What is the “kosher” way of parenting?
Parshas Sh’mini contains the laws of kashrus, including which animals may be eaten and which are forbidden. The Ramban (VaYikra 11:13) suggests that the Torah prohibited the species that are predatory in nature, as their cruel characteristics could be transmitted to a person through consumption. Instead, Hashem wants us to only ingest pure, domesticated animals that promote compassionate qualities. As the saying goes, “You are what you eat.”
With this distinction in mind, we can learn a lot about what the Torah deems to be proper and improper conduct by examining the differences between the behaviors of kosher and non-kosher animals. Consider the following passage tucked away in the second half of Maseches Shabbos (128b), which deals with the permissibility of performing various veterinary procedures on Yom Tov. The Gemara says that one is allowed to take steps to enhance the bond between a mother animal and her newly delivered baby, and several ancient practices are described (e.g., sprinkling the baby animal with its embryonic fluids so the powerful smell would arouse maternal instincts). Even though these practices involved a measure of exertion normally discouraged on Yom Tov, Chazal made an exception, because these procedures were considered critically important to the wellbeing of the young animals.
Then the Gemara adds a remarkable caveat: These bonding exercises are only permitted with kosher species of animals; one is not allowed to do the same with non-kosher newborns. Chazal explain that such interventions are either unnecessary or ineffective with impure animals, as these mothers tend to either be overly attached to or overly distant from their offspring. If the mother never lets her young leave her side, then fostering additional parental love is unnecessary; if the mother has already decided to abandon her child, then these “s’gulos” will not make much of an impact. Either way, there is no urgent justification to perform these rituals on Yom Tov for non-kosher animals.
Now let’s return to our parshah and the principle that kosher animals contain traits that we are supposed to adopt, while non-kosher animals have aspects that Hashem wants us to reject. Apparently, Chazal are teaching us that for parents to be overly close to or overly distant from their children is an “impure” quality. “Helicopter parenting” prevents children from developing a healthy sense of autonomy and self-efficacy, while a neglectful approach robs children of the support they need to build resilience and confidence. Either extreme is considered cruel, as exhibited by the treif mother. Instead, we should imbibe the ways of the tahor (pure) animals that allow their young to venture outward and explore the world, but also look for ways to foster love and healthy attachment to their young.
Finding this balance is the “kosher” way of parenting!