A Taste for Blood
My maternal zeida (Rev E Loebenstein of blessed memory), whose 5th Yartzeit is today, was a schochet in Melbourne for most of his working life. He used to tell about one worker who would come to work with a cup, fill it up from the blood draining out of the neck of a newly slaughtered animal and then drink it.
I’ve always felt sick just thinking about this because drinking blood is so foreign to everything Jews believe in. The Torah commands us: Be strong. Do not eat blood, because the blood is the soul (Re’ei 12:23). Blood is the life-force and passion of a living creature and represents that which is animalistic and hedonic. Throughout history Jews have been punctilious to salt their meat and examine eggs for bloodspots. It is perverse that anti-Semites have for centuries accused and implicated Jews in various blood libels because no other nation has ever been as careful to avoid ingesting blood as we.
But is it really so intrinsically strange to drink blood? Perhaps we’re the weird ones; denying ourselves an available pleasure. Many cultures enjoy eating various blood products, black puddings and other so-called delicacies, why are we so strongly set against the practice?
The Rabbis argue why Hashem needed to specifically warn us against ingesting blood. According to Rabbi Yehuda, Jews too used to eat blood. We are intrinsically no better, no more decent or moral, than people of other cultures and nationalities. Humans are animalistic by nature and left to our own devices would quickly degenerate to the laws of the jungle. The purpose of Torah and Mitzvos is to elevate us morally. We are specifically warned to strengthen ourselves against eating blood because our aspiration should be to a more refined, less primal way of life.
From this perspective, we should be on constant guard against falling prey to the corporeal, materialist temptations that present to us during our daily life and work to become pure.
Another perspective on the commandment to avoid blood is given by Rabbi Shimon Ben-Azai. According to him, eating blood is intrinsically repugnant. A normal person would be sickened at the very thought of ingesting such a primitive, primeval product. You don’t need to be warned not to eat blood, that’s easy, but Hashem is giving us an opportunity to demonstrate our love for Him by responding with enthusiasm to His command. We strive to live by His ways and are rewarded for the effort. From this viewpoint people are naturally refined but keeping torah and mitzvos allows us to shine.
Perhaps both perspectives are true and reflect different aspects of each of our personalities. At first our nature is unformed, with a distinct tendency to lawlessness and raw emotion. Children scream and carry on with no regard to the consequences. They bully each other in the school yard and throw tears and tantrums at the slightest excuse.
Some people never mature; even as they grow older their character stays the same. But most of us learn some self-control. We discover the joys of delayed gratification and the ability to say no. We learn to remain decent even when surrounded by rough people and unbridled passion.
And as we mature a new challenge presents. It’s time to elevate oneself by improving one’s surroundings. Even that which comes easy can still be worked at. Don’t stop trying just because you’ve made it to the top. Do not become jaded and never relax from the struggle. Even someone sitting in comfortable surrounds and sophisticated company should still work to progress; to muster the enthusiasm for self-improvement and character transformation.
Judaism is a journey, not a destination. We start off lowly and climb up slowly. We avoid that which we shouldn’t have and forgo that which we don’t need. We develop our lives and personalities by following in Hashem’s ways and living up to His expectations. Torah and Mitzvos are transformative in nature and help us achieve a natural transformation.