Dietary Restriction in Judaism Essay

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Many scholars have attempted to explain not only the reasoning for the existence of Jewish dietary restrictions but how not conforming to them can be perceived as evil. Some have said that a hygienic component was the most important reason for these restrictions. Others have stated that it was a result of an attempt to preserving the Jewish culture from foreign influences. While others argue that it is a means to achieving holiness or purity. In her book Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas examines some of the arguments put forth by several scholars and theologians. In her examination, Douglas rejects most of the explanations and settles on the explanation that she believes to be the only one without contradiction, the idea of purity. To understand why Mary Douglas comes to the conclusion that she does, it is important to understand how she views the concept of good and evil or purity and pollution.

Douglas places great emphasis on the idea of purity and how dirt defiles it. This is not always meant to be literal. Douglas makes the distinction between clinical views of dirt versus a symbolic ideal of pollution of purity. She points out that even though the two views come from completely different mindsets, they are much more closely related than it would initially appear when she says ¦ the resemblance between some of their symbolic rites and our hygiene is sometimes uncannily close.. Douglas was paramount in our understanding of how the concept of dirt plays an important role in our perception of social norms. These norms help to shape society by outlining boundaries that define what is good and what may be considered evil. The public identification of dirt displays the boundaries of cultural categories¦. When one performs an act that crosses these boundaries, it can be viewed as an act of defilement, which may be perceived as pollution or evil.

Ritual practice, in this case the dietary restriction, ¦is an opportunity to remove things that are not acceptable from society and attempt to restore purity. Some have cited the main purpose of the dietary restrictions as being for hygienic and health reasons. While Douglas does mention this as a contributing factor and admits that the restrictions have shown these benefits to exist, it is apparent that she feels that there are too many contradictions for this to be a completely valid argument for the existence of the restrictions. In regards to this mode of thought she states that ¦ it is one thing to point out the side benefits of ritual actions, and another thing to be content with using the by-products as a sufficient explanation. Douglas even goes as far as saying, The only sound approach is to forget hygiene¦

Some interpretations of these restrictions were based on the idea that the Jewish people were using them as a means to differentiate themselves from other groups of people. This could lead one to the conclusion that the sole reason for ¦the prohibition on pigs was aimed at differentiating the Israelites from their nighbors. In James work in The Priestly Conceptions of Evil in the Torah, he explains People who are set apart by God to become holy are required to live by different rules than other people. From this we are to understand that in order to become pure in the eyes of god, one must set themselves apart from others just as god has. In contradiction to this school of thought, Douglas points out that this concept is more of a product of mistranslation and that the term set apart should have really been translated as holy.

This reinterpretation gives a different meaning to the scripture. It changes the focus from a means to an end to an expression of desire for one to be of the highest spiritual level. The Jewish people do not need to differentiate themselves from others to achieve holiness. Another conception is that these restrictions are being used as a means to preserve the purity of their culture from the influence of other cultures. If we are to believe this ideology we would be lead to believe that the introduction of customs from another group would cause the Jewish culture to become dirty or impure and therefore unholy. Douglas invalidates this argument when she says that the ¦ argument cannot be comprehensive, for it is not held that the Israelites consistently rejected all the elements of foreign religions and invented something entirely original for themselves..

The concept of purity is quite prevalent throughout Jewish literature and the ideals of their dietary restrictions. It is also the concept that Douglas believes best explains the necessity for dietary restriction in the Jewish faith. Purity of diet plays a large role in achieving a state of purity or avoiding pollution ¦ the dietary laws would have ¦ inspired meditation on the oneness, purity and completeness of God One of the main ideas is that all animals belong to one of three domains (the sky, the earth and the water) and have certain attributes that make them adapted to life in that domain (the wings of birds, the four legs and divided hoof of cows, or the scales and fins of a fish for example).

Those that do not conform to one domain by some form of adaption that is deemed less fit for that domain and thereby violating its sanctity, are seen as impure or dirty. Another ideal of purity that must be upheld is the idea of confusion or mixing. Any animal that is mixed with another species is considered dirty just as the improper mixing of blood relatives is considered impure for it has brought forth confusion or disorder. James writes that hybrids ¦ represent a return to the chaos that God banished in bringing order to the world. Douglas says that dirt is essentially disorder. From this one could surmise that moving from order to disorder is akin to moving from purity to dirt or good to evil. As god brought order to the world, man must bring order to his life to be like god and therefore holy.

Mary Douglas shows that the dietary restrictions of Jewish people consists of both a hygienic component as well as an element of purity. She does however favour the element of purity as there are some contradictions involving hygiene. Douglas uses her keen perception to analyze the theories proposed by others and uses sound logic to either validate or discredit them. She shares a similar view with James in regards to the idea of pollution of purity. Adhering to the dietary restrictions provides the practitioner with a means to attain and maintain a state of purity.

Barak-Erez, Daphne. Outlawed Pigs : Law, Religion, and Culture in Israel.
Chicago: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. New York: Routledge, 2002

Hendel, Ronald. Remembering Mary Douglas: Kashrut, Culture, and Thought-Styles. Berkely: University of California, 2008

James, Gene G. The Priestly Conceptions of Evil in the Torah. Evil and the Response of World Religion. Ed. William Cenkner. St. Paul, Minn: Paragon House, 1997

Weimer, Jade. Mary Douglas work. Class lecture, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, November 8, 2012.

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