By Peter Bebergal
In April 2009, at the peak of the Swine Flu scare, Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman of Israel urged people to refer to the virus as the Mexican Flu, because, as we all know, pigs aren’t kosher. While both insulting and at its face absurd, Litzman’s request brings to the surface what might only be a bit of Talmudic minutiae for those whose daily religious lives depend on such things. Does something deemed not kosher to eat also render its very nature somehow unclean? An idea like this might make sense within the insularity of the ultra-orthodox, but for a Judaism that is worldly, the idea that we must avoid even the mere recognition of things we are forbidden to eat is troubling, to say the least.
Underlying the laws of kashrut (dietery law) is the very essence of much of halakhah (Jewish law): separation. Halakhah is filled with commandments regarding what is pure and what is impure; who is of the community and who is a stranger. Litzman’s wish conflates all of these by suggesting that even dietary laws speak to the heart of what it means to be Jewish, and by extension, what it means to be separate.
As a progressive Jew I find this heartbreaking, but as a father, I am confronted with how to teach Jewish values to my child while explaining Jewish law. Why do these things often seem mutually opposed? As Rabbi Arthur Green once wrote when discussing his relationsip to the Sabbath and the story of a six-day creation, “How can I affirm that which I deny?” Laurel Snyder’s new children’s book, Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to be Kosher playfully finds its way around this tension by illuminating both laws and values as reflections of the other.
The story has all the wonderful absurdities that any really great picture book should. Baxter, smartly dressed in a plaid shirt and jean shorts, is waiting for a bus where he meets a observant-looking fellow in a yarmulke who is eagerly waiting for sundown. He tells Baxter all about the joys of the sabbath; the food, the community, and the candles. Later Baxter can’t get the idea out of his head. The following week he asks another man how he can be part of a sabbath dinner and is told, “That’s impossible… You’re not kosher!” Which leads the reader to ask, not kosher enough to be eaten or not kosher enough to attend? Baxter’s own confusion over the word kosher leads him to investigate becoming kosher by eating pickles, challah, and dressing up as a cow. But he can never seem to get kosher enough to be part of a sabbath dinner.
At the heart of this story is how the term “kosher” has entered common parlance to mean “alright” or “okay,” to mean something that fits or feels right. The subtext of this usage is that, for Jews, the most important characteristic of Jewish identity is keeping kosher. And while this may be true on some level in terms of daily observance, it’s really just cultural laziness that reduces a people to the single most obvious aspect of what makes them unique.
Jews and Baxter alike continue to make this mistake as the story progresses until Baxter meets a woman rabbi who, recognizing the confustion, asks why Baxter wants to be eaten. Of course, we learn, what he really wants is to be a guest, to share in the sabbath joy. And since kosher laws have nothing whatever to do with who Jews can keep company with, he is invited to the rabbi’s dinner.
Snyder’s successful conflation of kosher law with commandments regarding the stranger is nothing short of a small miracle. Bumping up directly against Judaism’s built-in otherness is a joyful embrace of Judaism’s openness. Jews are commanded to love the stranger but the daily empahsis on separation that is required to keep kosher often overshadows what could well be understood as a greater mitzvah.
Peter Bebergal is co-author, with Scott Korb, of The Faith Between Us (Bloomsbury, 2007). His next book, a memoir/cultural history of drugs and mysticism is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press. He blogs at mysterytheater.blogspot.com.