Jordan D. Rosenblum. The Jewish Dietary Laws in the Ancient World. Cambridge University Press, 2016.
“Why don’t Jews eat pork?”
This is a common question from my students at the University of South Carolina, and as Rosenblum deftly shows in The Jewish Dietary Laws in the Ancient World, this is a question that Jews and non-Jews have been asking for more than two thousand years. Moving from the Hebrew Bible, through Hellenistic sources, to Rabbinic and early Christian writings, Rosenblum investigates biblical and later Jewish dietary laws, seeking answers to this and other questions about Jewish foodways. In particular, Rosenblum compiles answers, or lack thereof, to the question of justification of dietary laws rooted in the Hebrew Bible: why do Jews eat certain foods and not others? These justifications come in three, sometimes overlapping, categories: “reason, revelation, and allegory” (2). Sometimes these laws are explained solely as divine command; at other times, Jew and non-Jew alike interpret them as explaining deeper truths about the eater (allegory); and, as my students often do, interpreters of these laws make arguments based on reason to explain the prohibitions, such as the prohibition on eating seafood that does not have scales and fins (Leviticus 11: 9-12). In this example, modern “reasonable” justifications often include discussions of hygiene and food safety; the Epistle of Barnabas likewise argues that forbidden seafood lurk in the mud, to reinforce an allegory warning of the dangers of acting like human “bottom-feeders” (150-1). The Hebrew Bible, of course, provides little in the way of justification, beyond God’s command.
As The Jewish Dietary Laws in the Ancient World is primarily focused on Hellenistic, Rabbinic, and Christian sources, Rosenblum is careful to address the question of justification in context, while resisting later, decontextualized, attempts to comprehend Jewish dietary laws. Using Rosenblum’s categories of justification, we can see that modern (and ancient) attempts to provide justification often rely heavily on reason (i.e. Walzer’s argument that these laws are a form of separation via sanctification [2012: p. 47] or Douglas’s structural arguments about eating animals only of the correct category [1966, 1999: pp. 42-58], 14-18), while Rosenblum insists that we attend to the lack of explicit justifications in the Hebrew Bible itself. “Without any real primary evidence, scholars have nevertheless asserted that they have uncovered the explanation for why certain animals are biblical declared edible or inedible” (18). And, as Rosenblum shows for many of his sources, ancient authors also offered “the” explanation for these laws, even as the Hebrew Bible remains mostly silent. Rabbinic sources are the exception to this justificatory impulse, as rabbinic sources primarily focus on the question of how to keep these laws, rather than why one must keep them.
Thus, The Jewish Dietary Laws in the Ancient World is more tightly focused on a specific interpretive question than Rosenblum’s earlier work, Food and Identity in Early Rabbinic Judaism (2010). In the earlier book, Rosenblum focuses on questions that are at once broader and intimately tied to the question of "why do Jews eat what they eat," the questions of "how do Rabbinic Jewish men distinguish, differentiate, and define themselves, via their tables and table practices?" Thus, "by establishing culinary and commensal regulations that require different social practices for rabbinic Jews, the Tannaim create difference" (Rosenblum 2010, 183). What you eat matters, but whom you eat with matters as well. Questions of identity (both self-identification and othering) and commensality also are key components of The Jewish Dietary Laws in the Ancient World: the added benefit and depth of Rosenblum's more recent work is the systematic analysis of arguments about the whole range of biblical dietary laws, from the Hebrew Bible itself to the Amoraim and Christian sources.
The book is organized by time period and type of source, as Rosenblum provides sources that consider the biblical laws concerning the categories of permitted and forbidden animals; the prohibitions on eating of blood, the sciatic nerve, a parent and its offspring on the same day, on cooking a kid in its own milk, on animals not slaughtered by humans; and the prohibition on sending a bird away from her nest. The first chapter considers the lack of justification of these laws in the Hebrew Bible (except for implied ethical reasons vis-a-vis the kid and the eggs), the second chapter considers Greek and Roman sources, the third and fourth consider Hellenistic sources, Jewish and New Testament, respectively, while the fifth and sixth analyze Tannaitic and Amoraic Rabbinic sources, and the last chapter turns to Christian sources. To briefly sketch some of Rosenblum's findings, we see that Greek and Roman sources are often perplexed by or antagonistic to these laws, Hellenistic Jews justify the laws via allegory, reason, and revelation, Rabbinic sources only begin to provide justifications beyond revelation with the Amoraim, and later Christian sources return to allegory, while denying the literal adherence to these prohibitions.
In The Jewish Dietary Laws in the Ancient World, Rosenblum is meticulous in contextually analyzing his evidence, from Hellenistic Jewish sources such as Philo of Alexandria, who overwhelms with allegorical readings of these laws, while continuing to recommend their practice, to Christians such as Clement, who “is more interested in teasing out the moral application of the laws than in the literal practice thereof” (153). Rosenblum’s thorough approach to his sources, coupled with his tight focus on questions of justification of these laws, make this book invaluable as both a reference for the varieties of interpretive approaches to Jewish eating in Antiquity and as a methodological model for comparative analysis of quite disparate materials, across Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian sources.
Even as Rosenblum notes that justificatory approaches to these apodictic laws are context specific, and we should be cautious about making our own claims about “the” meaning of any of these laws, he does conclude the book with a short reflection upon “food ethic,” or the argument that we should (or always already) differentiate what we “ought” to eat from that what we should “ought not” eat. “My main argument is that the various ways that all humans engage with their food (i.e. their foodways) serves to communicate various ethics” (160). While Rosenblum is careful not to provide his own normative framework, and points his readers to a variety of contemporary food ethics, including ones that deal with the environmental impacts of what we eat, I think that his meditation on a “food ethic” is worth pursuing to a greater degree. To my mind, asking the question of why do we eat what we eat is worth asking, and moreover, articulating an ethical argument that answers the question is likewise important. While others have attempted to make such arguments, from a Jewish perspective (i.e. Gross 2015) or otherwise (i.e. Pollan 2006), I would have liked to hear more of Rosenblum's perspective. Perhaps in the next book!
Dr. John R. Mandsager is a Lecturer and Assistant Director of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of South Carolina
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. 1966. Repr., Routledge, 1999.
Gross, Aaron S. The Question of the Animal and Religion: Theoretical Stakes, Practical Implications. Columbia University Press, 2015.
Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. The Penguin Press, 2006.
Rosenblum, Jordan D. Food and Identity in Early Rabbinic Judaism. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Walzer, Michael. In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible. Yale University Press, 2012.