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We Are What We Eat

  • We Are What We Eat

    Sh'mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

Any animal that has true hoofs, with clefts through the hoofs, and that chews the cud-such you may eat. . . . And the swine-although it has true hoofs, with the hoofs cleft through, it does not chew the cud: it is impure for you. (Leviticus 11:3, 11:7)

    D'var Torah

    It's time for a confession.

    I grew up in a strongly identified Jewish home. Jewish education was of primary importance in our family. The memory of the Shoah, the ever-present reality of anti-Semitism, the creation of the State of Israel as partial response to the pain of our century-these were the spiritual vertebrae in our family's Jewish backbone. My brother and I attended the UAHC Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. We were, in our 1960s Reform way, pious Jews-with Shabbat candles at home and Friday evening services in the synagogue.

    There was one thing however, that was never part of our family's Jewish repertoire-kashrut. When I was a child, my family simply did not observe the dietary laws, other than the avoidance of chameitz at Pesach. It is now almost embarrassing to recall. My beloved mother particularly loved an old Hungarian peasant recipe, which I believe her grandparents stole from their attackers during a pogrom. It consisted of hard-boiled eggs, sour cream, a layer of ham, a layer of bacon, and a layer of potatoes.

    In later years, we lovingly nicknamed the dish "Leviticus 11 soufflé." My parents were wonderful, loving, and even learned Jews. But for our family, Judaism was about the temple, not about the table. It was about the mind and the heart, about the active hand in the life of the world and the giving hand in the service of our people. It was not about the stomach.

    That was the way I lived my Jewish life-even into my early years in the rabbinate. I knew all of the standard explanations for the Jewish avoidance of pork. Like many Jews, I knew the hygienic argument, first fully articulated by Maimonides (Guide to the Perplexed 3:48)-that pig is a "filthy animal." Even then I rejected the perennially popular "pork and trichinosis" argument, realizing that our Levitical ancestors were not physicians given to experimentation about illness.

    I knew the "pork is pagan" argument. There is evidence that the aboriginal Canaanites ate pig and that it was offered as a sacrifice in idolatrous worship. The prophet Isaiah (66:3) railed against those "who present as oblation the blood of swine," warning that those who offer swine's flesh would be consumed. I came to know the anthropological reasons for not eating pig. In The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer wrote that pig meat was forbidden because it had originally been a sacrificial animal: "All so-called unclean animals were originally sacred. . . . The reason for not eating them is that many were originally divine." To be sure, these rationalizations touched me intellectually, but not spiritually.

    And then, about fifteen years ago, I heard a quote from the late Rabbi Joachim Prinz. Prinz once explained why he refrained from eating pork: "It is a dietary predilection of my ancestors for which they frequently gave their lives." Something moved within me. I recalled how the worst Jewish insult was chazir, "pig." I thought of our ancestors who were tortured and forced to eat pig. I thought about how the armies of Antiochus slaughtered pigs in the Jerusalem Temple in order to desecrate it. I thought of our ancestors in Spain who were called Marranos, "pigs," because they did not eat pig. In her book The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians and the Pig (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), the French cultural anthropologist Claudine Fabre-Vassas says that pig became a delicacy in Christian Europe, and inextricably connected to Christian festivities (think of the Easter ham), because Christians wanted specifically to separate themselves from Jews, to say, "Look at us-we're not Jewish! And our menu proves it." Yes I know that shrimp and lobster and other kinds of shellfish are also t'reifah, and I am not discounting the prohibition against them. But as a colleague once said, "Shrimp is t'reif; pork is anti-Semitic."

    How did this affect me? How could I walk into a Tony Roma's house of ribs with historical and religious impunity? How could I blithely order moo shoo pork in a Chinese restaurant? How could I munch away the very symbol of our otherness? Suddenly, my invisible ancestors filled the empty chairs at restaurants. They lingered near the phone when I phoned in for Chinese food. How could I mock their suffering? And so, in empathy with our history and with the pain of our martyrs, I stopped eating pork. I have never looked back. Now fifteen years later, I have raised my two children to know that ours is a pork-free home and their stomachs are pork-free stomachs. They carry that value with them when they go to friends' houses and when they make culinary choices.

    Judaism is about the hallowing of the everyday. It is about our minds and it is about our stomachs. And yes, it is about the pizzeria and the Chinese restaurant. Jewish life means sacrifice. It means the conscious curbing of our appetites. Eleazar ben Azariah taught, "Don't say, 'I have no desire to eat swine's flesh,' but rather say, 'I would like to eat it, but what can I do seeing that my Father in heaven has decreed against it?'" ( Sifra, K'doshim, 11:22). Sure, it tastes good. Even Philo of Alexandria said: "Among the different kinds of land animals there is none whose flesh is so delicious as the pig's, as all who eat it agree"(Special Laws, 4:100-101, quoted in James Kugel, The Bible as It Was [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998]). But sometimes God and Jewish history (and God speaking through the medium of Jewish history) says: "No."

    Avoiding pig helps establish controls and boundaries in life. Not every appetite is worthy of being satiated. In this sense, kashrut becomes a metaphor for life. The whole world is not mine. I cannot always spend money the way I want, have sex with whomever I want, say anything I want, abuse the earth according to what I think I want. Controls and boundaries are sorely lacking in our world. We may want comfort and convenience and consumer gratification, but we need challenge and covenant and community and consecration.

    For years I have liked my reasons for life as a pig-free zone. God speaks, in some inchoate way, through Jewish history, that sense of kinship with the suffering. I am not always comfortable about this rationale. I freely admit that it borders on a rationale for Jewish life that makes me less and less comfortable-Judaism as the fist we shake in the face of anti-Semites. It feels like the nursing of old wounds. But emotionally it works, and the burden of proof must be upon those who would be callous to the Jewish past.

    There is yet another reason for avoiding pig. It has to do with the original text that forbids it. Why is it important to note that the pig does not chew its cud? Surely we understand that a kosher animal must have both a cloven hoof and it must chew its cud, but why is this important?

    The animals that are permitted to a people are always symbolic of how that people perceives itself. So, start with the parted hoof. The parted hoof represents the duality of life. This is the most natively Jewish way of understanding reality. From the very beginning of existence, Judaism celebrates duality: land/heavens, light/darkness, humanity/God, Isaac/Ishmael, Jacob/Esau, Rachel/Leah, Joseph/his brothers, Moses/Aaron, Israel/the nations, Shabbat/the workday week, holy/profane. The parted hoof is the symbol of our sense of life. There is division in the world-a division that will not be healed until the days of the Messiah.

    And what's important about the chewing of the cud-that little feature that invalidates the ham sandwich and the pepperoni pizza? On one level, cud chewing repeats the theme of division, because it calls to mind the bifurcated stomach (life is, truly and even sadly, bifurcation). But Philo puts it this way: "Just as a cud-chewing animal after biting through the food keeps it at rest in the gullet, again after a bit draws it up and chews it and then passes it on to the belly, so the student, after receiving from the teacher through his ears the principles and lore of wisdom, prolongs the process of learning, since he cannot at once comprehend and grasp them securely, until, by using memory to call up each thing that he has heard . . . he stamps a firm impression of them on his soul" (Special Laws, 4:106-107, ibid.).

    There you have it. We Jews are ruminants. We are those who take wisdom and cogitate upon it and bring it back up again and chew on it, never happy with what we have learned, always looking for a way to comprehend it and to refine it. Philo was trying to find a rationale for kashrut that would speak to the inner lives of the Jews of ancient Alexandria, who must have experienced culinary pressures as intense as anyone in a modern city with decent restaurants.

    And so it is. That is our job in life, we Jews. To ruminate-even to ruminate about why we eat the way we do. We are what we eat, and the way we eat is an offering to God.

    By the Way

    Here is the dilemma in terms of kashrut and autonomy. In choosing between keeping kashrut and not keeping kashrut the individual Jew is not choosing between Jewish dietary rules and his or her own freely invented rules. Rather, the Jew is choosing between competing heteronomous systems of eating. If an individual Jew decides not to keep kashrut, then whose system of eating rules will he or she follow? In American society we enjoy a variety of systems to choose among, but they all share common, baseline rules that are codified in public health regulations. These include, for example, prohibitions on the meat of dogs, horses, rats, and human beings. Ultimately a person's selection of eating systems is not freely chosen. These decisions are shaped by a complex matrix of heteronomous, social rules about eating. (Alan Henkin, "Kashrut and Autonomy," CCAR Journal, Fall 1999)

    Your Guide

    1. There has been a resurgence of popularity in various forms of kashrut. Why do you think this is so?

    2. How compelling do you find the "historical" argument regarding kashrut that it is a way of responding to the pain of our ancestors? What other traditional practices or prohibitions might fall into this category, that is, things we do or don't do because of our ancestors' suffering?

    3. One theory of the origin of kashrut was that it separated the ancient Israelites from the other nations of the world. Is that reason still valid today? If that reason is still desirable, what other ways might we adopt that would separate us from other peoples today? If it isn't desirable, what has changed in modern Jewish identity that has rendered it less so?

    4. In what ways do we as Jews still experience the duality of life? What are the ethical and/or social justice implications of that worldview?

    Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia. He is best known for his books about bar and bat mitzvah and spirituality, most notably, Putting God on The Guest List: How To Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah (Jewish Lights Publishing).

    Reference Materials: 

    Sh’mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47 
    The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 798-823; Revised Edition, pp. 705-727; 
    The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 615-636