Hooves and Cud: Criteria or Preexisting Taboo? - Torah portion Shemini

It's so gratifying to find an author who speaks your language, who addresses the topics you want addressed and poses the questions you want asked. That's been my experience reading Jacob Milgrom's commentary on Leviticus. And his section on pure/impure animals is no exception.

Non-kosher animals and food taboos

A line of thought occurred to me about the "kosher signs" - e.g. split hooves and rumination for quadrupeds - that maybe these signs were chosen after the fact. Perhaps there was a long-standing tradition about what animals the early Israelites would eat, and which ones they found detestable, i.e. had a taboo against. (Sheep, goat and bovine domestication, after all, go back roughly 10,000 years, and pig domestication nearly 13,000 years.) And only later did the Priestly school devise a rule to fit the existing taboo, in effect painting a target around a set of previously shot arrows.

My sense is that our drive to offer "explanations" often puts us at odds with factual truth. Meaning, we tend to ascribe an abundance of systematic thought and premeditation to things that in real life came about in a much more organic, happenstance fashion. Say that "X" is a given in our world. How did we actually wind up with X? Well, A led to B, and then C came along, and after a while we had a little of X, Y and Z, and eventually Y and Z fell away and X remained. That's how it really took place. But when we look in the historical rear-view mirror, there's a cognitive bias that takes over. Now that X is a hallowed tradition, we want to think of it as having entered our culture for a specific "reason," as being ideologically motivated, or even divinely prescribed. So we interpret history, and circulate explanations for X, in a way that matches our expectations, that lives up to the "honor" of X.

The Torah offers numerous etiological passages about how existing realities came to be. Where did the world come from? Where did pain in childbirth come from? Where did the enmity between Israel and Edom come from? These are etiological narratives. But the kosher signs could perhaps be understood as an etiological rule, answering the question: Where does the delineation of kosher/non-kosher animals come from?

I also want to stress how potent "food taboos" are, in our minds and culture. To give an example, for most modern Westerners, if they went to a restaurant and discovered that the item on their plate was in fact horse ribs, or poodle cutlets, they would predictably recoil, or wretch, and probably call their attorney. Unless they were all but starving, there's no way they would willingly eat it - the very idea would be utterly revolting. But in truth, is there anything "inherent" about horse meat or dog meat that makes it revolting? Is it unhealthy? Does it taste bad? It may be both of those things, but it may be neither of them. In any case, that's not the "reason" people find such meat detestable. It's a cultural taboo, plain and simple. Other cultures don't have that taboo and have absolutely no problem eating it.

Point being, food taboos are hugely powerful, even among rational, scientific-minded, modern folks, despite the fact that the "reasons" for certain meats being acceptable and others detestable are wholly subjective, and even hard to describe, the sources of these delineations existing in a murky and distant past. Why would we expect it to be any different for Israel and its food taboos? Only whereas we take our food taboos for granted and otherwise gloss over the topic, the Torah preferred to cast the taboo as a divine command, and to lay out a set of identifying criteria that fits the animals eaten, e.g. split hooves and rumination.

That's the intuition I began with. And lo and behold, Milgrom brings up this very issue!

Milgrom's question - hygienist vs. anthropologist

Speaking about the kosher signs, Milgrom asks:
"[W]hich came first, the criteria or their application? Were the animals first tabooed and criteria were later devised to justify the taboos or, the reverse, criteria were drawn up first which then were used in classifying the animals?" (Milgrom, Yale Anchor Bible, Leviticus Vol. I, p. 727)
In Milgrom's assessment, these choices track two well-known approaches to the issue: hygienic and anthropological.

The hygienic approach (cited traditionally by Rambam, Ramban, Rashbam, and more recently by the archaeologist William Albright in 1968) asserts that the animals proscribed by the Torah were known to be disease carriers. As Milgrom says, "the pig is a bearer of trichinosis, the hare of tularemia; carrion-eating birds harbor disease, and fish without fins and scales attract disease because they are mud burrowers." But Milgrom also cites objections to this theory, such as the camel being "a succulent delicacy for the Arabs to this day, and there is no evidence that they suffer gastronomically." Also, "[I]f hygiene were the sole reason for the diet laws... Why were poisonous plants not prohibited?" (Ibid, p. 719)

The anthropological approach's most well-known exponent is Mary Douglas (1966). Upon observing complex dietary regulations among various tribes and cultures, Douglas concluded that humans have a fundamental need to mentally organize the world around them into categories of beneficial vs. harmful, pure vs. impure. One aspect of Douglas' approach is her theory of "dirt," which she defines not in the hygienic sense but rather as "matter out of place." So for instance, land-going creatures are pure ("in place") when they walk on four legs, upon hooves. But they are impure ("out of place") when they crawl or walk on their paws. (To be honest, I don't understand why that would be, but I haven't read Douglas' material, so I'll assume she explains it better.) And more generally, "pure" and "impure" designations of animals also represent values ("good" and "bad") held by the society. Milgrom rebuffs Douglas's theory of dirt, since it doesn't account properly for things like cloven hooves (as opposed to solid), but he accepts the values-orientation as a viable explanation for kosher signs.

To sum up: The hygienic approach starts with observation. First, one observes aspects of the natural world, and afterward, kosher signs are constructed as an aid to help people identify which creatures to ingest and which to stay away from. The anthropological approach starts with conceptualization. Kosher signs are based on what the society values, what it considers to be "in place" or "out of place." Only then are animals observed to see whether they fall into the "pure" category or not.

Camel, hare, hyrax and pig - Milgrom's key

Milgrom offers a solution based on the four "anomalous quadrupeds," the land animals the Torah mentions with only one kosher sign and not the other, namely: the camel, hare, hyrax and pig. According to Milgrom, if these are merely examples of one-signed creatures, and ancient Israel knew of other such animals, then the hygienist is correct. If this is a complete list however, the anthropologist is correct. He notes that the list is incomplete. With the llama and hippopotamus there are six one-signed animals, not four. However, the llama was South American, unknown to ancient Israel, and despite the hippopotamus being known to Israel, its cloven hooves were too subtle to detect. Therefore insofar as Israel was concerned, the list was complete. So Milgrom says:
"The verdict is clear and decisive: the criteria came first and only afterward four anomalies were found." (Ibid, p. 728)
In other words, the anthropological approach is correct.

Frankly, I'm baffled by this. First off, why does a "complete list" rule out the hygienic hypothesis? (If anyone can explain this to me, I'd be most grateful!) Second, why can't we say that the taboo came first, followed by signs (as an aid to circumscribe the taboo), followed then by the identification of anomalies? Milgrom makes a good point that the hyrax lived in outlying areas and was not a candidate for Israel's diet. Meaning it's not that the hyrax wasn't eaten because it was known to be "diseased." Rather, it was seen in the wilderness and assessed based on kosher criteria, appearing to be ruminant but lacking cloven hooves. That explains why the hyrax made the list of anomalies. It doesn't imply however that sheep and goats are allowed only because they were observed to possess the right signs. These animals had been raised as livestock going back to the end of the Ice Age!

Milgrom himself acknowledges that even before the kosher signs were devised, the pig had long since been a detested animal - not only among Israel, but widely throughout the Ancient Near East. Indeed, the pig was used by surrounding cultures in chthonic cultic rites specifically involving the deities of the underworld, a practice which penetrated Israel to a degree and added further ideological fuel to the taboo. Herotodus describes the Egyptian priesthood as abstaining from pork. Perhaps pork consumption was considered unfitting for Israel, as an aspiring "kingdom of priests." A notable exception of pork-consumers was the Philistine people, Israel's arch-enemy through the early monarchy. According to Milgrom, the Torah added the criterion of rumination specifically to exclude the pig. Otherwise, cloven hooves alone would have sufficed.

In other words, Milgrom admits that at least in the case of the pig, the taboo came first. In this particular case, the taboo may have been in part a question of religious revulsion. Compare that to other non-kosher animals - lions, bears, donkeys, dogs, and so on. These were likely no less taboo, on account of their meat being seen as revolting or unclean, just that they lacked the religious/ideological connotations of the pig. The four-legged animals eaten by Israel (including occasionally-eaten wildlife such as deer) were observed as all sharing the characteristic of being cloven-hooved, and unlike the pig they also chewed their cud. That's how the criteria came to be - or so one could postulate.

So to sum up the anomalies: The camel and hare were animals eaten by other peoples but were a culinary taboo for Israel. The pig represented a religious/ideological taboo in addition to any culinary taboo, so it had to be included in the list. Or more accurately, if not for the pig, there would be no "list" of anomalies, since cud-chewing wouldn't have been a criterion. The hyrax was taboo like any other wild, non-domesticated animal which bore no resemblance to a livestock animal like sheep or cattle. It probably never occurred to ancient Israel to eat such a thing. Yet it looked like a ruminant, so it made the list.

My tentative conclusion - some truth on each side

From time immemorial (think Cain and Abel's sacrifices), certain animals such as sheep were considered "proper" to eat, and other animals not. And every culture, including Israel, had its own long-standing norms and taboos. So I'm not convinced of Milgrom's position in the "chicken-egg" (which came first) debate. To posit that the kosher signs determined which animals to eat and which not strikes me as historically implausible. It seems to me much more likely that the kosher signs came to circumscribe and reinforce existing taboos.

However, I do think the anthropological approach has merit. As Milgrom rightly points out, the term kadosh ("holy") appears frequently in proximity to dietary laws. Israel is to be holy, which in part relates to maintaining a reverence for life - not consuming blood ("life") nor animals such as predators or scavengers which themselves consume blood, limiting the number of animal species whose lives can be taken for food, limiting the conditions in which animal life can be taken, e.g. using certain slaughtering techniques, eating the meat in the Sanctuary, etc.

I should add that I don't fully subscribe to the "hygienist's" approach either. Yes, looking at the purity laws (notably involving skin ailments, bodily discharges, dead things, contamination, quarantine etc.), one would be hard-pressed to leave health concerns out of the picture entirely. However, as I mentioned earlier, food taboos can exist without having anything whatsoever to do with disease. What's more, the very concept of "disease" as relating to physical health is a modern one. For ancient peoples, the physical, moral and religious spheres were inseparably bound together, in part because they didn't understand the physiological basis of illness. (That said, they may have had a "holistic" edge on us moderns, by recognizing and accounting for the interconnectedness between physical, mental and emotional well-being.)

Further, one phrase I was surprised that Milgrom did not comment on is tamei hu lachem, "impure for you" (Lev 11:4, my emphasis added), relating to the anomalous, one-signed animals. As I mention in my book Ohr HaShachar, this phrase implies that these animals are impure "for Israel," i.e. not necessarily for others. If impurity is equated with disease, how could the Torah say that a certain meat is impure "for you"? Would only Israelites contract the disease? Clearly "impure for you" implies something else in addition to the threat of contracting disease. (And I hope to get into that in my next installment.)

So yes, the origin of food-related taboos may have had a health "component" to it. But the language the Torah uses to describe these laws is not merely technical or pragmatic; it's symbolic and values-driven. We tend to think of the Torah as the "source," with texts like the Talmud and Midrash being "commentaries." But it seems to me that what's likely here is that the Torah itself is commenting on, explaining, organizing and infusing religious meaning into a preexisting set of norms and taboos. Which one might say makes the Torah sound more prosaic. To me, it makes the Torah all the more familiar and relatable, less like an Ancient Near Eastern text and much more like the Judaism I know - taking "what is" and imbuing it with positive meaning.