This is the fourth in a series of pseudonymous essays by The Treyfster. The pieces explore forbidden foods from the point of view of a person who used to keep traditionally kosher.
I once spent an hour or so meditating on the verse “Do not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.” Properly meditating — I was in a very sincere, religious part of my life and wanted to get to the bottom of this rather opaque, symbolic sentence.
I should have known better; there’s something essentially slippery and bottomless about all ancient writings, and particularly this one. This sentence, and its interpretations, probably causes half the trouble to frum Jews today in navigating the world — and certainly a lot of the expense. Imagine frumkeit without two sets of crockery and cutlery, without worrying about mixing this with that unwisely.
What does it mean? It’s almost absurdly specific: Don’t cook a baby goat in the milk that literally came from its mother. You’d have to try really hard to do that today. You’d have to get your own goat. You’d have to raise your own kid goats. On that level, it’s as redundant as the stern warnings against worshipping the Asherah (mother goddess),or passing your children through the fire of Moloch.
Of course, it’s been interpreted more widely than that. Astonishingly so. Has any tiny injunction ever borne such a great tree of extensions and prohibitions? Not only a kid, but also any meat. Not only the milk from its own mother, but also any milk product from any animal at all. Cooking a chicken (which doesn’t even lactate) in the milk of a cow (which couldn’t give birth to anything resembling a chicken) is forbidden, under the grand extension of kid seething.
My first foray into basar ve’chalav, the kosher laws of milk and meat, was similarly tame. I sprinkled Parmesan cheese onto a duck risotto. I ate the risotto in a paper bowl, with a plastic spoon, and then threw the remnants in the outside bin. It was pretty good: rich and flavorsome and tangy. They do add something to each other, these flavors. Though I’ve never been particularly excited by the classic cheeseburger, pretty much any dish is made better with a spoonful of good butter, and buttered vegetables with a steak are a delight.
Still, though, what is it about this curious verse, which seems — when you meditate on it for an hour — to be telling us something about motherhood and the commonality and compassion demanded between mammals? When I visited India a few years ago, my guide told me the “reason” — a folk reason — for the veneration of the cow. “My parents told me the cow gives milk, so she is like your mother. Treat the cow as you would treat your mother,” he said.
Milk was a fairly late addition to the human diet. We probably started consuming dairy after the last Ice Age, only about 11,000 years ago. There was something troubling about it for us, evidently. Milk is what you get from your mother. This animal is giving you something like your mother gives you. It’s as if you are its child, as if it is your parent, as if its kid is your sibling. So perhaps treat that cow like you’d treat your mother. Or perhaps just try not to desecrate that whole relationship by cooking the child in the food its mother made for it.
So although I’m not giving up my butter chicken masala, I certainly won’t be going out of my way to seethe an actual kid in its actual mother’s milk.