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Smell Test

After a lifelong curiosity about the prohibition against pork, one writer finds a satisfying answer—in the writings of the late Christopher Hitchens

Shmarya Rosenberg
January 10, 2012
(Boston Public Library/Flickr)
(Boston Public Library/Flickr)
This article is part of Kosher Not Kosher.
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I was, for many years, an imperfect atheist.

After decades in Chabad and other haredi and Orthodox communities, I concluded that logic dictated that God—at least as Jews have usually defined Him—does not exist. But at the same time, I still had a personal belief in that God, something rooted deep inside of me, a belief that transcended logic.

Then I bought a copy of God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, who died last month at the age of 62. When the book arrived I nervously leafed through it, read the first few pages, and placed God is Not Great on a table next to my reading chair, where it sat for years untouched, on the bottom of what became a very large pile. In other words, I chickened out.

So, there I was, a cowardly atheist and a blind believer—a paradox that remained tenuously in place until Hitchens died in December.

In the wake of Hitchens’ death, I read comments from Orthodox Jews rejoicing over the news. One even wrote that Jewish law mandates that Jews should make a “festive meal” to rejoice that Hitchens had suffered and died from the same type of painful death some of them had openly wished for me. I could be a coward no longer. I dug Hitchens’ book out of that pile. I flipped it open to a random chapter and began to read about Hitchens’ view of … pigs.

In case you don’t know, pigs aren’t kosher. It is a statement so axiomatic that for most Jews, making it is akin to saying the sky is blue or snow is cold. But why is it that pigs are taboo? Pigs have cloven hoofs, a sign an animal is kosher to eat. But pigs are not ruminant animals and therefore do not chew their cud, which means pigs lack the other mandatory sign designating a kosher animal. And unlike the rabbit or the camel, which also lack one sign—or even shellfish, which is called an “abomination” by the Torah—the pig has become (and most likely always was) the paradigm of trayf. Why?

Midrashic literature composed long after the Torah was written sees the pig as deceptive; its cloven hoofs beckon the unsuspecting Jew and encourage him to eat the pig’s flesh, when in reality the pig is, well, chazzer trayf—an object of disgust and revulsion.

Years ago, just before my leap into ultra-Orthodoxy, I was at a friend’s parents’ house for the first time. We were in the kitchen looking for something to eat. My friend stopped his search to point out which cabinets and drawers had the meat dishes and which had the dairy dishes. I noticed one cabinet and one drawer had been overlooked. “What’s in those?” I asked. “Oh, they’re trayf. We use them when we bring home Chinese food,” he said without a trace of guilt. “You mean like pork fried rice?” I asked, not sure that I really understood him. “No,” he said with distain, “we would never eat pork.” “Shrimp?” I asked, perplexed. “Sure,” he answered. “But never pork. We would never eat pork.”

Archaeological digs in Israel have uncovered ancient biblical-era Israelite settlements where remains of shellfish are plentiful, but pig bones were not found. And even today there are many Jews like my friend’s family who eat shrimp and crab without a trace of guilt but would never eat pork. What could be so bad about pigs?

Anthropologist Marvin Harris believed Judaism’s pork taboo had practical origins. Pigs need lots of water to cool off in. They also need shade and a large amount of farmer-raised grain in order to survive—all things goats, sheep, and cattle don’t require. Pigs, Harris noted, compete with humans for grain and water, which man desperately needs in order to survive and which are scarce resources in much of the Middle East, including Israel. I would add that goats, sheep, and cattle can all be easily milked. Pigs cannot. That means the only way ancient humans could benefit from pigs was to slaughter them, and this made pigs even less cost effective to raise.

Other anthropologists, like the late Mary Douglas, see the pork taboo and other Jewish food taboos as separations between the “normal” and the “abnormal.” The ban on shellfish would be to separate the “normal” fish with fins and scales Israelites knew from the “abnormal” fish without them. The ban on pork would be to separate “normal” farm animals like sheep, goats, and cattle the Israelites were used to from the “abnormal” pig. This would have been an attempt to bring order to what ancient Israelites saw as a disorderly world, and an attempt to effect order on high.

Both Harris and Douglas touched on points that are, I think, reasons behind the taboo, but they don’t explain the venom with which Israelites and later Jews have viewed pigs for millennia. For that, dear readers, you have to turn to, of all people, Hitchens.

In God is not Great, Hitchens notes uneasy similarities between humans and pigs: Porcine DNA and human DNA are very similar, so much so that porcine heart valves can be transplanted into humans; pigs are noticeably smarter than other farm animals; and pig skin looks almost human, so much so that the smell and look of suckling pig and roasting human infants is, according to those who have had the misfortune of smelling and seeing both, disconcertingly similar. And make no mistake about it—many ancient Israelites had that misfortune. Hitchens thought this was the basis for the Jewish taboo against eating pork.

Hitchens’ understanding makes complete sense—especially if you extend the argument even further.

All meat consumption by Israelites originally required the animal be sacrificed to God. The choice parts were burned to soothe God—a necessary precaution in a world where natural disasters, disease, rampant infant mortality, death of an alarming number of women in childbirth, and famine had no other explanation than an angry or distracted god—or given to the priests to eat, and the remnants were eaten by the Israelite offering the sacrifice and those joining with him for that meal. Generations later, long after the taboo against eating pork had already been in place, non-sacrificial meat was allowed to be consumed. That means if pigs were kosher, Israelite worshippers would have smelled something eerily similar to the smell that emanated from pagan places of worship—if, as the Hebrew Bible claims, human child sacrifice was indeed practiced by the Israelites’ neighbors—and the Israelite priests would also have been seen consuming meat that bore a disturbing resemblance to those horrific pagan sacrifices. Would Israelites, who were then mostly illiterate, think that the Torah allowed human sacrifice? Would pig sacrifice cause Israelites to sacrifice their infants the way Torah claimed Israel’s neighbors did? Or could it be that the similarities alone were thought to be displeasing to God, regardless of how Israelites would or would not react to them? When understood in this context, and when we take into account the alarming frequency with which the Hebrew Bible says our ancient ancestors reverted to pagan worship, the taboo against eating pork takes on new meaning.

Hitchens dismissed Judaism’s anti-pork taboo as a Bronze Age superstition. But was it? Or was the Torah—divine, divinely inspired, or simply man-made—trying to do whatever it could to wean humans away from the perceived need to murder their own children? We may never know for sure—although Hitchens’ contribution has arguably done more to explain the reason behind our pork taboo than the 2,000 years of rabbinic commentary that preceded it.

I still irrationally believe there might be something—some being, some force, some deity—who is greater than us and who is there, watching, waiting for us to become just and good and kind. I don’t think this god has any real anger for Christopher Hitchens. On the contrary, I think this god must find it deliciously amusing that a half-Jewish atheist was able to decipher the basis of a religious mystery thousands of years old. Over the two millennia of Rabbinic Judaism, many of its leaders told their followers to accept truth from wherever and whomever it comes. That idea has fallen out of favor as the fundamentalism Hitchens so hated has grown to become the ultra-Orthodox (and even Modern Orthodox) norm. And that’s a shame, because in this case the truth—the Torah—comes from Christopher Hitchens, and the people who would truly cherish it the most will likely never allow themselves to read it.

Shmarya Rosenberg publishes He has written for the Minneapolis StarTribune, Sh’ma, Moment, the Forward, Guilt and Pleasure, Heeb, Jewcy, and Tablet.