September 16, 2011
My daughter, Miriam, is taking a food policy class as part of her MPA program at NYU. I just reviewed her most recent paper which calls for theUnited Statesto add its signature to the world food treaty, which says that access to adequate nutrition is a basic human right. When I reviewed the list of forbidden foods listed in the Book of Deuteronomy, from which our Torah portion comes, I remembered a discussion from years ago about the discovery of what some called a “kosher pig.” Have you ever heard of a “kosher pig?” The animal in question is called the babirusa, meaning “deer pig” in Indonesian. This pig like animal is an inhabitant of the forests of Indonesia. While the babirusa has cleft hooves, the tusks of a wild boar and the appearance of a domesticated pig, it has, unlike the pig or boar, an extra stomach that enables it to eat leaves, roots, and berries. Officials thought that this extra stomach might make the animal an efficient and inexpensive meat producer for the starving of the world. Animals that have this extra stomach, like sheep, chew their cud and thereby digest and gain nutritional value from fibrous foods such as grass. Animals without this extra stomach, like pigs, can only digest more expensive feed grains, like corn. The babirusa would not compete with humans for food and would be an inexpensive source of meat.
In reviewing the recent literature, I found that the prospective domestication of the kosher pig was not grounded in reality. In fact, the babirusa is an endangered species whose native habitat is being diminished and who is being hunted to near extinction. Babirusas are being raised in zoos all around the world in an attempt to maintain the species. Recent investigation has found that the babirusa does not chew its cud, so, like its cousin the pig, it is not kosher. So do not expect to go to your favorite deli and order a babirusa on rye with cole slaw and a pickle.
This discussion of the babirusa led me to ask the question, “Why is the pig not kosher? Why did our ancestors prohibit our eating the flesh of the swine as they did in Deuteronomy 14:8? I thought an explanation of this practice might be worthwhile to discuss on this Erev Shabbat.
There is archaeological evidence that the pig was domesticated and eaten by the inhabitants ofCanaanbefore the Israelite conquest. It was also offered as a sacrifice in idolatrous worship, provoking a protest from the prophet Isaiah (66:3) who said that those who eat the flesh of the swine will come to an untimely end. Jews were not the only ones to refrain from eating pork. The ancient Egyptians and Sidonians refrained from eating pig, as do the Muslims of today. This abhorrence of the pig was later reinforced by the Seleucids and Romans who tested the loyalty of Jews by forcing them to eat the flesh of the pig and to watch pigs being sacrificed on the altar in the Temple. It is no wonder that we refrained from eating pig as it was associated with idolatrous practices and the persecution of our people.
As time went on, the reasons for the prohibition of pork were forgotten. Maimonides wrote in the 12th century that pork was forbidden for health reasons. This was disputed by other authorities. Isaac Abravanel ofSpain wrote, “God forbid that I should believe the reason for forbidden foods is medicinal! Were it so, the Book of God’s law would be in the same class as any of the minor medical books. Furthermore, we see that people who eat pork are alive and healthy to this very day. The Law of God did not come to heal bodies and seek their material welfare but to seek the health of the soul and cure its illness.”
The Jewish Tradition regards the dietary laws as a discipline in holiness, a spiritual discipline imposed on a biological activity. Our table is seen not merely as a place where food is consumed but as a mikdash me’at, a miniature sanctuary. Eating becomes a religious act, a form of worship, with our tables becoming an altar to God. It is not a coincidence that immediately following the repetition of the dietary laws in the Torah comes the phrase, “You shall be holy for I the Lord am holy.”
The rabbis have suggested that the dietary laws have as their main purpose the teaching of reverence for life. The eating of meat has always been problematic to Judaism even while it has accepted the necessity of it. The act of eating meat was surrounded by regulations which would help the consumer become more sensitive to the life of the animal. For us, the eating of meat is a concession to human weakness. Vegetarianism is for us the highest level of holiness.
In the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, Reform rabbis repudiated the laws of kashrut by saying they “are foreign to our present mental and physical spiritual state.” Yet despite this rejection, the dietary laws are observed in some form by most Reform congregations, including this one. We do not allow pork or shell fish to be brought into the building. Reform Judaism encourages us to choose a level of kashrut that is meaningful and appropriate for each one of us as we strive to create homes filled with reverence for God and Torah and to consider if keeping kosher adds a sense of kedushah, holiness, to our lives.
The apex of kashrut was recently developed by rabbis in the Conservative movement. This new standard has also been adopted by the Union of Reform Judaism. The hecksher tsedek, or kosher certification for justice, is as concerned about the treatment of workers and animals in meat packing plants as it is about the ritual slaughtering of the meat. Starting this year, the Conservative movement has created the Magen Tsedek, the ethical certification—literally a seal of justice, which will be able to be earned by kosher-certified producers that demonstrate good labor, environmental and animal welfare practices. As its mission statement reads, “The mission of Magen Tzedek is to bring the Jewish commitment to ethics and social justice directly into the marketplace…and the home. The Commission’s seal of approval, the Magen Tzedek, will help assure consumers that kosher food products were produced in keeping with the highest possible Jewish ethical values and ideals for social justice in the area of labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity. The Magen Tzedek, the world’s first Jewish ethical certification seal, synthesizes the aspirations of a burgeoning international movement for sustainable, responsible consumption and promotes increased sensitivity to the vast and complex web of global relationships that bring food to our tables.”
Even if we do not keep kosher, we should take the Magen Tzedek seriously. How can a product be truly kosher if those workers who produce it are mistreated and the animals from which it is made are treated cruelly? We should start looking for the Magen Tzedek on the products we buy. Then we will know that we are contributing the store of righteousness in this world. While we cannot yet eat “kosher pig,” we can keep an ethical and environmentally sound kashrut.
Amen and Shabbat Shalom