.

וַאֲכַלְתֶּם-שָׁם – and you should eat there,

לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – before God.

וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם בְּכֹל מִשְׁלַח יֶדְכֶם, אַתֶּם וּבָתֵּיכֶם
and you shall rejoice in all your undertakings – you and your household,

אֲשֶׁר בֵּרַכְךָ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ – with which God has blessed you.

Also, by the way, don't forget to rejoice with your kids, your slaves, your maidservant, and don't forget the Levite either, you know, because he doesn't have an inheritance in the land. Also, Moses adds, don't worry, you can still eat meat. You can't sacrifice the meat to God in your backyard in order to eat it, but you won't need to come to the Temple to offer your meat either. You can just slaughter it, wherever you live...just make sure to pour the blood on the ground.

This is so random. Are we just exploring tangent after tangent? Destroy avodah zarah. Come to my special place, to sacrifice to me, bring your offerings there and rejoice! By the way, you can still eat meat in your backyard, you just can't offer it to God. Is there a theme that connects these laws?

Now you might say, Imu, relax. These laws don't all have to relate. We talked about avodah zarah, and now we've moved on to some new topics! Well, let's read the very end of this perek:

When you finally destroy all the nations in the land,

הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ; פֶן-תִּדְרֹשׁ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם לֵאמֹר,
be extra careful, lest you seek out avodah zarah, the foreign gods that you destroy, and ask:

אֵיכָה יַעַבְדוּ הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה אֶת-אֱלֹהֵיהֶם.
How did they serve those foreign gods?

וְאֶעֱשֶׂה-כֵּן, גַּם-אָנִי
I'll worship God that way!

Don't do that, says Moses. God hates their form of worship, it is an abomination to Him, after all, they burned their children in fire for the sake of their gods!

Now...where do these last few verses belong? Don't they belong way up in the beginning? The chapter should go: "Destroy the avodah zarah. Don't worship God the way people worshiped avodah zarah, God hates that stuff." And then we can hear about the laws of God's place, the Levite, laws about meat. Why do we have all of these seemingly-arbitrary digressions in between?

I think, these questions together leave a trail of clues that can help us build a theory about what avodah zarah is, why it was so tempting. Once that theory becomes clear to us, I think we’ll be in a much better position to see how these seemingly random laws are actually related, AND, we’ll see how the laws that Moses is teaching about Avodah Zarah fomented a religious revolution that has lasting meaning for us, thousands of years later.

Let me explore that theory about the psychological motivations for Avodah Zarah with you now:

In our video for Va'etchanan, we mentioned that there is a world of difference between monotheism and polytheism. Many different ancient peoples had many different gods. But not every culture shared the same types of gods. Some pantheons included a god of war, a god of the sea.

But there's one god that they almost all had in common: The Egyptians, the Norse, the Etruscans, the Mayans, the Canaanites – they all had gods of fertility. A god who could help them have children and get through childbirth, and who would also provide rain for their crops.

Why? Because if you consider humanity's greatest anxieties – the things over which we have the least control – it is our fertility. Think about how vulnerable a struggling couple is, and how easily they can be taken advantage of; talk to this doctor, wear this amulet, visit this faith-healer. And think about how much fear there is surrounding livelihood. Eat this! It's a segulah for parnassah! Hire someone to chant these Psalms for 30 days, and heavenly gates of wealth will open for you!

The anxieties were even greater in the ancient world, where a bad crop would cause famine, where childhood mortality was the norm, where women would die during childbirth. That's very, very scary. And so, the notion that I could, somehow, gain some control over an area of my life where I don't truly have control, that is very attractive. And that is the great promise of polytheism.

In polytheism, my worship of god is out of fear. If I'm a sailor, I worship the ocean god. If I'm a soldier, terrified of dying in battle, I will pay any tribute I can to the god of war. I think, if I scratch his back, he'll scratch mine. But really, my motivation is pure selfishness – I don't really care about the god, all I care about is what he can do for me.

In monotheism, I'm not picking one god out of a pantheon to worship – there is only one God! When I recognize that there is one God, I am saying: God, everything is from you. You are the Source, of rain, of life, of me. I can't help but feel close to You, my Parent, my Creator. And in this system, I don't worship Him through barter, that's ridiculous. He's the Creator, there's no lack that I could possibly fill with gifts.

Yes, I give to God – but as an expression of gratitude. When a child gives his mom a sloppy handwritten Mother's Day card, the value isn't in the gift… mom doesn't need the card. It's about what the gift means: the relationship between the giver and the recipient.

And that's monotheism; the idea that there can be a real relationship between people and God. Love.

So avodah zarah - at its root - it is about fear, a desire to assert control in the areas of life where we most desire control - fertility, children, our livelihoods, our crops. At its core, the avodah zarah relationship with gods is transactional. We pray or worship in order to get something in return, blessings in our crops or with our children, at sea or at war. Let’s take this theory about the motivation behind avodah zarah, and see if it helps us make sense of how to read this chapter in Deuteronomy that seemed random and unconnected. Now can we make sense of all the various pieces?

First, God tells us to destroy foreign idols, but then, He tells us not to make altars in our backyard. We asked why? What is God’s problem with backyard altars? Well, think about what an altar is - and what it isn’t. An altar isn’t a toaster, or a washing machine, an appliance to make your life a little easier. An altar is a tool to build a relationship with God. But when you take an altar and say, eh, wouldn’t it be easier to just put it in my domain, in my backyard, so I can worship on my own schedule - well, isn’t that also just another way to take control? The altar isn't meant to be in the backyard, in your domain, available for you to put in requests with God whenever you need.

You see? Within this paradigm of understanding avodah zarah, the core issue isn’t so much that you’re worshipping gods that aren’t god - although that’s bad too - it’s that the nature of your relationship with god is inherently transactional. Tit for tat. And to prevent us from being too transactional about our relationship with God, the altar isn’t supposed to be in our backyard. Instead, the text continues in verse 5, Ki im el hamakom asher yivchar Hashem Elokeichem - You must go to the special place that God chooses...sham, there - lishichno tidrishu uvata shamah, seek out His presence, and go there, vhavetem shama olotechem vizivchechem….At God’s special place, the one He chooses, the place where you have to leave, go, seek Him out, that’s where you bring your sacrifices.

True worship is following God, to the place where He chooses. Because when you journey to God's special place, you're not just asking God to fulfill your needs; you put in effort too. So you should seek out God, Moses says, you should go to Him: to express gratitude and love.

It's not about convenience, it's about a relationship. And your sacrifices take on a tone of relationship as well. You don't barter with sacrifices. No, you bring tithes, good-will offerings, and they're consumed entirely by God, right? NO!

וַאֲכַלְתֶּם-שָׁם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – you're the ones who eat them before God.

Enjoy what you have, but enjoy together with your father in Heaven.

in gratitude for all that He has blessed you with - אֲשֶׁר בֵּרַכְךָ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ

וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם בְּכֹל מִשְׁלַח יֶדְכֶם – and therefore, rejoice in all that you have.

The text goes from telling us to destroy idols to telling us not to make altars in our backyards, to telling us to go to the special place God chooses, the Temple, to give our offerings, to telling us that the nature of our sacrifices aren’t really...sacrifices, we’re not sacrificing, we’re eating what we bring, we’re sorta just paying tribute, or enjoying what we have in recognition of God!

You see how one idea flows to the next? These aren’t just a list of laws related to the Temple, or sacrifices. Moshe is giving us a blueprint to building a real relationship with God - go to Him, eat a meal in His place! Enjoy it all, and as you do so, recognize God. That is what real worship looks like, and its worship that actually builds a real connection with God. Do you see the difference between the anxiety and fear of polytheism, and the gratitude, the love and joy, of monotheism?

But it doesn't stop there. If you have one God, if He is your parent, then He has other children too. And so, you can't consume your offerings, the bounty God has given you all by yourself:

וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – rejoice before God, with others,

אַתֶּם וּבְנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם, וְעַבְדֵיכֶם וְאַמְהֹתֵיכֶם – include your children, slaves, maidservants,

וְהַלֵּוִי אֲשֶׁר בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם, כִּי אֵין לוֹ חֵלֶק וְנַחֲלָה אִתְּכֶם – the Levites who don't have their own land – include the rest of God's children in your happiness… that's also an expression of worship of God.

It's an acknowledgment of God's Oneness. He is the source of everything, and everyone. And so these seemingly disparate commands are really essentially uniform, they are the philosophical antithesis of avodah zarah. Therefore, these topics are just an extension of the original command to destroy avodah zarah. But what about the strange commands about meat, how we can eat it anywhere, but we have to do this strange blood-pouring ritual?

Well, it seems like, in the desert, Israel was not allowed to consume meat except when they were partaking as part of a sacrifice. And this makes sense. If you remember, in our video on Parshat Shemini, we talked about how vulnerable we become to thinking that we are masters of the world, that we're in control and not God, whenever we take the life of another living being and consume its flesh. So every time you consumed meat, you ate as part of a sacrifice, as part of a recognition that God is in control, He is the ultimate Creator.

But now that sacrifices would only be permitted in God's special place, כִּי-יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, when you enter the land, and you might live too far from the Temple, don't worry, you can still eat meat. You need not sacrifice it to God. Recognize, instead, that you are not the Creator, by simply returning the animal's blood to your common source, the earth.

But why would God change the laws that all meat consumed should be part of a sacrifice?

It's such a beautiful and meaningful ritual; every time you want a steak, you must partake as part of an offering to God! Because what if the Temple is too far for you? Well then the next time you had a hankering for meat, you might be tempted to just build an altar in your backyard. Look how religious I am. I promise, God, it's all for you. And God says, yeah right. You think I don't know that you're building a grill, and calling it an altar?

So the text continues: You want to eat meat. בְּכָל-אַוַּת נַפְשְׁךָ, תֹּאכַל בָּשָׂר – God says, that's okay, you can indulge in your desire. But let's not conflate these two things. Yes, sacrifice meat – but that's only in the Temple, the place I choose. And yes, eat meat – but don't call your barbecue a religious experience.[musical interlude and scene change should go here] When our needs and desires mix too closely with our religion, with our need for control, then we approach the evils of avodah zarah.

So let’s take a step back here and summarize what we’ve done: We saw this section of text, these seemingly disjointed list of laws, destroy idols, don’t sacrifice to me in the backyard, go to my special place, share sacrifices with others, eat meat, but poor the blood on the ground, and again, don’t worship me the way avodah zara is worshipped...And we suggested if the top law is about avoda zara, and the bottom law is about avoda zara, maybe this whole thing is just an avoda zara sandwich! Maybe these list of seemingly disparate laws are only seemingly disparate - maybe they’re somehow all one. And I think we showed just how they are all one, just how they are all really about Avoda zara. Along the way, and here’s the really important part, by studying how these laws are about avoda zara, we had to change our conception of just what avoda zara even is, from a primitive and unrelatable understand of avodah zara of weird worship of stones and totems, to an avodah zara that is about trying to cajole, persuade and control the divine to grant you favor. A sort of worship out of fear and anxiety rather than acceptance and love.

So, though the temptation for avodah zarah is a little bit foreign to us today, a more mature look at the roots of avodah zarah reveals an ugly human failing that is terribly relevant in modern times. We should not fool ourselves, turning page after page of Tanach, detached from laws and stories about idol worship that we see as primitive, irrelevant and unrelatable.

Yes, God doesn't want us to worship idols. But more importantly, He wants us to have a relationship with Him that is based on love, based on recognition that He is in control of the universe.

Despite our fears and our worries, we must not submit to false illusions of control in an effort to calm our anxieties or to get what we want.

Our God is a God of love. He is a parent. Come seek Him out in that special place. Celebrate your accomplishments and rejoice. Share what you have with your brothers and sisters. We are all the family of the One God.

New re: Kosher Slaughter: So that was our video, largely exploring the desire for avodah zarah, but I hope you saw what I meant about the laws of idol worship intermingling and shedding light on the laws of ritual slaughter. From a kashrut perspective, we’re left with something startling. If you watched Beth’s video on Kisui dam, or our video on Kosher Animals, you’ll notice how not ideal eating animals is, and a wave of concession after concession to mankind’s desire to eat meat. 

it’s kind of startling! Mankind is originally vegetarian, then he’s allowed to eat meat, and Israelites are allowed to eat meat, but really as part of a sacrifice, but then that rule gets changed and they can eat it anywhere they want so long as they cover the blood. 

What are we to make of this? Speaking personally, it seems that eating meat, no matter how you look at it, is not meant to be taken lightly. Picking up a burger as fast food, or treating your meat as an ingredient like any other item out of your pantry, seems like the kind of thing the Torah is trying to shock us out of. Taking another life comes with grave responsibility, and the idea of kisui dam, of covering the blood of an animals whose life you are consuming, feels like an essential part of the ethics and spiritual meaning of kashrut that feels kind of lost in my own life. Perhaps the values behind the prohibition against idol worship, the values behind kashrut, survive in our recognition that we are not the masters of this world. And there is great humility in keeping the mitzvot that have us recognize our true place in the grand tapestry that is creation.

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