To the Editor:
In his excellent article, “Forbidden Foods” [January], Erich Isaac writes: “The Jew today . . . has much difficulty in accepting the dietary laws.” Not only today does this hold true. There are intimations in Jewish literature that he had difficulty with them in the presumably more pious past as well. A significant example of this is Rashi’s comment on Lamentations 1:21. On the words, “For Thou hast done it,” he writes: “Thou [God], art the cause for their [the non-Jews'] hatred of me [Israel], because Thou hast made me to keep aloof from eating and drinking and intermarrying with them. If I had intermarried with them, then they would have had compassion upon me and upon their daughters’ children.” This rather surprising affirmation that the dietary laws and the prohibition against intermarriage are the cause of Jewish suffering is in part a restatement of a far earlier homily in Lamentations Rabba on the same verse.
One gets the impression that the old rabbis were attempting to counter a popular reluctance to abide by the dietary laws when they argued that these injunctions serve as a means of inculcating self-restraint or attaining self-purification or as an index of the Jew’s readiness to obey God’s commands, however irrational these may seem. The rabbis even went so far as to suggest that the observant Jew was not completely deprived of a taste of the forbidden foods, since a principle of compensation mitigates the rigor of the prohibitions. For example, they said that while the ischiatic nerve is prohibited in beasts, it is permitted in fowl. Though the flesh of swine is forbidden, the flesh of the shibbuta, which tastes like pork, is permitted. (The millet may be meant, or a fish called by Pinay the porcus marinus). . . .
The rabbis were also unhappily aware that even the most scrupulous adherence to the dietary laws does not prevent overindulgence in eating and drinking. Those who ignored the ascetic implications of kashruth met with stern reproof. The Talmud admonishes the Jew to sanctify himself even in that which is permitted to him (Yebamoth 20a), and Nachmanides (1195?-1270) denounces the glutton who gorges himself with kosher viands as a “churl by license of the Torah.”
(Rabbi) A. Stanley Dreyfus
Union Temple of Brooklyn
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
. . . Since the word kosher and its variations occurs in the Books of Esther and Ecclesiastes only, both of which are . . . of comparatively late origin, the reader has a perfect right to refuse to share Mr. Isaac’s amazement that this word does not occur in the Pentateuch in conjunction with the food laws. On the other hand, the word trefa, which means in biblical Hebrew “lacerated (by a wild beast),” denotes in the Talmud a clean animal with any organic defect and in rabbinical literature—forbidden food. This, however, is a question of semantics and has no bearing upon the food laws as such.
Mr. Isaac creates, whether advertently or otherwise, the impression that the Bible singled out the pig as inordinately abominable, but in fact the pig shares this dubious honor with the camel, the hare, and the coney, each of which lacks either one or the other of the two things that signify the clean animal, namely, the chewing of the cud and the divided hoof. Isaiah, in Chapters 65 and 66, does single out the pig and its blood as a special abomination, but he is apparently alluding to a well-known pagan ritual that involved sacrificing swine and mice in gardens and eating them among the graves and in the vaults. Since, however, the Pentateuch puts the pig on the same level with the camel, the newfangled theory that the conquering nomads, who undoubtedly ate camel’s meat, transferred their disdain for the peasants onto their pigs only is but a figment of the anthropologists’ imagination. . . .
I wonder, further, where Mr. Isaac obtained the information that the rabbis prohibited the entire hindquarter of kosher animals? Has he never heard of the former experts in the larger Jewish communities of Eastern Europe who removed the sciatic nerve, the large blood-filled veins, and the non-kosher suet from the hindquarter that was then sold as kosher meat? This practice has since been abandoned because of the waste, expense, and other practical reasons involved, and not because it is difficult to remove the blood from that part of the body. According to rabbinical law, blood that cannot be removed is kosher if it has never been separated from the meat.
Contrary to the attitude of extreme rationalists and mystics, the Bible was never intended as a manual for philosophers, medics, and miracle-workers, but as a guide for every man in his relation to his Maker, his fellow man, and Creation in general. Since the Bible was not created in a vacuum, it absorbed some older traditions which seemed at the time not to be out of harmony with the monotheistic concept of the universe, but rejected others that seemed even then silly, superstitious, and therefore—abominable. If some biblical injunctions happen to coincide with the laws of hygiene, they do so accidentally only, because the Bible’s primary objective was man’s ethical and civilized behavior. Do not commit incest, do not use false weights and measures, and do not eat rats, because such actions are unethical, uncivilized, ugly, and contaminate the soul. Do not practice idolatry because it is infantile and leads to other practices that are abominable. . . . Believing that the violations of God’s laws could only lead to moral decay and social chaos, the sages expanded them in such a manner as to avoid temptation to violate them. . . . Had Judea retained its political independence, the future sages would surely have modified many laws, but once the central authority disintegrated, those who took its place were either cowards or fanatical incompetents who felt that it was safer to prohibit than to permit. It seems, therefore, quite useless to look for a method in their madness. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
I have several times observed a loose use of the word dogma in COMMENTARY, e.g. in Erich Isaac’s article, where he refers to “Christian dogma” in comparing Christian and Jewish views of animals. At least in Catholic theology, this is a technical word. Any standard textbook will explain that a dogma is a truth revealed by God and infallibly taught as such by the Church.
There are very few dogmas in Catholicism although there are, of course, a great number of theological, and even more philosophical, opinions held by Catholics as individuals. The teaching about the nature of animals, to which Erich Isaac referred, would be a good example of something that is philosophical opinion and very far from being the Christian dogma that he says it is.
(Reverend) Vincent A. Brown
Church of St. Clement Pope
South Ozone Park, New York
Mr. Isaac writes:
May I state for the record that I am not amazed at the lateness of kashruth. I am somewhat startled however by Mr. Wurmberg’s letter. Unlike Mr. Wurmberg, I believe the semantic field of a word is important. “Christianity” as a common and widely used term is a modern word, and the word corresponds to a new world picture and self-image of Christians. Similarly, the point with kashruth as a late term is that it came to designate a way of life.
I didn’t intend to overstress the pig question, and in my opinion the article does not do so. As for the hindquarter, I can only refer. Mr. Wurmberg to the weight of responsa which were unfavorable to his “porshing” experts. In recent times rabbis came out strongly against it. I am surprised that while he was about it Mr. Wurmberg neglected to point out that observant Sephardic, Yemenite, and other non-Eastern European Jews eat hindquarter meat.
I argued against the theories of nomadic or hygienic origin of the prohibitions: so apparently does Mr. Wurmberg. I am reminded of a letter the “Wormser rabbi,” Chaim Yair Bacharach, wrote to a questioner to discourage Wurmbergian displays: “Through such a knowledge the young man will also be able to acquire esteem and fame, when he will impress the audience by his explanations and interpretations, or when . . . he will make a loud impromptu comment and show his knowledge. Such a kind of erudition can also be profitable for him because he can in this way acquire the reputation of being a Hebrew scholar, and thus the chance to get a wife and fortune.”
In reference to Father Brown’s letter, I should have said “doctrine” instead of dogma in view of the technical meaning dogma has acquired in the modern Roman Catholic Church. But if my term was misleading, Father Brown’s characterization of the teaching on animals as simply philosophical opinion held by some individuals is even more so. The Church’s teaching on contraception is not dogma, but that has not prevented it from being authoritative and binding upon Catholics.