Leviticus: Perashat Shemini — Food: Incorporation and Inclusion

Foucault prefaces his book, The Order of Things, with a passage from Borges that leads him to the very same question which motivates this week’s shiur:

…This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which it is written that …animals are divided into (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that’is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that…

In this week’s perasha we encounter a taxonomy of “our own”, the classification of the animals permitted for our consumption, and those forbidden to us. A set of lists, with a unique set of inclusionary and exclusionary criterion. It would perhaps be desirable to fully enunciate an “archaeology” of how Jewish thought looked at the concept of taxonomy; my preliminary analysis here I hope will be instructive and useful in at least generating some kind of hermeneutic matrix for further classification.

It seems to me that there are some dramatic meta-category shifts as we go through the centuries of Jewish interpretation. Among the Medieval commentators, we find a profusion of sets of resemblances, akin to that seen in the science of their time (the commentator as chronotrope). Kosher taxonomy is thus based on similarities perceived within the specific animals listed. Thus, in the Ramban, the forbidden birds are birds of prey who are excluded so that we do not internalize those types of characteristics, etc. Rabbenu Bachye presents a treasure trove of correspondences- there are many psychological, historical, and theological messages inherent within the listings of the permitted and forbidden animals. The text tells us which animals to avoid, in other words, the laws of kosher is meant to prevent the danger of becoming transformed by these bad-animal characteristics in a direct manner. The Rambam operates in this mindset in a modified fashion, equating animal characteristics with the danger to our health in the eating of them, but there is one critical difference that will emerge as the taxonomic signifier: the idea that the kosher signifying markers (fins, scales, cud-chewing, etc) are the primary concern, not the specific animals in the list. The central theological concern of the signifying markers will over time become the major criterion for commentary.

After the Lurianic revolution, we see a different approach to these categories. If in general, the medieval period’s approach to categorization can be labeled, borrowing a term from Deleuze, as serial and horizontal, concerned with correspondences and similarities between the different types of animal, different types of people, nations, etc, now the dialectic focuses upon a serial vertical axis, where the signifying concern is that between worldly things and spiritual things, in an eternal dialectic between the holy and the not-holy centered upon the elevation or sublation, of all existence. So, in the Ramhal’s Mesillat Yesharim, one sees the laws of kashrut read as vertical preventative, not from the fear of acquiring a bad animal trait, but meant to prevent one from internalizing a negative influence that would draw one down, or impede the upward striving for holiness. In the last chapter of Mesillat Yesharim (cf. Radical Readings: Perashat Kedoshim), we see how the individual who has attained the state of holiness has an inverse relation to the act of eating, as compared to that of eating a non-Kosher animal — the Holy person’s taking in of food is an act of elevation of all that is contained within him, like an altar receiving a sacrifice, as opposed to the downward pull of the not permitted animal.

Within the Hassidic writers and their contemporaries, one sees several approaches present. The medieval horizontal approach, of direct correspondences between animal and human traits, is found in the Mei Hashiloach. The move towards classification by signifying marker is very developed in the Ben Ish Hai: IN his Od Yosef Hai, R. Yosef Haim gives two reason for split hooves and chewed cud, incorporating the imagery of something split and something repeatedly regurgitated:

1. Jews split their money between Gd and their material lives, and give maaser from maser; in other words, the relation between food and money shows several structural similarities, and

2. Jews split their time between spiritual and worldly work, and as a result brings about repeated spiritual refinement, in Lurianic terms- birur after birur on the nitzotzot, the divine sparks contained within the material universe.

However, in many Hassidic thinkers a moving away from concern with classification altogether arises, with a transfer of hermeneutical energy away from the animal traits, instead focused on the human activity involved, that of eating, of ingesting. Now eating comes to symbolize any incorporative activity; in the Degel Mahane Ephraim eating symbolizes Torah study, the proof-texts beings the many midrashim comparing Torah study to bread and to birds. The Tiferet Shelomo links eating to two different incorporative activities- the yihudim, the spiritual meditative exercises central to much of Jewish mysticism, and follows through to a sexual metaphor, explaining that the acts per se, of eating, sexual relations, or meditation, are less important than the spiritual intentionalities that accompany them. If for the previous two Hassidic masters the emphasis was on the incorporative aspect of feeding, in the Meor V’Shemesh, the emphasis is upon the destructive segment of eating, where food must be broken down and devoured to be effective. To the Meor V’Shemesh, the Hebrew term for chewing the cud, maaleh gerah, one of the defining characteristics of kosher cattle, is derived from the term “gerut”, foreignness, alterity:

“so that by eating one is brought to the state of self annihilation at which one feels as a stranger in the land”

The recognition that in order to eat, one must so demolish the apparent form of the animal that it is quantized out of recognition, brings one to a state of anomie at which one can then elevate the spiritual essence within all the material world. I suppose the Meor V’Shemesh would agree with Piaget, who writes that children prefer to destroy structures rather than build them; they thus approach the world not as a fixed system, but as one capable of infinite possibilities. The material world before us, in this reading, is just such a system awaiting transformation- we see that eating, studying, procreation, are all potentially destructive activities in that they destroy a previous existing state, but as a result open them up to the possibility of liberation and elevation under the proper circumstances. The categories themselves are no longer ‘serial’ but, following Deleuze, are now ‘rhizomes’, they serve less to divide than to link together sets of meanings related semantically and theologically.

Within the Sefat Emet’s writings, over the years, we can see these same stages unfold. In 1871 (trl”a, in Hebrew) and the year after, we note a serial vertical categorization. Here, kosher animals are derived from the ‘side of holiness’, whereas forbidden animals come from the “other side”; he explicitly uses the term sitra ahra, a term which does not appear in this context in ensuing years. In these earlier commentaries, his reading runs as follows: The text says that these are the animals you shall eat, and these you shall not eat. Thus, for some animals, their spiritual sublation consists of being eaten, whereas for others, the elevating process is accomplished by not eating them. Even situations where we would reflexively not eat are transformed into spiritual quanta by these categories, as in the case of vermin, which we by not eating we are then following Gd’s command, even though we probably would not have eaten them anyway. The serial schema is still present in trl”d (1874), where the categories dividing kosher and non-kosher animal are equated with the holy:non-holy and Jew:non-Jew divide. In 1881 (trm”a), we see a dissatisfaction with serial categories, and novel approach to the idea of categories and restrictions is presented.

The Sefat Emet now presents an alternative approach, one similar to that we presented earlier relating to the Mishkan (cf. Radical Readings: Perashat Tetzaveh): he begins by explaining that this perasha is temporally later than the sin of the golden calf. Had that sin not transpired, then there would have been no need for signifying markers and categories- all animals would have been potentially sublated and elevated by eating them. However, after the Israelites fell to a lower spiritual state, certain species fell outside of our capacity to rectify, and as such were now off limits as food. In the future, as he states more explicitly in 1888 (trm”ch), when our lower, exiled state ends, currently impure animals will also become pure, as we will be capable of inducing spiritual transformation in all situations; in fact, there is an insinuation that this transformation will pertain to differences within mankind as well (i.e., there will be no difference between Jews and other nations of the world;¬†all will attain to equal purity). So then, what is the meaning of these categories, and why do they demarcate animals more easily or less easily transformable? Rather than any particular quality relating to the animals, i.e. the resemblance model we saw in the medieval thinkers, the meaning of the split hoof and the chewed cud as regards the potential for human spiritual activity is the focus. As he states in 1894 (trn’d), the split hoof, means a hoof that is not closed off entirely, through which some light can shine. This is a sign of the “outside”‘s capacity to be rectified, that is, the exteriority could be made holy, whereas chewing the cud, which in Hebrew is literally “raising the cud”, ‘ma’aleh gerah’, symbolizes the ability for adepts to elevate, transform, sublate also the deeper interiority. Animals which do not have these markers have a deeper, more covert holiness, which is currently less subject and more resistant to upward transformation- but in a greater future, they too will achieve rectification and inclusion within the sphere of the holy.

This transcending of the categories as a desired goal is not idiosyncratic to the Sefat Emet. The Or Hachayim states of the pig, the chazir, most emblematic of non-kosher animals in world literature (i.e. Woody Allen movies), that it will eventually become a holy animal- for verse 11:7 explains that it has a split hoof, but doesn’t chew its cud. The latter clause is couched in a future tense- ‘gerah lo yigar’, implying that it will will chew its cud in the future and be permitted, as Rabbenu Bachye points out, the name chazir itself is akin to the infinitive ‘lachzor’, to return, that is, it will return to being permitted. The Bat Ayin states that the transformation of the chazir will be a sign of imminent redemption, for what this teaching symbolizes is at the heart of world turmoil and non-redemption: deceit. The chazir within mankind, shows an exterior of truth and trust while within the soul all is corrupt and full of lies. However, one of the aspects of the redeemed world is that is one of Truth, of Emet, symbolized by the inner transformation of the chazir.

Thus, in our archeological quest after the meaning of taxonomic categories in the concept of kosher, we find a movement from the serial horizontal and vertical through a rhizomic relationship into a transcendence of the limitations and boundary-setting of the concept of category altogether.

In these rough times it would be wonderful to see boundaries between different peoples be transcended toward a world of peace and truth, if we can get past, in Foucault’s words, ‘the stark impossibility of thinking that.’

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
tags: Torah Commentary   
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