First, here’s the answer to the bonus question from two weeks ago:
Which 7 verses in the Shabbat Nachamu haftarah, Isaiah 40:1-26 occur in Handel’s Messiah? Answer: 1-4, 5, 9, and 11
The focus of this week’s Torah portion is making the Israelites into a cohesive nation, separate and distinct from their soon-to-be neighbors.
Moses begins bluntly. He is presenting them with a choice: if they obey the Lord, the will be blessed, and if they don’t, they will be cursed. In a later portion, we’ll read the series of blessings and curses to be proclaimed on Mount Gerizim and on Mount Ebal. For now, note that the worst form of disobedience is to follow other gods.
Sacrifices are to be offered only at specified sites. A new concession is that the people can now eat not only the meat of the offerings, but meat anytime, as they wish, as long as they don’t eat the blood. This is the source of the kashering process, in which raw meat from a properly slaughtered, kosher animal is soaked in water and covered with coarse salt to draw out blood. I used to do this myself, once upon a time.
The people are forbidden to tamper with the text of the Law by adding or subtracting (rabbinical interpretation is not considered tampering). They are also warned against false prophets, even those from their own families. Then we get into more down-to-earth activities: what animals you can and cannot eat, tithing, the sabbatical year, freeing Hebrew slaves (and what to do with one who doesn’t want to be free), sanctifying the firstborn, and observing the harvest festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot). The holiday instructions emphasize what the individual Israelites do themselves, rather than the details of the sacrifices.
One of the most effective ways to develop group cohesion and simultaneously create a barrier to the outside is through food. Chapter 14 contains lists of animals, birds, and fish that are fit (kosher) or unfit to eat. There are a few general rules. For example, animals that chew the cud and have split hooves and fish with fins and scales are okay; swarming, flying creatures and animal carcasses (i.e., not ritually slaughtered) are not; and don’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk (the laws about separating dairy and meat derive from this). We are told all this is part of enabling the Israelites to be holy; the command against consuming blood because blood is life (12:23-25) is understandable in this context. But we are not told explicitly while certain species are “abominations.”
There have been many theories over the millennia concerning the laws of kashrut, several of which are summarized in Purity and Danger by Mary T. Douglas, such as health reasons (no – the Israelites saw neighbors eating unkosher foods quite happily), adoption of abomination of creeping things may have been taken from pork and scaleless fish would induce gluttony (Philo), an aid to discipline, and symbolism assigned to animal classes (e.g., Stein on Philo, p. 48, “Fish with fins and scales, admitted by the law, symbolise endurance and self-control, whilst the forbidden ones are swept away by the current, unable to resist the force of the stream.”). Of course, there have always been those who say it’s all arbitrary. But the degree of detail in the text suggests otherwise.
The goal is holiness. As Douglas wrote (pp. 54-6), “Holiness means keeping distinct the categories of creation. It therefore involves correct definition, discrimination and order. …To be holy is to be whole, to be one; holiness is unity, integrity, perfection of the individual and of the kind…. But in general the underlying principle of cleanness in animals is that they shall conform fully to their class. Those species are unclean which are imperfect members of their class, or whose class itself confounds the general scheme of the world. To grasp this scheme we need to go back to Genesis and the creation” when the universe was put in order by separation into three elements: firmament, earth, and water. Accordingly, the clean species are those equipped for the correct type of locomotion in one of these elements to move within one of these three: two-legged birds fly with wings in the sky, scaly fish swim with fins in the water, four-legged animals hop, jump, and walk on land. [For more clarity, you might want to read Chapter 3 of Douglas.] In any event, it is clear how such laws not only put barriers between the Israelites and their neighbors, but continually remind Israelites, and Jews who keep kosher today, of the complexities of their identity.
Jewish vs Goyish (selections)
By WARREN BOROSON February 27, 2014
Lenny Bruce had a shtick in which he classified items into those that just “felt” Jewish versus Goyish. I found a more recent version that I include here merely for sociological consideration.
Judges are Jewish; juries are Goyish
Packing up all the mini hotel shampoos is Jewish; using them is Goyish
Ordering family style is Jewish; ordering ‘a la carte’ is Goyish
Cruises are Jewish; walking tours are Goyish
Grabbing lox from the back of the buffet first is Jewish; grabbing melon from the front is Goyish
Picking from your mate’s plate is Jewish; not wanting even a “little taste” is Goyish
Fruitcake is Goyish; fruit and cake is Jewish
Reading “how-to” books is Goyish; writing “how-to” books is Jewish
ESPN is Goyish; PBS is Jewish
West Coast is Goyish; East Coast is Jewish
Lunch meat is Goyish; deli is Jewish
White bread is Goyish; rye is Jewish
“Youngsters” are Goyish; “kids” are Jewish
Sitting quietly to get served is Goyish: standing and waving one’s hands is Jewish
Beer is Goyish; wine is Jewish
Ham sandwiches are Goyish; corned beef on rye is Jewish
White sox are Goyish; no sox are Jewish
Snowmobiling is Goyish; skiing is Jewish
Doing Landscaping is Goyish; hiring a Landscaper is Jewish
Frizzy hair is Jewish; stick straight flat hair is Goyish
A party that revolves around the buffet table is Jewish; a party that revolves around the bar is Goyish
MAKING LISTS OF WHAT’S JEWISH & WHAT’S NOT IS VERY JEWISH.
From Jews and Humor, ed. L. J. Greenspan, p. 33. Oldie but goodie.
Moses is standing at Sinai and God says to him, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses asks, “So are you saying that we shouldn’t eat milk and meat together?”
God replies a little impatiently, “I said: You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses, still puzzled, says, “Do you want us to wait six hours after a meat meal before eating dairy foods? Is that what you mean?
God. A bit more impatiently this time, reiterates, “I said: You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses asks again, “Wait. You want us to use separate table cloths for meat meals and dairy meals?”
God replies with resignation, “You know what? Have it your way.”
Sunday School Humor
The Sunday school teacher was carefully explaining the story of Elijah the Prophet and the false prophets of Baal. She explained how Elijah built the altar, put wood upon it, cut the cattle in pieces and laid it upon the altar. And then Elijah commanded the people of God to fill four barrels of water and pour it over the altar. He had them do this four times.
“Now, said the teacher, “can anyone in the class tell me why the Lord would have Elijah pour water over the cattle on the altar?”
A little girl in the back of the room raised her hand with great enthusiasm. “To make the gravy.”
Unlike a drop of water which loses its identity when it joins the ocean, man does not lose his being in the society in which he lives. Man’s life is independent. He is born not for the development of the society alone, but for the development of his self. B. R. Ambedkar
Food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, craving and identity. Jonathan Safran Foer
We don’t need a melting pot in this country, folks. We need a salad bowl. In a salad bowl, you put in the different things. You want the vegetables – the lettuce, the cucumbers, the onions, the green peppers – to maintain their identity. You appreciate differences. Jane Elliot
It’s bad timing, but a lot of kids become teenagers just as their parents are hitting their mid-life crisis. So everybody’s miserable and confused and seeking that new sense of identity. Laurie Halse Anderson
Food, in the end, in our own tradition, is something holy. It’s not about nutrients and calories. It’s about sharing. It’s about honesty. It’s about identity. Louise Fresco