Commentary Magazine

A New Theory of Kashrut

One of the most memorable illustrations of the dialectical boldness that rabbinic literature could on occasion assume toward its own governing institutions is a statement of the 3rd-century sage, Rav, about the dietary prohibitions. Commenting on a phrase from Psalms (18:31), “the Lord’s utterance is pure,” Rav asserts: “The commandments were given only to purify people. For what difference does it make to the Holy One whether one slaughters from the throat or the nape? Or what difference does it make to Him whether one eats unclean or clean substances? It follows that the commandments were given only to purify people” (Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Shemini).

Rav’s daring is in his willingness to see the whole structure of dietary prohibitions as arbitrary. The more normal mental reflex of someone raised within the system of rabbinic Judaism would be to imagine the proscriptions and permissions to be somehow grounded in the absolute and essential nature of the things themselves: a pig is intrinsically an abominable thing, and God in the instructive mercy of His law has taken measures to protect us from such loathsomeness. Rav, by contrast, insists that what is clean and unclean is fundamentally a matter of definition. Once the system of definition has been granted, it serves as a regimen of spiritual discipline—presumably, as some later Jewish moralists would claim, because it involves delimitation and renunciation—through which man is purified, purged of his bestial dross, somehow elevated. The very term adopted in post-biblical Hebrew for the dietary laws, kashrut, would tend to support Rav’s notion of their conventional nature, for kasher does not mean clean or pure but fit, appropriate, suitable for a given purpose.

The dietary laws have played such an important role in determining the character of Jewish daily life, indeed of Jewish consciousness, and the intricate articulation of banned foods and culinary practices has set the Jews at such variance with surrounding cultures, that great intellectual energies have been expended by both hostile and sympathetic observers to explain the system. In broad terms, one can range the sundry reasons for the dietary laws that have been proposed over the centuries in three groups: pragmatic, symbolic, and therapeutic.

The pragmatic explanations assume that some concrete benefit was conferred or was meant to be conferred on those who respected the prohibitions. Apologists have fancied the notion that the dietary laws were a matter of hygiene, the Hebrew moral vision somehow accompanied by an intuitive Hebrew genius in the field of public health. This line of reasoning will not stand up under scrutiny. It is not even certain that ancient Near Eastern pigs were bearers of trichinosis, and in any case, it is by no means clear why a consumer of clean vegetables like a rabbit should pose a greater health hazard than a goat, with its appetite for refuse as well as for vegetation.

More “scientific” analysts have proposed that biblical man, as we might expect of someone in a primitive society, felt he was ingesting magical potencies and avoiding demonically contaminating substances by eating only the permitted foods. Such condescension toward the primitive mind, as contemporary anthropology has tended to argue convincingly, is quite unwarranted; and what is actually said about eating in the Bible suggests that the ancient Hebrews were on the whole probably less given to magical fantasies about their food than the customers of modern health-food stores. A more historically specific form of pragmatic explanation, which goes back at least as far as Maimonides, is that the banned animals had some particular association with the abominations of the surrounding pagan cults, so that the dietary laws served to insulate ancient Israel from idolatrous practices. Perhaps this may have been a motive in certain signal instances—Isaiah 66:17 gives the impression that there was some lurid pagan rite which involved the consumption of pigs, reptiles, and rats—but such an explanation surely cannot cover all the prohibited animals, from the pelican to the chameleon and the mole.

Finally, broadest of the pragmatic explanations and partly overlapping the anti-pagan line of thought, is the notion that the dietary laws were intended chiefly to separate Israel socially from all other nations. One can hardly deny that in the Diaspora kashrut has been a powerful agency of Jewish solidarity and of separation from the circumambient Gentile world, though there is little reflection in the Bible itself of the separatist consequence of dietary regulations (in the Joseph story, as a matter of fact, it is the Egyptians who will not permit themselves to dine with the Hebrews because what is eaten by the Hebrews is an abomination in Egyptian eyes). Though it is quite likely that the propagators of rabbinic Judaism fully appreciated the socially isolating effect of the dietary laws,1 there is not much evidence that this was the chief conscious purpose of the prohibitions, or the chief initial purpose.

The various attempts, then, to explain kashrut through some clear pragmatic relation between the Jews and their environment, whether physical, cultic, or social, have not been notably successful.

The therapeutic approach, which is essentially that of Rav, is scarcely more convincing. Regimens of discipline may arguably be thought of in the abstract as good for the soul, but in the test of experience it is hard to see that Muslims, Mormons, Hare-Krishnaites, and others who follow religious dietary codes are necessarily better people for it; and in any case, the therapeutic notion is too general to be in itself a satisfactory principle of explanation: if renunciation is good for us, why this particular system, why no fried squid, or kid seethed in its mother’s milk?

The traditional symbolic approach, on the other hand, would seem by contrast to err on the side of excessive specificity of explanation. The impulse here, beginning with Philo of Alexandria, who tried to rationalize Scripture through the supple Greek instrument of allegory, is to sublimate the gross and puzzling particularities of the dietary prohibitions—and of other biblical taboos as well—by assigning to them specific spiritual significations in an elaborate language that the stomach, as it were, is made to speak to the soul. (According to Philo, for example, fins and scales on fish are signs of endurance and self-control, the crawling belly of reptiles is an emblem of gross appetite. A little later, the Midrash Rabba will turn the sundry forbidden animals into symbols of the wicked empires that subjugated Israel.) It is obvious that any symbolic interpretation of these ancient catalogues of prohibitions entails enormous homiletic strain, but, oddly enough, a newfangled version of the symbolic approach has produced the most plausible view of how the whole dietary code functions as a central institution of biblical religion.



The symbolic approach was first persuasively redefined a decade ago by the British anthropologist Mary Douglas in her lucid study, Purity and Danger (1966). Now it has been extended in a challenging way by Jean Soler, a former cultural attaché to the French embassy in Israel, in “The Dietary Prohibitions of the Hebrews,” recently published in the New York Review of Books (June 14, 1979). Soler says in a note that he was unaware of Mrs. Douglas’s work when he wrote the essay in French in the early 70′s: some of his main conclusions are remarkably close to hers, but his essay is more wide-ranging and speculative than her chapter, “The Abominations of Leviticus”; in certain instances, it also forces the evidence as she is careful not to do.

The underlying perception shared by Mary Douglas and Jean Soler is that the dietary prohibitions are a kind of language, which is able, through a syntax of actions rather than of words, to order the world along the lines of a particular informing sense of reality. The source of this understanding of systems of taboos would seem to be the Structuralist anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, eclectically in the case of Mrs. Douglas, quite directly for Soler (the French title of his article is a proper emblem of his discipleship: Sémiotique de la nourriture dans la Bible). “Our ideas of dirt,” Mrs. Douglas observes with refreshing British directness in an introductory chapter, “express symbolic systems.” The catalogue of forbidden foods in Leviticus 11 is explicitly linked in the text with the idea of Israel’s being holy, even as God is holy, and so Mrs. Douglas quite sensibly construes the dietary rules as a symbolic system intended to express the concept of holiness, which, with attention to its biblical usages, she defines as “unity, integrity, perfection of the individual and of the kind.”

If this is both the divine reality and the human ideal, the animals we consume should accord as much as possible with that ideal. Mrs. Douglas concludes that, “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.” If one or more of the generic anatomical features of a particular class of animals is missing, the animal is considered unclean. Thus, the pig does not conform to the perfect model of the domesticated meat-animal in a pastoral culture because it is not a ruminant, though it has cloven hoofs. Amphibians and reptiles are the prime model of unclean creatures in this gastronomic language of the holy because they belong to more than one element and because they exhibit an improper means of locomotion for their elements, neither swimming nor walking but slithering and “swarming.”

Perhaps the only point where Mrs. Douglas’s analysis strays into implausibility is at the very end of her chapter on Leviticus, when she concludes that “the dietary laws would have been like the signs which at every turn inspired meditation on the oneness, purity, and completeness of God.” This is to my mind a little too “meditative” a view of eating practices, one which falls back on a characteristic excess of the traditional symbolic interpretations by assuming a very direct and unlikely psychological connection between the ingestive act and the spiritual reality under which it is subsumed. In this one respect, Jean Soler stands on safer ground, for what he suggests is not that the dietary rules can “translate out” into biblical theology but rather that the biblical concept of God and creation and the concept of dietary restrictions exhibit the same syntax, the same mindset, the same ontological assumptions.

What is particularly interesting about Soler’s approach to the code of clean and unclean animals is that he connects it both with the inferrable and stipulated dietary regimen of primeval history and with other biblical prohibitions regulating sexual, sartorial, and cultic conduct. He agrees with Mrs. Douglas about the need for unity and integrity in permitted things, observing that an animal with a blemish is prohibited just as a sexually maimed man is not allowed to offer a sacrifice. He develops at length a notion very similar to her central idea of taxonomic consistency, putting particular emphasis on the horror of the hybrid for the Hebrew imagination, whether it is an animal that seems to straddle two realms, a human transvestite, or even a fabric woven of linen and wool. This is, I think, a crucial perception about the way the minds of the biblical writers work.

In precisely this regard, the diametric contrast with the Greeks—a consideration not part of Soler’s argument—is instructive. Greek literature from Hesiod onward revels in monstrosity, savors the piquant hybrid character of man-god, man-beast, androgynous, and metamorphic figures. Biblical literature, preferring realms to be distinct and generic identities to be stable, virtually excludes such hybrids. Even in a mythological vestige like the story of the sons of God copulating with the daughters of man in Genesis 6, no concrete imagination of that crossbred progeny—the Nephilim or giants in the earth—is allowed to develop, and the whole shadowy memory of this non-monotheistic mingling of species is invoked with a recollection of God’s sharp displeasure over what occurred. Soler, in a similar vein, shrewdly observes that the decisive break between Judaism and Christianity came when the founders of Christianity chose to see in Jesus a God-man, for such a hybrid violated a basic assumption of the Hebrew imagination that had been expressed for over a millennium in everything from theology and narrative invention to social institutions and dietary laws.

Soler develops another suggestive implication of the principle of taxonomic consistency in arguing that biblical legislation strove to keep separate not only entities generically opposed but also those that exhibited a dangerous closeness. In this fashion, he can bracket together the biblical incest taboo with the enigmatic ban on cooking a kid in its mother’s milk, wittily observing: “You shall not put a mother and her son into the same pot, any more than into the same bed.” For this would violate the basic ordering principle which, as he has been strenuously arguing, lies behind all biblical thinking, on culinary and on other matters—the commitment to “upholding the separation between two classes or types of relationships.” For “everything belongs to one species only, one people, one sex, one category . . . one God.”

I am convinced that Soler has grasped something important about the distinctive conceptual system of classical Judaism. Indeed, though he does not attempt to deal with the rabbinic dietary code, it would splendidly confirm his central thesis, for its main generative mechanism is the proliferation of spheres of separation and separating devices. From the prohibition of a kid in its mother’s milk the rabbis extrapolate a global separation of meat from dairy foods, involving separate dishes and pots and pans for meat and dairy meals, and separate eating surfaces. If more than a sixty-fourth part of meat should accidentally fall into a pot of dairy food, or vice versa, the food must be discarded, for opposed realms have been mingled, the sustaining substance of mammalian life and the flesh of a slaughtered animal have been confounded, an ontological hybrid has been made. It seems to me, then, that in some respects Soler’s argument is profoundly right. But certain of his emphases also strike me as misleading, even a little disquieting, and I think these deserve reflection because they illustrate some of the dangers in generalizing about the “Hebrew mind,” a set of collective mental attributes which Soler in his final paragraph imagines operating in unbroken continuity from the Bible to modern Israel (where, one should remember, he served as a diplomat).



The first category of flaw in Soler’s analysis is seemingly minor but it ends up having large consequences in the ultimate implications of his argument, and that is, quite simply, his Structuralist tendency to tidy up uneven data in order to preserve the perfect neatness of the semiotic system he is describing. This tidying up is achieved either by rhetorical manipulation of the data or by small factual distortions of data inconvenient to his thesis. A signal instance of the former fallacy occurs near the beginning of his essay when he claims that circumcision, the Sabbath, and the dietary code all “fulfill the same function” because all involve a cut—“a cut on the male sex organ . . . , a cut in the regular course of days . . . , a cut in the continuum of the created animals.” And since in the current French view semiotic systems are nothing if not self-referential, Soler can construe these supposed cuts as an indication of how the whole symbolic apparatus produces meaning: “The cut is at the origin of differentiation and differentiation is the prerequisite of signification.”

Now, this is plain nonsense because the cut that supposedly unites the three laws exists only in Soler’s language of description. One could produce very different conclusions—indeed, almost any conclusions one wanted—by deciding to describe circumcision not as a cut but as an impairment, a wound, a transformation, a cosmetic improvement, an uncovering, and then applying that term metaphorically to the Sabbath and the dietary laws. The point is not merely that Soler is mistaken in a particular interpretative maneuver, which, after all, does not really undermine his main thesis, but that he gives the impression of a perfect symbolic consistency, a uniform mental set, inhering in the biblical laws, when the cultural facts of the matter may be rather more variegated and even contradictory. Elsewhere, for example, he makes a great deal of the Hebrews’ supposed uneasiness about fermentation—hence the sanctity of unleavened bread—explaining it as an ontological preference for things in their natural state, unaltered (or, as he says, “unblemished”) by processes of transformation. But if this is really so, why enjoin circumcision? The great pitfall in this rhetorical superimposition of consistent symbolism on diverse cultural data is that it is a game anyone can play and, with enough ingenuity, anyone can win.

Other bothersome data resist rhetorical manipulation and so must be ignored or altered in order to preserve the symmetry of the system. Thus, following the principle of appropriate mode of locomotion for the permitted animals, Soler claims that “If a bird has wings but does not fly . . ., it is unclean,” overlooking the egregious exception of the chicken, nowhere prohibited in the biblical code and destined one day to become the mainstay of kosher cuisine. In the next breath, hewing to the logic of his analysis rather than to the facts, Soler asserts that if a bird “has wings and can fly but spends most of its time in the water instead of living in the air, it is unclean,” casting a gratuitous shadow of suspicion on the permissibility of the perfectly kosher duck. To illustrate this untenable point, Soler then cites the heron and the pelican, which are in fact banned in Leviticus 11, and the swan, which is not mentioned in the biblical text. Admittedly, the identification of many zoological terms in the Bible is far from certain, but if there is any likely candidate for swan it would be the barburim of 1 Kings 5:3, which are part of King Solomon’s diet (alternately, that term might refer to a kind of goose, still another exception to the Soler-Douglas principle of appropriate locomotion). In any case, the swan may have been a rara avis in the Jewish menu but it was a distinctly permissible one, even figuring in a popular Sabbath hymn (Yom Zeh Mekhubad) as the first element in an ideal Sabbath feast along with quail and fish. Such exceptions do not invalidate the general perception that the dietary prohibitions are informed by a predisposition to affirm taxonomic order in the created world, but any cultural system is likely to exhibit anomalies, inconsistencies, haphazardly determined elements—to be governed, in other words, by a predominant syntax but not by an inviolable grammar.



My objections to these incidental errors would be mere quibbles were it not for the fact that by making the logic of the system seem perfectly regular and consistent in all instances, Soler projects a model of the Hebrew mind that is utterly inexorable and automatic in its adherence to the principle of preserving sharp distinctions. The last sentence of his essay is particularly troubling in this regard: “This [Mosaic] logic, which sets up its terms in contrasting pairs and lives by the rule of refusing all that is hybrid, mixed, or arrived at by synthesis and compromise, can be seen in action to this day in Israel, and not only in its cuisine.”

If Soler, as a French diplomat formerly stationed in Israel, intends this as a casual concluding witticism, it is in singularly bad taste. The questionable semantic slide from the rejection of hybrids to the rejection of synthesis and compromise should be apparent to anyone who thinks about the meanings of words, and it vividly illustrates the danger of proposing confident paradigms of the Hebrew mind. Was it the Mosaic disinclination to compromise that led the Israelis to accept the partition of Palestine in 1947 even as it was being vehemently rejected by every Arab state? Does the biblical heritage somehow make the Israelis demonstrably more unbending than the Arabs, the Russians, the Germans, the French? To look at the matter historically, it is hard to see how the Talmud—so much more decisive than the Bible in the shaping of a Jewish mentality—with its commitment to subtle dialectical analysis, fits into this notion of avoiding synthesis and of thinking in neat binary oppositions; and Soler’s categorization is even less appropriate for the kabbalistic tradition, enamored as it is of paradox and multiple meanings.

The Bible itself, moreover, is by no means so singleminded as Soler would have us think in its dedication to taxonomic clarity. If biblical creation, as both he and Mary Douglas contend, is neatly hierarchical, sharply defining all creatures according to their kind, that generalization holds much better for the ordered choreography of Genesis 1 than for the version of creation given in Genesis 2-3, which centers on man and is by contrast dynamic, unstable, precarious. The Bible in fact sets up a strong tension, beginning with these three initial chapters, between cosmogony, and its mirroring in ritual, on the one hand, and psychology, history, and moral and political behavior on the other hand. The former is indeed a realm of orderly progression and firm demarcation; the latter sphere is repeatedly characterized by uncertainty, unpredictable reversals, ambiguity, imponderability. One can hardly discount the fact that among all ancient writers it was the biblical authors who developed an elaborate narrative technique for suggesting the multiplicity and ambiguity of motives and feelings,2 and a culture’s conventions for the literary presentation of human character are surely as valid a guide to its ways of thinking about reality as its regulations regarding clean and unclean animals.



If Soler’s admirably useful proposals on the mechanisms of the Hebrew mind lend themselves to abuse because he makes them too ubiquitous, there is one aspect of his approach to the dietary code that suffers not through a simplification of data but through interpretative overreach. It is what I would consider a grave error connected with one of his most important perceptions—that there is an implicit vegetarian bias in the biblical attitude toward food, even as various kinds of meat are permitted. Very briefly, the vegetarian argument runs as follows: In the ideal state of the garden, Adam and Eve consume only growing things. After the deluge, meat is explicitly permitted to the offspring of Noah, but with an emphatic ban on ingesting the blood together with the meat; so that the draining of the blood, a substance the text powerfully equates with the life of the animal, is a kind of symbolic gesture in the direction of a vegetarianism no longer feasible because of man’s imperfect nature, his inability to free himself entirely from his own predatory impulses. In the wilderness narratives, the Israelite fondness for meat is placed in considerable disrepute; and the dietary prohibitions themselves are an elaborate set of limitations on carnivorous activity: if man insists on eating meat, he must be reminded at every turn that the permission has been granted grudgingly, with whole categories of the animal kingdom closed off to him.

Now, this argument about an aspiration to prelapsarian vegetarianism in the dietary code has been made before—perhaps most notably in recent times by Rav Kook, the Orthodox mystic and chief rabbi of Israel, who embraced the vegetarian ideal—but not with the theological interpretation that Soler gives it. Locked into his Structuralist notion of binary oppositions, Soler conceives the vegetarian tendency in biblical thinking as a legislation of the difference between man and God. Man should have only limited access to the flesh of living creatures because that is God’s prerogative. “God’s [foods] are the living beings, which in the form of sacrifices (either human victims, of which Abraham’s sacrifice represents a relic, or sacrificial animals) serve as his ‘nourishment,’ according to the Bible.”

The last phrase here, with those rather shifty quotation marks around “nourishment,” creates the impression that the Bible itself uses such a term to describe sacrifices, but in fact the metaphor of nourishment is entirely the writer’s invention, and the whole notion of a carnivorous Hebrew God can be derived only by a sweeping disregard of textual evidence and historical chronology. A French Structuralist should hardly need to be reminded that a single signifier can point to very different things being signified, depending on context and on the cultural code in which it operates. The pagan practice of animal sacrifice was taken over by ancient Israel, for at that time and place any other mode of worship was scarcely imaginable, but the meaning of animal sacrifice, as the Israeli Bible scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann cogently argued a generation ago, was radically transformed. The familiar ancient Near Eastern idea that man was feeding the gods was rigorously eliminated, an accomplished fact readily corroborated by an inspection of the relevant biblical texts. As far back as the 8th century B.C.E., when Isaiah thundered against the outrage of people offering sacrifice with figuratively bloody hands, it did not even occur to him to counter any popular belief (which surely would have been grist for his satiric mill) that the sacrifices were providing nourishment to God. Instead, he simply pillories the idea that the sacrificial cult is a religiously efficacious system independent of morality, and reminds his audience that morality is God’s primary concern.

Soler’s reference to human sacrifice is an even grosser confusion of pre-monotheistic practices and assumptions with those of the Bible. The main point about the binding of Isaac is that it is a divinely averted sacrifice: whatever troubling memories of archaic rites may echo in the story, the meaning of its denouement is that for the God of Abraham, human sacrifice is to be replaced by animal sacrifice, Isaac on the altar by the ram caught in the thicket. The Hebrew Bible is notoriously rich in its vocabulary of abomination (half a dozen potent synonyms come to mind), so it may be a little risky to try to identify particular practices that are abominated with special intensity. Nevertheless, there are some indications that the two kinds of transgressions which seemed most loathsome to the biblical legislators and narrators, far more than the consumption of any unclean animal, were human sacrifices and what used to be called unnatural sexual acts. The strength of feeling against incest, homosexuality, and bestiality can be plausibly explained in Soler’s terms because these acts flagrantly involve human bodies and feelings in a confusion of identities and a distortion of the dividing lines between natural kinds—male and female, human and animal. The horror of human sacrifice, almost always specified as the immolation of one’s own son or daughter, would appear to derive from another principle: that the boon of life granted to every human being is precious, that it confers on one a set of solemn obligations to preserve life, and therefore that the ultimate abomination is to destroy in the name of service to a divinity the life one has produced, reversing procreation through murder.

Let me take this notion back to vegetarianism, for what it begins to suggest is that la pensée biblique does not express a single monolithic logic but may reflect at least two complementary, perhaps sometimes competing, logics, with specified laws or series of laws often “overdetermined” by both. If God looks askance at man’s carnivorous impulse, it is not to draw a zone of difference between man and God but, quite to the contrary, because God wants man to emulate Him. The Bible begins by showing God performing a magisterial series of acts of creation and recognizing that each one of them is good. Man is then enjoined to exercise mastery over the world and to procreate: just as God makes life, man’s obligation is to make more life, within the limits of his natural means. One of God’s notable attributes as the omnipotent, eternal maker of life is that He does not consume life—Soler’s confusion here of Israelite faith with Canaanite religion is a cardinal error. Man, of course, as a created being needs material food to sustain himself, but if he could have continued in his Edenic state, he would have consumed only fruits and vegetables, excluding the destruction of sentient life from his regimen of survival, in harmonious correspondence to his Creator.

This notion of the preservation and enhancement of life as it is articulated in the Bible is by no means a sentimental one. It may seem to accord comfortably with our own ecological or humanitarian preferences, but as a cultural logic it springs from an ultimately imponderable axiom, as does the logic of differentiation expounded by Soler and Mrs. Douglas. For just as there is no way of explaining why the separation of species should be intrinsically preferable to their intermingling, one cannot finally explain why life should be thought of as intrinsically good, a property to be reproduced and in normal peaceful circumstances to be held inviolate. Quite a few cultures before and since have thought otherwise, and the dissemination in so many societies of practices like infanticide, ritual murder, human sacrifice, geronticide, and suicide suggests that very different conclusions could be drawn by civilized peoples about what attitude to adopt toward this trying, inscrutable, evanescent experience of life to which we are born and which is born all around us.



The dietary prohibitions, then, may well express a sense for the necessity of taxonomic order in the world, built on a principle of firm differentiation. But far from differentiating man from God, they are intended to lead man into the greatest possible resemblance to Him. This is a point the biblical lawmaker insists on through the emphatic repetition of a connecting key term at the beginning of his formal conclusion to the dietary code in Leviticus 11: “For I am the Lord your God; you shall make yourselves holy and be holy, for I am holy; and you shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls upon the earth. For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God, and you shall be holy, for I am holy.” To the static qualities of unity, integrity, and generic perfection that Mrs. Douglas adduces as explanations of the meaning of holiness I should like to add one dynamic attribute: vitalism. God is a living God and His commandments, as the Bible tells us again and again, confer life on those who observe them.

God’s essential nature as a sustainer of life does call into question our human propensity, or perhaps virtual necessity, to live off other life. But if the authors of the Levitical code cast even a fleeting glance at the possibility of a vegetarian solution, they must have realized it would be popularly unacceptable and perhaps nutritionally and economically imprudent. For an unfeasible renunciation, then, they substituted an elaborate system of restriction.

With regard to the criteria of restriction, I think that Mrs. Douglas and Soler are by and large right. Exponents of a culture that tended to see the world in securely defined hierarchies, the biblical legislators limited edibility chiefly to those creatures that seemed to fit safely into the categories of classification, excluding whatever had the look of indeterminacy or amorphousness, and whichever creatures of land and air manifestly preyed on other creatures—in sum, everything in the zoological realm that seemed in any way dissonant with the principle of ordered, shaped creation, everything that roused dim uneasy recollections of the primordial chaos and void out of which God called the world into being.

In this connection, the initially puzzling invocation of the exodus from Egypt at the end of the dietary code is thematically apt. The parallel between the exodus and the creation will become a fixed liturgical motif. Out of a shapeless swarm of slaves—who, pointedly, yearn nostalgically for the fleshpots of Egypt—God gave Israel the coherence and the identity of a covenanted people. The process of liberation begins with the mass escape from the Egyptian slavemasters, but it is completed only with the acceptance of the Law. Both the world and the nation come into being through the establishment of lawful hierarchy. The Hebrew aspiration to resemble God by making man holy is a staggering spiritual project, for the object of emulation is, after all, ultimately unknowable; at best, only certain of His attributes can be inferred from the revelations He has vouchsafed. Perhaps that is why the system of laws through which holiness is to be realized must be in many respects enigmatic, proceeding with a logic that is often hidden and sometimes ungraspable.

Hebrew social and moral legislation, of course, has its own self-evident rationale, even in cases where the biblical assumptions may offend modern sensibilities. But in regard to the laws regulating diet, cult, dress, and sex, it is an advance in understanding to see them, as Jean Soler and Mary Douglas have proposed, not primarily as a response to pragmatic pressures of the environment or as direct, quasi-allegorical expressions of spiritual concepts but as interrelated, internally coherent systems for ordering the world. The one great danger in this way of conceiving the function and meaning of the traditional laws is the temptation to reduce all biblical injunctions—and implicitly, their post-biblical extensions as well—to a single elegant common denominator. The tradition itself is more various, more interestingly contradictory than that.



Clearly, there are recurrent concpetual themes in the Bible and also certain suggestive if uneven lines of continuity between the biblical world and the successive historical stages of later Jewish life. But what should be avoided at all costs is to reintroduce ethnic stereotypes into serious intellectual discourse by constructing in the name of semiotic analysis a monolithic Hebrew mind that dominates the actions of Jews from Leviticus to the Likud. The Jewish historical experience through nearly three and a half millennia has surely exhibited more than a single consistent strategy for ordering reality: indeed, the persistent polyphony of Jewish culture may ultimately be one of the secrets of this peculiar people’s survival.


1 Some commentators on Rav's statement prefer to construe the verb stem srp not as “to purify” [people] but as its homonym, “to bind [people] together.”

2 I have recently tried to show in these pages how that technique works in “Character in the Bible,” October 1978.

About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.