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Ethics and Insects
Kashrut is not an incomprehensible "chok"
I was surprised to recently see a learned scholar - a rabbi and an expert in Jewish philosophy - claim that “nobody seriously argues that it’s an ethical abomination to eat insects,” and to insist that it’s an incomprehensible chok. I personally would indeed seriously argue that it’s an ethical abomination, and I know many rabbis and academics who would say the same - in fact, I think it’s pretty much impossible to seriously argue that the Torah meant anything else.
Now, I realize that this may sound particularly ironic, given that I am well known for promoting the consumption of locusts, and we sell our own jars of kosher locusts at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. But allow me to explain.
The laws permitting us to eat certain creatures and forbidding us from eating others are most certainly about ethics. Not about ethics in the narrow Western sense of not causing harm to other people, but rather other moral principles that govern our actions.
The Torah (Vayikra 11:45-47) explicitly states that the dietary laws are about kedushah, sanctity. This in relates to the concept of separation—restricting oneself from freely eating whatever is available, and also separating the Jewish nation culturally from other nations, so that they survive with a distinct identity and remain focused on their mission. And there are themes we can clearly detect in the Torah’s choice of forbidden species. These include a general avoidance of eating predatory animals and birds (conduct we do not want to internalize), an avoidance of eating “aberrant” creatures (such as bats), and avoiding creatures that generally elicit disgust as food items, such as reptiles and most insects. The Torah even explicitly and repeatedly uses the term sheketz, “repulsive,” with regard to eating insects.
Avoiding eating disgusting creatures is an aspect of morality. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote a famous and fabulous book called The Righteous Mind, which is primarily about why good people are divided by politics and religion, but which is also an excellent source of insights into Judaism. As he explains, there are many different spheres of morality. One of these is sanctity versus degradation, which is shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination - “if we had no sense of disgust… we would also have no sense of the sacred.” The idea is to reinforce the sentiment of disgust in order to encourage moral behavior. Haidt explains that it underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, more noble way.
But what about all the many millions of people in the world for whom eating bugs is perfectly normal? I’ve seen plenty of grubs for sale in the food markets in Thailand. In fact, 80% of the world’s nations eat insects. How can we say that it’s objectively disgusting?
The answer is that it is indeed not objectively disgusting. And another proof for that is locusts, which are kosher (along with other subjectively disgusting kosher things such as p’tcha, feeselach, tongue, herring, and Marmite). Whether or not something becomes subjectively disgusting depends on a variety of factors including health/disease and economic need, and thus locusts became culturally acceptable - when there’s a plague of locusts that wipes out the entire food supply, then at least there is something to eat. (And with an expanding world population, such sources of protein may again be crucial.) But even disgust that is culturally subjective becomes religiously significant. Just as certain practices were forbidden because in Biblical culture they were a feature of idolatrous sects, so too are most insects forbidden because in Biblical culture they were regarded as disgusting.
So, yes, the prohibition against eating insects is indeed ethical in nature. It’s not universal or objective ethics (if there even is such a thing), but it is certainly ethics. And this is the case even though it’s simultaneously perfectly ethical to eat kosher locusts - especially if you purchase them from my museum!
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