Bacon in the Season of Repentance

Re'eh By :  Charlie Schwartz Posted On Jul 31, 2013 / 5773 | Torah Commentary

An unwelcome encounter with a non-kosher chocolate bar made me realize how deeply infused bacon has become in the US culinary landscape. At a friend’s house, I casually reached for what appeared to be a run-of-the-mill, fair-trade, organic, 99.9%-cacao piece of chocolate. From across the room, before I had a chance to taste the bar, my friend yelled a blood-curdling “Noooooooo! It’s bacon chocolate!” Lo and behold, where other chocolate bars might have pistachios or cherries tucked into their crevices, this bar had flecks of salty, savory bacon.

Indeed, over the past several years, bacon has made its way to some of the most unexpected places: onto donuts, into popcorn, even brewed into beer (which, according to the experts, tastes as unappealing as it sounds). As it becomes clear that living and dealing with “bacon mania” is part of early 21st-century life in the United States, now is a good time to reflect on the Jewish prohibition of eating pork, which appears in this week’s parashah.

The specific prohibition of eating pig found in Deuteronomy 14:8 appears in a longer list of permitted and prohibited animals that forms a general guide to elevating the base act of eating with holiness. In The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy, Dr. Jeffrey Tigay notes that the list of food in Deuteronomy 14 closely mirrors the parallel listing of pure and impure foods found in Leviticus 11, only in a more concise manner, creating a sort of user guide to Jewish dietary practices.

Initially a part of a list of prohibited food in the ancient period, the prohibition against eating pork transformed into one of the taboos that, to this day, is most closely associated with the Jewish People. In the book of Second Maccabees, Eleazer is described as choosing death rather than eating pork. The 1st-century historian Petronius assumed, due to the strength of the taboo, that the Jews worshiped a pig god.

In his book Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages, Dr. David Kraemer, Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian and professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at JTS, presents a compelling theory about how the Jewish aversion to pork became so strong. According to Dr. Kraemer, livestock in classic antiquity were generally not raised for consumption. Goats and sheep were raised for their milk and wool; oxen were primarily work animals. The Hellenization of Palestine that began in the 2nd century BCE brought with it peoples who raised and ate pigs, previously a rarity in the region. Pigs became the only animal in the region raised solely for human consumption.

As more and more pigs were introduced into the region, Jews were forced to confront the prohibition of eating pork more frequently. Citing a midrash in Sifre Aharei Mot chapter 13 that describes both a Jew’s own evil inclination and the mocking of non-Jewish neighbors, Dr. Kraemer writes,

Why, in the rabbis’ world, would both a Jew’s non-Jewish neighbors and his or her own transgressive urge mock the prohibition of pork, in particular? Certainly, the prohibition of pork is no more arbitrary or illogical than the prohibition of other animals! The answer must be that pork was the prohibited meat that was actually available to lust after. Otherwise, there would be no reason to imagine that the “evil urge” would be attracted to this meat in particular. (32)

Pork was the only meat available enough for non-Jews to consume and for Jews to desire. Unlike the hoopoe, the owl, the hawk, or other animals listed in Deuteronomy 14, the pig had a role in the day-to-day lives of the average non-Jew and, moreover, was seen and experienced by Jews.

This lived reality of abstaining from pork elevated pig meat from one of many foods prohibited for Jews to the culinary taboo par excellence of the Jewish People, symbolic both of a system of holiness—controlling one’s base desires—and of separation from a dominant Hellenistic culture. Refraining from pork became a powerful marker of Jewish identity because pork and its consumption were ever present, not unlike in the US society we inhabit as modern Jews.

Understood this way, the prohibition against eating pork represents the moderation and limitation of human appetite. Humanity has a natural appetite for meat. Rather than deny that appetite, the Torah’s laws build a religious structure to limit the desire while infusing it with holiness. We are not asked to run away from our evil inclination and our desires, but rather to acknowledge them and find ways to control them.

The coming week brings Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the season of repentance that culminates with Yom Kippur. The introspection that occurs during this season often focuses on healing the interpersonal and spiritual wrongs that have been committed over the previous year.

It is during this time that we are asked to focus on our personal metaphoric pork (or bacon chocolate, as it might be): those natural human weaknesses and appetites that surround us and that we all too often fall victim to. In addition to seeking forgiveness, might I suggest a further level of introspection: thinking about the systems and structures that might help control and moderate our appetites, while acknowledging the full spectrum of our desires and inclinations.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.