Question:

I have two questions regarding kashrut (the Torah's dietary laws). I understand that the sages explain that non-kosher animals have negative characteristics that we would absorb by eating their flesh. But many kosher animals consume non-kosher animals (i.e. kosher fish that eat non-kosher fish and sea creatures). If "we are what we eat," don't we indirectly absorb those negative elements when we eat those animals?

My second question: Many Jews insist that kashrut is mostly based on objections to cruelty (i.e., flesh torn from a living animal is not kosher, the rigorous requirements of the shechitah procedure ensure that an animal is killed painlessly, etc.). Yet I understand that veal is kosher. And any animal rights activist will tell you that veal is the most cruel meat that is available: tortured calves who stand in a small pen for life being fed only milk. How can veal be kosher if Kashrut is about compassion towards animals?

Answer:

Before I deal with your specific questions, it is important to understand that we didn't make up the kashrut laws. Just like we didn't create the fish. We never claimed to have conceived them, nor to fully understand them. When Nachmanides and others provide reasons for these laws, they also make it clear that they are not getting to the bottom of it. It would be absurd to think that G‑d gave us the Torah as a sort of bandage for His mistakes. "Oops! I didn't mean to put those nasty animals there! People might eat them! What do I do now?"

Rather, the Torah came first, and the world was designed to follow. Something like this: The Creator desired a world where we creatures would have a choice to connect with Him or go on our own messy way. He conceived of us as creatures who consume food, and that would be one of the areas where we would have this choice. If so, there are going to have to be animals that He doesn't want us to eat and animals that we may eat.

Whenever we eat something with mindfulness of our Creator and Divine purpose, our act of eating acts as a connection to Above. The energy we receive from that food itself becomes elevated into that higher purpose.

On the other hand, if we just eat that food because we are hungry, with no inner intent, we and the food remain just another chunk of this fragmented world.

That's how it works with kosher food. If it is of the sort of food that the Creator doesn't want us to eat, then the nature of that food is such that it can never be elevated by eating. No matter what we do, it remains stuck within this world, and shleps us down with it.

Some of these animals reflect this spiritual negativity in their actual nature and behavior. So Nachmanides speaks of the negative character traits imbibed with the flesh of non-kosher species. In many cases, what is not healthy for the soul is also clearly not healthy for the body, as well. So we have nutritionists confirming that a kosher diet is more healthy. Nice dividends, but not the underlying factor.

As for cruelty to animals, this is something expressly forbidden by the Torah.

In a case where there is direct human benefit, we are permitted to take an animal's life. Even then, it must be done as compassionately as possible.

Nevertheless, the prohibition of cruelty towards animals and the laws of kosher slaughter are two separate realms. Just because the slaughter of the animal was deemed kosher doesn't mean it was not raised or slaughtered in a cruel way. A proper, kosher slaughter should be done with minimal suffering to the animal—indeed the laws of shechitah and the traditional methods greatly facilitate this. In some cases, however, there is a need today for correction of this issue, as many have already realized.