The Story of Pig As Taboo

Shemini By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Apr 17, 2004 / 5764 | Torah Commentary

In 1922, Professor Mordecai Kaplan of the Seminary faculty confided in his diary, “There can be no question that sooner or later Judaism will have to get along without dietary laws.” Though he personally observed kashrut both inside and outside his home, the pressure of the melting pot was definitely not conducive to keeping kosher. How astonishingly different are the prospects today! In the fall of 1990, an observer of the kosher food industry in America wrote that about 18,000 kosher products were then on the market, with ever more companies switching to the certification of new items. By 2002 there were over 75,000. The industry has grown to a $6 billion market involving some 9 million customers who look for kosher products. We live in a country where, it would seem, kashrut has taken on a significance far beyond its role in the Jewish community!

This remarkable turnabout, but one instance of the broad swath of Jewish influence on American life, makes us far less defensive about Judaism’s dietary laws. I was raised on the notion that abstaining from pork spared Jews from the dreaded disease of trichinosis. But unlike my father, who scoured the literature for hygienic reasons, I see the laws of kashrut as simply part of Judaism’s God-saturated worldview. In an age when no self-respecting American would be caught without his or her food taboos (always subject, of course, to the latest research), those of Judaism at least are ancient and sacred.

Among the four-legged animals specifically proscribed in this week’s parasha are the camel, the rock badger, the hare and the pig. All of them manifest but one of the two attributes necessary to render a land animal fit for consumption. The first three chew the cud but lack a hoof of any kind (not to speak of a cloven hoof, which is what the Torah requires). The pig, on the other hand, has a true cloven hoof, but is not a ruminant. The Torah does not heap any particular abuse on the pig, and yet it is almost universally known that the aversion to eating pork is one of the defining marks of Jewish identity, often preserved when all others have long been eroded. In the wake of the forced conversions of Jews on the Iberian peninsula in the 15th century, many Marranos refused to eat pork as one of the last signs of their secret loyalty to Judaism (a fact highlighted by the very meaning of the pejorative term “marrano” – swine). And nothing illuminates more graphically the religious fault line that runs through Israeli society today than the periodic debates in the Knesset over the domestic breeding of pigs. Whence this visceral aversion? That is the question I would like to ponder briefly.

According to bible scholar Jacob Milgrom, the abhorrence of the pig was widespread in the ancient Near East and predated the Torah. Many cultures considered it an impure animal, fit only for sacrifice to the gods of the netherworld. Archeological evidence from Canaan suggests that while the Philistines, detested by Israel, used the pig for cultic purposes, the raising of pigs ended abruptly when Israel gained control of the country. A maxim from the book of Proverbs conveys the sense of revulsion for the pig missing in Leviticus: “Like a gold ring in the snout of a pig is a beautiful woman bereft of sense (Proverbs 11:22).” In fact, Milgrom conjectures that the second criterion for an edible quadruped, chewing the cud, was specifically added by Leviticus to exclude the pig. The absence of a hoof was enough to eliminate the others.

By the time we come to the Second Book of Maccabees, authored perhaps as late as the first century C.E., the eating of pork was deemed to be a betrayal of Judaism at the deepest level. Second Maccabees recounts the earliest recorded instances of religious martyrdom. One of the martyrs is an elderly, respected scribe by the name of Eleazar, who refuses the command of the Syrian soldiers to eat swine’s flesh in public. “He welcomed death with glory rather than life with pollution, and of his own free will went to the rack.” In other words, the consumption of pork was equivalent to adopting the modes of the Greeks, which is the religious reformation the Syrians sought to impose on Judea by force.

The destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans transformed the pig in the Rabbinic mind into a symbol for Rome. The emblem of the Tenth Legion which occupied the ruins of Jerusalem after 70 C.E. was a boar. After the defeat of Bar Kochba in 135, the emperor Hadrian turned Jerusalem into a Roman city and, according to the Latin Church Father Jerome, who lived in Bethlehem for the last 30 years of his life, “In front of the gate which led to Bethlehem, he [Hadrian] placed a pig carved in marble signifying that the Jews were subject to the Romans.”

Memory of these facts may well have inspired a later midrash that associated the pig with Rome and its biblical progenitor, Esau. What linked them all was the appearance of propriety. The Midrash connects the marriage of Esau at age 40 (Genesis 26:34) with a verse in Psalms that portrays Jerusalem as abandoned by God, its walls breached and being ravaged by wild boars. (Psalms 80:14). Why should the psalmist alight upon the image of a boar? Because it is a master of deception. It puts out its cloven hoofs to make you think that it is kosher. Similarly, the Romans who oppress and plunder behind a facade of legality and justice are like Esau who indulged in adultery for years, according to the Midrash, only to take a wife at age 40 like his saintly father, Isaac, as if he had suddenly found religion. The symbol of the pig warns us against being taken in by surface civility and sudden conversions.

For Ashkenazic Jews in the Middle Ages, the pig continued to serve as the symbol of Daniel’s fourth and final kingdom in the famous prophecy by which Jews calculated the hoped-for coming of the messiah. Christendom with its seat in Rome was but an extension of the unrelieved cruelty of Roman dominion. At the same time, however, it was in the German lands of the Holy Roman Empire that the pig as symbol was thrown back at the Jews in the form of an obscene anti-Jewish motif. From the 13th to the 16th century, Christian iconography adorned churches and public buildings with the scatological representation of Jews sucking at the teats of a sow. The one on the church in Wittenberg gained national notoriety when Martin Luther in 1543 in one of his two virulently anti-Jewish tracts fixed on it to prove that the pig is the source of the Jews’ uncanny wisdom and power. By transforming an object of revulsion into an object of veneration (much as the infamous “blood libel” did with blood), the Judensau (the Jews’ sow), as it was called, made Jews less than human, accomplices of the devil and masters of black magic. We have come full circle: from reviling the pig because it was sacrificed to the gods of the underworld to reviling Jews for their demonic otherness which is rooted in their worship of the pig.

Truth is often stranger than fiction. The story of the pig as taboo and symbol tells us as much about the course of Jewish history as about the value system of Judaism. The road to hell is paved with the stereotypical images of the other.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Sh’mini are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.