“For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God:
you shall be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:45)
Parashat Sh’mini includes the first of two major collections of dietary laws in the Torah (Deuteronomy 14 is the second). The Torah gives no reason for why a particular animal is permitted or prohibited yet it does offer a rationale for the system as a whole: “For I the Lord am your God; you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.” (Lev. 11:44) Unfortunately, the “clutter” of the kosher laws often obscures the understanding of the system as a statement about spirituality.
Rabbi Sheldon Dorph, a noted educator, points out God created humans to be vegetarians (Gen. 1:27-29). God recognizes, however, that in creating free will (and human nature) this isn’t going to happen (Gen. 8:21). God has to figure out a system that maintains the consciousness of not destroying life, but allows humans to make their choices. Kashrut (the system of kosher laws) is the answer.
Recognizing blood as a symbol of the life-force in every living thing is a fundamental principle of kashrut. That is why the Torah commands, “You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.” (Gen 9:4) Kashrut represents a compromise: eating animals is permitted, but only certain kinds (the permitted animals), prepared in certain ways (slaughtered ritually so as to cause minimal pain), and at certain times (no meat with dairy products). The point is not to deny pleasure, but to mandate ongoing awareness of the impact of the choice to eat meat.
Many religions include food restrictions, either ongoing or episodic, and it is easy to see their observances only as demonstrations of ethnic identity. In all cases, kashrut included, the real meaning is found in the ethical and spiritual statement they make.