Saturday, November 26, 2005

Why the Jews Don’t Try to Ban Piglet

The pig is having hard times in England these days. Muslims and sympathizers have decided that public display of porcine affection (PDPA) is an insult to their faith. (The original news story is here, and there’s commentary here).

What’s the dog that didn’t bark in all this? Well, this isn’t the first time a region or city has seen a big advance in the demographic representation of people who don’t like pigs. The Jews are a large percentage of the population in many urban and suburban areas of the United States. How come New York City or Palm Beach employees never had to exile Piglet from their cubicles?

One could, of course, point to the presence of a large and vocal secular presence in the Jewish community, for whom pork products, suitably stir-fried, are the very sign of liberation. But even religious Jews, while of course excluding the pig from their homes, don’t seem to mind PDPA in their Gentile neighbors. Why is that?

It is because Judaism explicitly distinguishes specifically Jewish rules of righteousness from universal human rules of righteousness. The latter are limited to the Noachide laws, derived by Rabbinical speculation from Genesis 9:1-17. The distinction of clean and unclean animals is seen as a specifically Jewish rule, not binding on the rest of humanity.* The same is true of the Jewish calendar, the Hebrew language, the ritual practices of Judaism -- all are restricted to Jews alone, the religious requirements for Gentiles being simply monotheism and renunciation of idolatry. In this sense, Judaism distinguished natural, trans-cultural religious truth (in the rather watered down form of seven laws) from the specific revealed religious truth of the laws (and oral tradition) of Moses. Following the words of the prophet Jeremiah ("Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers you too will prosper"), religious Jews outside of Israel draw strict boundaries between their own conduct and that which they expect of their Gentile neighbors.**

Islam, by contrast, insists that it is a universal, natural religion, more or less incumbent now on all humanity. (Past prophets were valid in their day, and followers of their revelation can be tolerated today, but really followers of Moses, Jesus, Adam, and so on ought to see that Islam is the corrected and completed form of their faith). As a result, the Islamic food laws, the Islamic lunar calendar, the Arabic language in which the Koran was revealed, the specific postures and Arabic words of Islamic prayer: these are not just something for one religious community and one nation, but for all. Thus pork is not just something "we Muslims" don’t eat, it is something that really no one should eat, even if out of the generosity of Islam its private consumption is allowed to the benighted. Much of the peculiar nature of Islam from the Jewish or Christian perspective is its insistence on things that seem so clearly culturally relative (food, calendars, specific prayer forms, etc.) are in fact part of the natural religion of humanity. As Alain Besançon argued in this fascinating article (unfortunately not available free on the web -- I highly recommend you dig it out in print), it is the peculiar relation of Islam as a revealed natural and universalized particular religion that makes it different from either pole of the Christian-Jewish continuum.

Christianity recognizes the same disjunction between the laws of Moses and the laws of Noah (even if we hesitate to codify the specific seven Noachide laws) that Judaism recognizes. The difference is, is that the Christian religion refuses, or should refuse, to make salvation dependent on religious culture, while still being a true religion, rather than the purely abstract, bloodless natural religion of Judaism's "Noachide religion." This is the heart of Paul’s revelation about Christian liberty and both his teaching and the "Noachide laws" are differing reactions of parochial Judaism to the wider world of Greco-Roman culture. Unfortunately, Christianity has often back-slid into designating particular foods, or calendars, or prayer forms as incumbent on all mankind. The Eastern Orthodox church, for example, declared fermented mare’s milk (Turkish qumyz or Mongolian esüg or airag), part of the staple diet of the Central Eurasian nomads, to be unclean, something that caused great hardship for Christians in the Mongol empire, and made conversion to Orthodoxy essentially impossible for Turco-Mongol nomads.

Even more strange -- and dangerous -- is the tendency in some corners of the Reformed world to adopt the laws of Moses as the positive code of Christian life. If we take the laws of Moses and universalize them, then the Christian church becomes Joshua’s Twelve Tribes and the whole world becomes Canaan. The result is a universal duty of iconoclasm, of destruction and replacement of the unclean idolatrous inhabitants with the clean Biblical ones.

*Curiously, though, the distinction of clean and unclean animals is found in the account of the flood itself (Gen. 7:2-3), which would suggest the clean vs. unclean food has some universal basis. This ambiguity at least in phrasing -- were pigs really unclean before and then cleansed by an act of God, or was their uncleanness never more than a special command of God? -- is continued in the New Testament; compare Mark 7:14-23 with Acts 10:9-16.

**Judaism also restricts a number of Mosaic laws to the Promised Land itself. For example, in Rabbinic interpretation, the laws on releasing debts in the Jubilee year or leaving fields fallow every seven years, and the attendant divine promises, are valid only in the Land of Israel. Jewish farmers or businessmen in Ukraine or America are not expected to follow these laws and have no promise of plenty if they do. Thus it is also true that religious Judaism in the Land of Israel is far less tolerant than it is in the lands of exile. PDPA can be pretty risky in some Jewish quarters of Jerusalem!