Shemini: Chicken parmesan

chicken parmesam“These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hooves, with clefts through the hooves, and that chews the cud – such you may eat.” (Lev 11:3)

We started keeping kosher when our older children were in preschool. We were about to move to a new house, new kitchen, so we started with two new sets of dishes, silverware, pots and pans.  Why?  In Exodus we’re told “[not] to cook a lamb in its mother’s milk” (Ex 23:19, 34:26) From this,the Rabbis determined that we are not to mix meat and milk ingredients. Goodbye, cheeseburgers.

But it was also goodbye, chicken parmesan, and this is where the Leviticus text comes in. Meat comes from those land animals that have cleft hooves and chew their cud. They’re mammals. They have live births. The give milk to their young. And they’re mammals. None of those descriptions apply to chickens, yet here we are – no cheese on a chicken salad sandwich or ranch dressing on a salad with chicken. Chicken, as my husband calls it, is the “tuna of the land”, and should be pareve, and just like fish, it’s neither milk nor meat.

So when did chicken become meat? Well, clearly it’s not in the Torah, it’s after that. Rabbinic commentary. Naturally, it starts with a maklochet, a disagreement, a long time ago. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Yose lived in the second century BCE. Rabbi Akiba said chicken should be considered meat, and Rabbi Yose said it was pareve. Over the next couple of hundred years, as the Talmud was completed as commentary to the Torah, the majority opinion was that chicken was meat. By the 16th century, the Shulchan Aruch codified chicken as meat. Some of the reasoning was that “if you do X it could lead you to do Y” that is, the “fence around the Torah” argument. Chicken looks like meat, so if you eat it with cheese, who knows – you may make that mistake with steak next. Some say that in the ancient world, meat was pretty rare, and only served at special occasions, like Shabbat. Chicken was seen as a secondary meat, and therefore was to be separated from dairy.

I know there’s nothing wrong with bacon. Pork isn’t unhealthy, and eating meat and milk together is just fine for your digestion. That’s not why I keep kosher. I do it because it connects me across time and space to Jewish life, and it brings an element of intentionality and holiness to the very mundane act of eating, keeping me alive. At least, that’s what is still meaningful to me. But I admit, I’m really challenged by this chicken thing. I have issues with the “fence around the Torah” defense. The fence gets so far away from the law that you don’t even recognize it anymore, or you’re more worried about getting too close than you are about the law itself. Chicken (and turkeys) aren’t mammals, they’re not meat. They don’t have cleft hooves nor do they chew cud. They’re pareve. If logic applies at all (and let’s face it, kashrut defies logic), chicken Caesar salad should be fine. But thousands of years of tradition have a lot of weight, and it weighs on me. But it makes no sense.

I may start putting cheese on my chicken salad sandwich at some point. But not today.









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