Sunday, March 30, 2008

Kosher Pigs: Why This Pesach is Different

The Jewish Week

The late and beloved Rabbi Richard Israel once wrote a book entitled, “The Kosher Pig.” The intriguing title stems from a story he tells about a pious Jew who was told by his doctor that he had a rare disease that could be cured only by eating pork. Now Jewish law states that in order to save a life, virtually any of its requirements can -- in fact must -- be broken. But that wasn't enough for this man. He determined that the pig had to be slaughtered in the Kosher way, painlessly, before he ate it. So he brought the pig to the local ritual slaughterer, who acquired a special knife that would never be used on a Kosher animal. After slaughtering it in the “proper” ritual manner, the Shochet examined the pig's lungs to look for blemishes. He had no idea what he was looking at, but he finally concluded that the lungs had no serious abrasions (and was therefore “smooth” or “glatt”).

"So, nu?" the man asked, "Rabbi, is this pig kosher?" "The rabbi examined the lungs for some time and the declared, "It may be Kosher, but it's still a pig."

Modern Jewish life is filled with Kosher pigs, utter inconsistencies that we sometimes hardly notice; but they are there, and they are enlightening.

This year, Passover begins on a Saturday night, something we haven’t experienced since 1994. I can recall receiving numerous inquiries that year as to when one should stop eating bread: on Friday morning or Saturday morning? I tend to go by the book on matters of tradition (when I sneeze, I even say “Ah-choo!”), so without hesitation, I offered the traditional response, which is that was that the house should be virtually hametz-free on Friday, before Shabbat.

Now why is that?

Because one is not supposed to clean a house on Shabbat, or do the kinds of things we do to get rid of hametz: burn it, sell it, etc. -- the kinds of activities, incidentally, that most Jews would not hesitate to undertake on any given Shabbat.

To be "consistent" with his normal practice, the non-Shabbat observer should simply have ignored my advice and eaten bread until Saturday morning. Why should this Shabbat be different from all other Shabbats? That week in 1994, however, many people had their houses ready for Passover by Friday afternoon because they wanted to do Passover "right," when in fact they were rushing their preparations in order to keep Shabbat rules they don't normally keep.

The same thing happens every year regarding dietary restrictions. On Passover, otherwise non-Kashrut-observant Jews become fanatic about ridding their homes of leaven and bringing matzah sandwiches to the classroom or office. A ham-on-matzah sandwich is hardly an unthinkable scenario in this perplexing world of Kosher Pigs. It's kind of like the guy who drives to synagogue on Yom Kippur but tells the policeman writing him a ticket that he can't put money in the meter on a Jewish holiday.

Some more gems from Richard Israel’s book: "Rabbi, I am marrying an Episcopalian woman. Can I get married during the week after Passover?"

And another: "An observant Jew has just made a serious pass at me. Do you think he will want me to go to Mikva before I have an affair with him?"


One commercial fisherman in California called his rabbi to see if it was kosher to use pieces of squid as bait when he goes fishing. An interesting question, because squid has no fins and scales and is therefore unkosher; but does it affect the Kashrut of the fish caught? A fascinating question, except that he called the rabbi on Saturday morning to ask it.

Harold Kushner tells of another beaut. He was at a clergy meeting, and everyone brown bagged their lunches. The local Reform rabbi brought a ham and cheese sandwich, and before he began to eat it, he paused and recited ha-motzi. His Orthodox colleague said to him, "Aren't you being a hypocrite, saying that prayer over blatantly non-Kosher food?" He replied, "Not at all. The Jewish dietary laws don't impress me as religiously valuable; but the habit of thanking God for having food to eat impresses me very much."

Kushner's reaction is interesting. He disagrees with that rabbi's evaluation of the dietary laws, as do I, but he appreciates the seriousness of the response. A good Jew, he concludes, cannot be measured by checking someone's dietary habits or counting how often someone prays. A good Jew is someone who is constantly striving to become a better Jew.

All of these people are, to some degree, serious Jews, and for that alone we must commend them. We might laugh at the inconsistency, we might even call it hypocrisy, but if they are hypocrites, we should all be so hypocritical. We all must learn the difference between pretending and striving, between going half way in earnest and throwing it all away without giving it half a chance.

To be a hypocrite means that at least we've set high, virtuous goals for ourselves, even if we don't always live up to them. I'd rather do that, and fall short, then set no high standards at all. Most of us are so afraid of being called hypocrites that we take the easy road. If we expect little of ourselves, we usually deliver.

So as we approach this unusual alignment of Passover and Shabbat, let’s allow for a little Kosher Pig-headedness. If you’ve rarely kept Shabbat in this manner before, don’t feel funny about keeping it a little more meticulously this time. You might even enjoy it. It’s OK to be inconsistent, especially when the alternative is to cop an all or nothing plea and then cop out.

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