Sermon – What the Pig Did Wrong

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 13 April 2012

So what is it that we have against the pig? Why, of all the animals that James named for us in the Torah portion this morning, is it the poor hog that has become so emblematic of Kashrut?  Why is it that even many highly assimilated Jews refrain from eating pig while rejecting all other dietary laws? Why not the camel?  Or the hare?  Or even the daman, whatever that might be? These also get a mention in Leviticus, so why is it the swine that gets all the press?  Horses, donkeys – also not Kosher – but if you ask what Jews don’t eat… always with the pig!

And it really is, ‘always with the pig’.  Twice in the book of Isaiah the pig is referred to as an ‘abomination’.  The Yerushalmi calls the pig a ‘walking privy’, while the Bavli states that even when a pig has just come out of the river – that is, even when it is physically clean – its mouth is still the equivalent of ‘passing excrement’.   In a similar vein, the Book of Proverbs doesn’t like the pig either, using the metaphor “like a jewel of gold in a pig’s snout”.  So why is it that of all the dietary prohibitions, it is only the pig that is subject to such attention?

It is a question especially worth asking because there is some pretty strong evidence that the non-eating of pig is a very early feature of Israelite life indeed.  There is evidence that not eating pig stretches back possibly 500 years before the laws of Kashrut were codified in the Torah.  As it is quite so ancient, and has been quite so tenacious a practice, it is worth trying to work out the reason for it.

In truth, easier said than done.  We can probably rule out one explanation.  I’m afraid that, James, your answer, health and hygiene, is probably not the reason – or at least not quite enough of a reason.  Though, of course, Maimonides was on your side.  He argues “The major reason that the Law abhors it is its being very dirty and feeding on dirty things”.  But we might ask why only the Israelites would have noticed this and been worried about it.  And why the Torah itself makes no mention of its scavenging habits.  It also doesn’t really explain the rhetoric and its use about only this animal – the biblical word ‘abomination’ is a religious term, not a hygiene one; and when the rabbis use hyperbolic language about cleanliness in this way, it is not generally physical health that they are concerned with, but ritual purity and separateness.

I’m also, though this is only guess work, going to reject the explanation of the Hellenistic Jewish thinker Philo who argued that “The Lawgiver sternly forbade all animals whose flesh is the finest and the fattest, like that of pigs and scaleless fish, knowing that they set a trap for the most slavish of senses, the taste, and that they produced gluttony.”  In other words, pork was just too nice to be eaten – there is no way we could ever stop!

We might instead point a number of anthropological or sociological reasons that are given for the problem with pig. One theory, which we know is the case for other prohibitions in Torah, is that the pig may have been used in cultic practices by other groups in the Ancient Near East, possibly in the worship of the goddess Asherah.  A prohibition on not only the eating but even the breeding of pigs kept Israel separate from these practices.  Another theory is that this was simple economics.  Pigs are not useful for anything other than their meat.  Their need to wallow and wade also made them particularly ill suited to the life of hill dwellers in the Ancient Near East – too expensive to raise by half.

But there is another, more interesting suggestion, from the very nature of the pig itself.  A feature which is named by the portion we read this morning, and identified as significant by both anthropologists and our formative texts, though they express it in different ways. The issue with the pig, is not that it is dirty, or expensive, or from someone else’s ritual practice.  The problem with the pig is what the Torah says – that it has cloven hooves but does not chew the cud.

To the anthropologist Mary Douglas, that makes the pig an aberration – it is neither one thing nor the other – it is a deviation from the norm of ruminating domestic animals and a deviation from wild animals which do not have split hooves.  In Douglas’s understanding – and I would highly recommend her work if you wish to have a very different view of the Book of Leviticus – holiness means wholeness, completeness, and an animal so un-whole, so incomplete, so abnormal, would have no place at the altar, at the table, or in the vicinity of human beings.

To the rabbis, this feature also presented a moral issue.  The midrash Genesis Rabbah asks why Rome could be compared to a pig.  It answers: Just as this evil government robs and commits violence but pretends to be executing legal justice, so the pig when it lies down it stretches out its hooves as if to say ‘I am kosher’.  Because the pig has the outer appearance of a kosher animal but not the inner workings – it has a kosher foot but not a kosher belly – it comes to represent deceit.  It is not only that the pig is not kosher, but that it looks kosher.  It is therefore far worse than the other deviant animals Leviticus names which outwardly reveal that they cannot be eaten. Pigs’ feet represent deceit.  And hence “as kosher as pig’s foot” becomes a Yiddish expression – for one who gives the outer appearance of religiosity, but does not behave that way in their everyday lives.

It is worth noting that the pig acquired another level of symbolic importance between the redaction of the bible and the biblical period.  The persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes, which included the forced consumption of pork – and the willingness of the Maccabees to be martyred rather than comply – gave the non-consumption of meat a layer of meaning that it certainly did not have 1000 years previously.  The hyperbole of the rabbis is hardly surprising when we bear in mind the statement of allegiance and religious identity that non-consumption of that meat must have represented.  Deceit and oppression.  A powerful combination.

So what do we have against the pig?                          Nowadays, not a great deal – it would be harsh to blame oppression on an animal.  Even the deceit it represents cannot be the fault of the species itself.  And the real reasons for the prohibition are definitely lost in the midst of time.  Yet this remains a practice with enormous symbolic power. When we abstain from pork, we place ourselves within a line over three thousand years long.  We are continuing probably the earliest Israelite cultural practice that can be attested to by archaeological evidence. And even if, in truth, we can’t really be sure why, that in itself might well be enough.