“Do not boil the kid in its mother’s milk”
Like in every Jewish text, in the Torah, there is narrative — a plot- and normative: rules and norms.
Narrative: you can read the Torah to find a plot. This week’s portion, Ki Tissah, has much to offer. The episode of the Golden Calf: while Moses is on the top of Mount Sinai and God gives him the Law, the Israelites are left alone. So they built an idol, the Golden Calf indeed, and started a great party, as we have read: -dance, eat, drink and all the rest. For this, God becomes upset and threatens to annihilate the Israelites and make Moses the leader of another nation.
But Moses manages to placate the Divine anger. Then he goes down to see with his eyes what is happening and loses it. This is the moment when Moses breaks the tablets of the law. It’s a moment portrayed by artists many times — Rembrandt, possibly, the most famous [see this wonderful essay by Rabbi Meir Soloveithik]. Then Moses climbs Mount Sinai again, receiving a second set of tablets. That’s the main plot of our Torah portion. There are other plots, Moses sees God nonetheless!). The narrative is excellent.
Less attractive is, in this Torah portion, the normative. If you are a mitzvah-nerd, if you count the commandments in each Torah portion, you find -more or less- nine commandments (there is a bit of disagreement on this point between Maimonides and the rest of the world… That’s for another sermon).
There is also one of the three occurrences of a commandment “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk”. In the whole Torah, this commandment appears three times. The Rabbis explain that there cannot be repetition in the Torah, so there must be a reason why the commandment is repeated three times with precisely the exact words.
Somebody says that the commandment is repeated three times because: (one) you should not cook meat with milk; (two) you should not eat meat with milk; and (three) you should have separate dishes for meat and for milk. Another interpretation is: (one) you should not cook meat with milk; (two) you should not eat meat with milk; (three) you should not profit by selling dairy and meaty foods combined together.
Then there is that joke about Moses, when he writes the commandments under Divine dictation. Moses hears this commandment once, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk”, and asks God to repeat it. God dictates the commandment for the second time, so Moses reluctantly engraves it into the tablets.
But he is perplexed. So he tries to explain to God that this will be problematic; without an explanation, it will ingenerate thousands of discussions; you know how Jews are….. Is this kind of meat allowed, or is it not? The lamb or the goat? What about the cow? And, sorry, chicken? Chicken’s milk… does not exist! And which kind of milk are we talking about? The goat’s milk or cow’s milk, and is soya milk forbidden or not? God grows angry even more by listening to Moses about Jewish love for discussions and distinctions. So He raises the voice and dictates the commandment for the third time, shouting. This is why Moses wrote, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk”- for the third time.
Jokes apart, Jewish Law is often mocked as obscure and non-logical. We live in a Christian Country, and I am sure you are all familiar with the opposition “Christianity, the religion of love vs. Judaism, the religion of the Law”. A Law which -according to this view- is ossified, out of time, and in desperate need of an update. The intricacies and the strictness of the “abstruse Jewish law” are material for humour, often Jewish humour, sometimes good humour (like the joke above).
But you know what? It is all based on a misunderstanding. Let’s review the Torah portion of this week. Moses ascends the mountain, and the Israelites -out of nostalgia- build an idol, a Golden Calf. It is an act of idolatry. It is a betrayal. Obviously, God is enraged. God threatens to destroy the Israelites and to make Moses the leader of another nation. It makes sense. After all, Moses is a bit of an outsider. He grew up at Pharao’s court, never experienced slavery, and indeed his status as an outsider was known by the Israelites.
Nonetheless, Moses refuses God’s offer. He wants to stay with his people. So Moses reminds God of the covenant stipulated with Abraham repeated to Itzak, reiterated to Jakov etc. Do not underestimate this. Religions are founded after a prophet accepts the Divine call. In ancient mythologies, the heroes do what the gods command them to, but not so in our religion. The foundational moment of Judaism, as a system of laws, is when a man -Moses- refuses an offer by God.
God offers Moses the chance to lead another people. But Moses refuses to obey and persuades God to give the Jews a second chance. This is the moment when God gives the Law to the Jewish people.
And now, please, let’s have a look at the calendar. According to the Midrash, Moses ascends to Sinai for the second time on Rosh Chodesh Elul. Moses descends then with the second set of tablets after forty days. Which is Yom Kippur! On Yom Kippur (I know someone is starving already…), we expiate our transgressions, we amend, we try to forgive and be forgiven, and God gives us a second chance, like God gave to our ancestors on that first Yom Kippur, thanks to the pleading of Moses.
This is the great point missed by all the humour (Jewish and not) on the intricacies of Jewish law and by the theological nonsense about the unforgiving, vengeful “God of the Old Testament”. The Jewish Law, the Halacha, the Jewish way of life, has been given by God to the Jews as a sign of love, proof, and evidence that that horrible act of idolatry, the Golden Calf, has been forgiven. We Jews follow the Halacha not because we are a tribe of neurotics or because of fear of hell. The Halacha is not a burden. It is a sign of God’s love for us, for his people.
And please let us not forget another essential point. The first pair of tablets materialised in the hands of Moses when he ascended Sinai for the first time. Then Moses descended, saw the people debasing themselves in front of the idol, and out of anger, broke those tablets, the first gift of God. But the second set of tablets was the result of Moses’s work — God dictated to Moses, or if you prefer, God inspired Moses to carve the law into the stones.
These tablets, the place from which the Torah literally originates, requires the work of the human being from the very beginning. The Halacha needs the cooperation of human beings. It just does not come from above. It needs practice. It needs our acceptance. Like in a family, love must be cultivated and kept alive.
I, of course, enjoy, like everyone, good Jewish humour about Jewish neurosis and about the Rabbis’ talent to find loopholes. But it’s easy to recognise that theological mistake as the basis. While another stereotype, the ever-argumentative Jew, possibly originated in that act of rebellion by Moses. And I love Moses’ rebellion. Imagine this. God gives you an offer and you say: “no thanks”. That rebellion was so bold that even God was impressed and changed His mind.
All the mitzvot, the commandments, stem from that moment. Including that line “do not boil the kid in its mother’s milk” given to us so that we learn, practice and teach compassion towards the animals — what did I say? Learn, practice and teach. Three verbs.
That must be the reason why the commandment appears three times!
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, 11 March 2023 / 19 Adar 5783