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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

A Jewish state I: pigs

Galilee Diary #186;
June 20, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

In 1956, the Knesset enacted a law empowering municipalities to prohibit the sale of pork. Some did so. Some enforced their prohibitions. While the vast majority of stores in Jewish communities sell only kosher meat, it has always been possible to get “white steak” in certain restaurants, mainly in cities like Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Eilat. In 1970, I was working as a research assistant in the physiology department of the Negev Institute for Arid Zone Research in Beersheba, and we made a house call to take blood samples from pigs at nearby Kibbutz Lahav; it seems that Lahav got permission to raise pigs by declaring themselves a scientific research facility – and indeed, kept a biologist on staff and published papers on pig physiology, in order to be able to operate their pig farm.

Recently, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned several cities’ pork bans, and required them to submit revised laws, that would take account of neighborhoods’ religious makeup: in neighborhoods where religious Jews are a small minority, pork sale would be permitted; where there is a significant observant population, municipalities could ban it. In other words, the prohibition of pork would be a response to local public sensitivity; i.e., avoiding offending the sensibilities of kashrut-observing Jews – sparing them the anguish of seeing pork, or of seeing other Jews buying it. This sees the “problem” of pork sale as a personal one: kashrut-observing Jews should have the right to be spared the sight, smell, and presence of pork, just like the moderate majority should have the right to be spared the sight of hard-core pornography on billboards.

However, many Israelis – Orthodox and not – see the pork question differently. For example, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a well-known liberal Zionist-Orthodox educator, wrote in response to the Supreme Court decision:

Slowly, the State of Israel is shedding its collective Jewish identity. The State of Israel itself is liable to undergo a process of assimilation, one which is led by the Supreme Court and its discourse about rights… the exclusive adoption of discourse about rights, in the absence of a principle which obligates the preservation of the state’s Jewish identity, detracts from the state’s public-Jewish character. Public solidarity disappears, as do mutual help, commitments to social morality, and open-hearted Jewish ethos.

That is, pork should not be banned because it offends the religious, but because allowing pork to be sold undermines the Jewish identity of the state. And when Jewish identity withers, so will Jewish values. The question is, of course, whether that equation is valid: to what extent is kashrut a fundamental element of Jewish identity? To what extent is the Jewishness of the Jewish state manifest in how difficult the state makes it for a citizen to obtain a BLT? While only about 15-25% of Israelis could be defined as “Orthodox,” 58% refrain from eating pork. That means that for most of the population, pork does have symbolic significance as an element of their Jewish identity. However, are Jewish values served by preventing the other 42% from eating pork? Or at least by making it inconvenient to do so?

I must admit I agree with Rabbi Cherlow’s argument that the prohibition of pork should not be seen as based on protecting kashrut-observing Jews from the trauma of seeing pork; after all, the halachah does not prohibit seeing or even petting pigs (dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, and camels aren’t kosher, either)! However, once we let the genie of democracy and individual rights out of the bottle, I’m not sure we can stuff it back inside. There are all kinds of Jews, and many of them see no conflict between their Jewishness and their consumption of pork. Eating pork is certainly a victimless crime (except for the pig). No one has suggested that Christians in Israel be prohibited from raising pigs and eating pork. So - can a democratic state really prohibit some of its citizens from buying certain foods? And can a Jewish state ignore the significance of the abstention from pork (even to the point of martyrdom) as a symbol of Jewish identity?

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