Sunday, December 17, 2006

Digging on Swine

Very interesting post and discussion over at Pandagon that starts out discussing vegetarianism but winds up exploring all kinds of dietary laws, rules, taboos and prohibitions. It's all pretty fascinating stuff, aided by the fact that the site has a lot of well-spoken, informed commentators discussing the topic at hand.

I was particularly intrigued by the speculation about Jewish dietary laws. My mother always used to explain the Jewish ban on pork (observed by no one in my family) in strictly utilitarian terms: "Pig meat was easily contaminated in the time before refrigeration, so the elders just taught everyone to avoid it by saying that it was God's will." My father tried to instill a sense of spirituality in my brother and I, but my mother was secular humanist from Day One. (It's odd. She was perfectly willing to indulge her children in delusions like the Tooth Fairy, but never bothered to entertain the whole God notion for us, even briefly. That's not a complaint, just an observation.)

Anyway, her explanation always made sense to me. In fact, it's the theory suggested by Jewish philosopher Maimonides. But it's certainly not the only suggestion. My old rabbi (yes, there was a time when I actually had a rabbi) said that Jewish laws were in place to remind Jews to think about God all the time. Each time you purposefully have to avoid eating certain foods or wearing certain clothing or whatever, you are reminded of the commitment you have made to God.

I'm tempted to say, based on my experience in studying world religion, that it's all based in a human psychological need to distinguish a group identity, an Us separate from The Other. We are the ones who don't eat the dirty animals and don't get intimate with our wives during their special time of the month, while the goyim are the filthy savages who don't observe God's law.

The Pandagon commenters offer up all sorts of other theories, many of which I had not previously considered. Amanda suggests that Jews did not eat pigs because their bodies and behaviors are very much like our own. Nearly-hairless, sensitive pink skin, remarkably similar organ systems and so forth. (Pig anatomy shares much in common with human anatomy, we frequently use pig parts in procedures on human patients.)

My favorite theory came from commentor Apikoros, who quotes from an old, unnamed rabbi:

“What do we get from cows”
We get milk. (and meat)

What do we get from goats?
We get milk. We get wool. (and meat)

What do we get from sheep?
We get milk. We get wool. (and meat)

What do we get from chickens?
We get eggs. (and meat)

What would we get from pigs?
Meat. Just meat.

It is immoral to herd an animal strictly for slaugher.

Now, I'm not saying this article makes any sense. How could your plans for their carcass possibly concern an animal being raised for the slaughter? They're being killed one way or another, whether or not you'd prefer to borrow eggs or wool from them in the years leading up to the Big Day. I mean, why is it kinder to hold a chicken captive for a few years, systematically steal and devour its unborn young and then whack its head off, rather than just whacking its head off right away?

This would be like a condemned man on Death Row taking solace in the fact that, once he's removed from the gas chamber, his liver will be removed and used to teach jittery, inept first-year medical students how to properly hold and manipulate a scalpel.

So, no, it's not a substantial argument. I'm just saying that this sounds like ass-backwards, primitive thinking of the Ancient Hebrew variety. They were always coming up with this kind of weird, convoluted shit, which gives you some insight into how they ended up wandering aimlessly around the desert for a few generations.

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