June 18, 2004

Religious Coercion and the Pig

The big news from the Middle East this week is that the Supreme Court in Israel has overruled a long-standing convention to forbid shops in Israel from selling pork. This convention is part of what is called The Status Quo. This was an arrangement that the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, entered into with the religious parties after Israel’s Independence to ensure the basic Jewish character of what otherwise was a secular state.

Over the years things have changed in both directions. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mainly but not exclusively from Eastern Europe are not Jews. On the other hand religious life has gained significant additional benefits over time than were originally envisioned. And of course the tension between religious and non-religious has created a terribly unhealthy climate of hatred towards clericalism that explains why so many Israelis when they leave Israel have absolutely nothing to do with Jewish communities or Jewish life.

I am very much in favor of separating Church and State. I believe religion does better in those countries like the USA where they are. I would like to see total freedom of religious practice in Israel. But obviously I would hope that ultimately the religious would succeed in winning people over through persuasion and education rather than compulsion.

But many feel a particular revulsion about pork for all sorts of historical and psychological reasons. As one religious leader said, “This is the end of the Jewish character of Israel.”

Well if it is, then it says more about the failure of Judaism than Israel, if compulsion is the only way you can ensure it.

The Midrash in Kedoshim says, “A person shouldn’t say, ‘I couldn’t bear to eat pork.’ Rather he should say, ‘I want to, but I can’t because it is forbidden.’”

There is nothing intrinsically evil about any food. It is simply a matter of our religious laws. If others want to stuff themselves silly on unhealthy kosher food that is their problem and decision, as is that of a vegetarian or a pork eater.

The way to win people to religious Judaism is not by interfering in their lives but by making ours so remarkable that others might be inclined to give it a try!

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