Drash on Parashat Shemini
Rabbi Stanton Zamek
United Jewish Congregation, Hong Kong
I have no way of verifying this, but I believe I spend much more time thinking about pigs than the average Rabbi. I walk on Victoria Peak every day and I almost always encounter wild boar while I am getting my exercise. Being a wildlife enthusiast, I often stop to watch them. Sharing the walking paths in the park with the Eurasian wild boar, Hong Kong’s largest native land mammal, is a little taste, you should excuse the expression, of Hong Kong’s surprisingly rich natural environment.
Very often, I am close enough to touch these creatures-- all the regular walkers and runners are--though I like to kid myself that the boars don’t run from me because they know I don’t see them as food. Parashat Shemini keeps them safe:
The following, however, of those that either chew the cud or have true hoofs, you shall not eat. . . the swine—although it has true hoofs, with the hoofs cleft through, it does not chew the cud: it is unclean for you.
I am not sure my porcine friends would appreciate being called “unclean,” given the moral connotation of this translation of the Hebrew tamei. The Biblical Hebrew term is, however, a purely ritual category. Pigs are tamei, meaning not that they are hygienically or morally “dirty,” but that they, along with most of the animal kingdom, are unfit for Israelite consumption. The pig is unique in Parashat Shemini’s list of tamei mammals in that it fails the cud chewing, rather than the cleft hoof test, but there is nothing to suggest that the pig is some kind of super-treif.
It remains true that pork isn’t any more unkosher than shrimp, parrots, lizards, or rabbits, but over the centuries it has grown into a potent symbol, a kind of treif super-villain. In a sense pig/pork has become a Jewish symbolic food, whether one eats it or not.
Liel Leibovitz, a contributor to Tablet Magazine, makes this point in his discussion of a particular cured hazir product:
Bacon is not just treif. Bacon stands alone. Bacon is the final frontier, the last temptation of the kosher-keeper. . . No one who has gone kosher ever pines for lobster or craves shrimp, but bacon is a different story. Bacon defines Jewish food the way Voldemort defines Harry Potter; you can’t think of one without the other.
Liebovitz’s logic applies to all pig parts. The pig has become the quintessential non-Jewish, non-Kosher food— a food that in its own way is as powerful as a dietary identity marker as matzah or challah.
This has been true for a very long time. In his masterful, gigantic commentary on Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom notes: “The onset of the Iron Age in Canaan is marked by a precipitous drop in pig production; Israel has entered the scene. Three excavated sites however, turn out to be exceptions: Tel Migne, Tel Batash, and Ashkelon.” There are large deposits of pig bones at these sites. What is the difference? The inhabitants were likely Philistines rather than Israelites. At the very beginning of our history, who we were was tied up with our attitude toward this particular mammal.
Over time the prohibition of the pig grew into a repugnance for the pig, so much so that swine could be weaponized by our enemies. The Books of the Maccabees, in recounting Antiochus IV’s brutal attempt to destroy Judaism tells us that he ordered Jews to “sacrifice swine and other unclean animals” and includes horrific stories of Jews choosing martyrdom over eating pork.
The pig becomes a distillation of otherness, of un-Jewishness, of the unholy. Historically, we Jews have cured our pork with particularism, and perhaps at times with a dry rub of xenophobia, and then enjoyed it thoroughly by not eating it.
In so doing we may have diminished the power of kashrut. It is no great act of devotion to refrain from doing what you don’t want to do anyway. There are Jewish sources that view the pig with disgust, but I am in the camp of Eleazar ben Azariah who says in the Midrash collection Sifra: [O]ne should not say,”I have no desire to eat swine's flesh,” but rather should one say “I would like to eat it, but what can I do seeing that my God in Heaven has decreed against it.”
I have heard some of my fellow Jews here in Hong Kong express revulsion at the ubiquitousness of pork in the BBQ joints and markets of Hong Kong. I see the same sights and I think: But for the Torah go I.
For me, the pig is still a powerful symbolic food and my refraining from it and from the other foods the tradition labels as tamei gives me great spiritual sustenance. But as a Progressive Jew I cannot say that my way is the only appropriate Jewish way. The real treif for me is mindlessness. To paraphrase the Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss all foods are good to think. Like every other aspect of our tradition, the laws of kashrut deserve thoughtful consideration. Unexamined adherence is spiritually arid to me, as is ignorance, while violation out of spite seems immature. The most authentic, the most stringent hechsher will always be thought.