I’ve been on vacation seeing family this week and haven’t had time to think, much less write any blog posts. But I’ve read a couple of books worth sharing. One is a teeny (literally, about the size of a kitchen sponge) paperback with two essays about the Israeli-Palestionian conflict by Amos Oz, called “How to Cure a Fanatic.” Read it!! Oz is one of the smartest, most thoughtful people on this stuff and he writes so clearly and conversationally.
The other is “The Bible: A Biography,” by Karen Armstrong, which is not really about the Bible so much as about how people have read the Bible over the past 2500 years — how different thinkers in different eras have edited, added, interpreted, reinterpreted, and struggled to figure out how to deal with its inconsistencies.
Armstrong, a former nun, makes a case that literal readings of the Bible — the idea that the Bible is literal rather than allegorical truth — are a relatively new phenomenon of the past 100 years.
There’s a lot that could be said about this and I think I might need to re-read it. But one small, completely offhand and tangential point struck me — where Armstrong was writing about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE and its possible connection to kashrut (keeping kosher).
Armstrong cites Bible scholars who claim that the section of the Torah involving the laws of kashrut was written in the wake of the Israelites’ exile to Babylon. It was part of a shift from a centralized Temple-focused religion to a decentralized, exilic one with a more of a focus on home ritual.
In a startling innovation, P [the ‘priestly’ author of some sections of Torah] suggested that the entire people observe the purity laws of the temple personnel. Everybody must live as though he were serving the divine presence. (p. 29)
In this light, kashrut may be seen as an extension of the food purity laws of the Temple priests to Jews everywhere. Every Jew a priest! Even the most lowly unwashed peasant.
And not only every Jew, but the people in each household in charge of food preparation — the women.
In this lens, kashrut looks like an astonishing statement of religious egalitarianism.
No previous explanation (rationalization!) of kashrut has ever made sense to me. Some Jews have tried to justify kashrut as an early health code — that avoiding pork and shellfish made sense as preventive measures against food poisoning etc. I don’t buy that. Others talk about kashrut as a way to sanctify and make mindful the daily acts of cooking and eating. That doesn’t appeal to me — I can see the value of saying blessings over meals, but kashrut seems like such a complicated and convoluted system that it becomes more distraction than mindfulness, a kind of idolatry in itself.
There is the historical argument that kashrut was a tool to retain Jewish identity by making it difficult to mix socially with surrounding people. Well, phooey on that — I don’t believe that walling oneself off from one’s neighbors is any kind of path to holiness. Finally, there is the argument that kashrut HAS NO REASON — just do it because God said to do it. I don’t even want to talk about that one.
So this little interpretation — that kashrut was a transfer of purity rituals from the priests to the people — is the first that has ever made the remotest bit of sense to me.
Not enough to considering doing it.
But still interesting.