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 essay on the classification of permissible and forbidden foods:

…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 to us for kosher 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 leads to some surprising unexpected ideas about overcoming differences between peoples in a great striving for spiritual ascent.

It is no surprise that with an issue this central to Jewish life, 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 which are excluded so that we do not internalize those types of characteristics, and so on. 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. In his reading, the text tells us which animals/traits to avoid, in other words, the laws of kosher are meant to prevent the danger of becoming transformed by these bad-animal characteristics, with the physical and spiritual being in direct connection, corrupt one and you corrupt the other. 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 of more primary concern than the specific animals which bear them. The signifiers, we may say, are more critical than the actual referents. The central theological concern of the signifying markers will, as it were, evolve over time.

After the Lurianic revolution, one finds these categories read in a different light, not so much a direct impact of ingestion upon the body or soul, but rather upon the spiritual quanta which are elevated or lowered as a result of the act of eating. 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, post Luria the dialectic focuses upon a serial vertical axis, where the signifying concern is that between worldly things vs. spiritual things, an endless 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 presented as a vertical prophylaxis, not from acquiring a bad animal trait psychologically, but rather from internalizing negative influences that would lower one’s spiritual status overall, or from traits that might impede the upward striving for holiness. In the last chapter of Mesillat Yesharim, Ramhal presents a model by which the act of eating when performed by an individual who has attained the state of holiness acts upon the universal spiritual quanta in the exact opposite manner of one who eats a non-Kosher animal – the Holy person’s taking in of food is an act of elevation of all that becomes a part of his flesh and blood, eating at that level is exactly like an altar receiving a sacrifice, as opposed to the downward pull upon the total spiritual quanta of the individual ingesting a non-permitted animal.

Among the next generation of commentators, the Hassidic writers and their contemporaries, one sees both a synthesis of the medieval and Lurianic readings. The medieval horizontal approach, of direct correspondences between animal and human traits, is found in the Mei Hashiloach, in a remarkably detailed form, he reads each trait, for birds, animals, and fish as teaching some kind of lesson (so for example, split hooves means one who has such complete faith that his hands are always open to receive from God, never needing to grasp at any one thing since his faith is strong that God will always provide).

Similarly, the emphasis upon the signifying marker is repurposed 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 betweenGd and their material lives, and give maaser from maaser (tithes from tithes, as described in the Torah); in other words, the relation between proper food and proper use of money is parallel with regards to the splitting as in the split hoof, 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 of the nitzotzot, purification after purification of the divine sparks contained within the material universe, much like the continual extraction of sustenance from the re-chewed cud.

However, in many Hassidic thinkers a new approach emerges, an approach which moves away from a concern with classification per se, with a transfer of hermeneutical energy away from metaphorizing the animal traits, but instead focused upon the human activity involved in eating, of ingesting. Now “eating” comes to symbolize any “incorporative” activity; in the Degel Mahane Ephraim eating actually means Torah study, the proof-texts for this approach beings the many midrashim comparing Torah study to bread and to birds which eat bread.

The Tiferet Shelomo links eating to two spiritually “incorporative” activities- the yihudim, which are spiritual meditative exercises central to much of Jewish mysticism, and follows through from that to the sexual metaphor, explaining that the physical component of eating, sexual relations, or meditation, are less important than the spiritual intentionality that accompany them.

If for the previous two Hassidic masters the emphasis was on the incorporative aspect of eating, in the Meor V’Shemesh, the emphasis is upon the destructive component of eating, whereby food must be broken down and devoured to be of use to the body. To the Meor V’Shemesh, the Hebrew term for chewing the cud, maaleh gerah, 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 meditation during eating is then, that in order to eat, one must so demolish the apparent form of the animal that it is broken down beyond recognition, this consciousness of the destructive capacity of chewing brings one to a profound state of broken-downness, of anomie, at which point one understands the truth that can then elevate the spiritual essence within all the material world.

Why is this recognition of the destruction inherent in eating so transformative? One might understand the Meor V’Shemesh’s intent by recourse to 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 of kosher are thus no longer ‘serial’, fixed and orderly, but to borrow Deleuze’s evocative terminology, are now ‘rhizomes’, which link together sets of meanings related semantically and theologically, linking them like the roots of plants which spread beneath the surface of fixed meaning.

Within the Sefat Emet’s writings, over the years, we can see these same stages described above evolve and unfold. In 1871 (trl”a, in Hebrew, his early years) and the year after, we note a serial,vertical Lurianic categorization. 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 his later writings on the subject. 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 positive spiritual quanta by these categories, as in the case of vermin, which we by not eating we are then following God’s command, even though we probably would not have desired to eat 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. By 1881 (trm”a), the Sefat Emet is dissatisfied with these types of serial categories, and a novel approach to the idea of categories and restrictions is presented, leading to radical conclusions.

The Sefat Emet now presents an alternative approach, one similar to that presented in his writings on the Mishkan (cf. Radical Readings: Perashat Tetzaveh): he begins by explaining that this perasha, of kosher divisions, is presented temporally later than the sin of the golden calf. Had that sin not transpired, then there would have been no need for defining 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 explicitly in his notes for the year 1888 (trm”ch), in the rectified future, when our lower, exiled state is transformed “upward”, animals we currently consider impure will also become purified; we will be capable of inducing spiritual transformation in every situation, even ones which currently are marked off as “forbidden”; in fact, there is an insinuation that this transformation will pertain to differences within humankind as well (i.e., there will be no difference between Jews or other nations of the world;all will aspire equally to ever greater spirituality)!!!

So then, according to the Sefat Emet, what is the specific meaning of these specific food categories as they exist in the text, and why do they demarcate animals more 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, it is a space that while occluded, can still allow some light to shine through. This is a sign of the “outside”‘s capacity to be rectified, that is, the exteriority is not so far out that it can’t be made holy, whereas chewing the cud, which in Hebrew is literally “raising the cud”, ‘ma’aleh gerah’ (like in the word “aliyah”), symbolizes the ability for adepts to elevate, transform, sublate even the deepest interiority. Animals which do not have these markers signify not the less holy, but paradoxically symbolize a deeper, more covert holiness, which is more resistant to our limited capacities for ascending transformation- but in a greater future, their deep spirituality will be exteriorized, they 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, 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 chew its cud in the future and become a permitted species, as Rabbenu Bachye points out in the medieval period, the word chazir bears within itself the infinitive ‘lachzor‘, to return, that is, it will return to being permitted (like a chozer b’teshuva the term for one who ‘returns to the fold’).

The Bat Ayin adds that the transformation of the chazir will be a sign of imminent redemption, for what the chazir represents according to the midrashic teaching, is the tragedy at the heart of world turmoil and non-redemption: deceit, insecurity with what one is. The midrash says that the pig lies in the mud flashing its split hooves at the sky claiming, look, I have a holy mark upon me, while knowing that inside himself, he is flawed. The chazir within the human condition, shows an exterior of truth and wants 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, which will be symbolized by the inner transformation even 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 boundaries of the concept of categories and boundaries altogether, where the boundaries are transcended and the discourse is raised to a higher more beautiful plane of all life, in unity.

In these rough times of ever greater division among peoples, it would be wonderful to see these walls and boundaries be transcended toward a world of peace and truth, which would be ours if we can only get past, in Foucault’s words, ‘the stark impossibility of thinking that.’


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