Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cheeseburger! - Of Torah, Swine and Desire

I am tempted by the smell of cheeseburgers.

There, I said it.

I also sometimes pine after the taste of a spicy pork sandwich that I ate at a cafe on the Greek island of Samos - before I became religiously observant - in the summer of 1988.

Say something like this at a shabbos table, and witness the metamorphoses of otherwise self-possessed seminary girls, like Odysseus's men on Circe's island, transformed by facial contortions, gagging noises and squealing sounds of disgust: 'Ichh!!!'

Rabbi Elezar ben Azariah says, 'from where do we know that a person should not say "I am repulsed by pulled pork bbq sandwiches," or "I do not want to wear that Armani cashmere suit with linen lining?, but rather a person should say, 'I really want these things, but what can I do?, my Father in Heaven decrees that I must not?' Rabbi Elezar continues, 'from the verse: "And I will separate you from the nations of the world to be Mine."' God does not separate the people of Israel from the nations through magical decree or genetic fiat - the Torah provides the means through which the Jewish people can separate and distinguish themselves. As Rabbi Elezar reads the verse, 'you, the people of Israel - through adhering to the Torah - will separate yourselves for My Glory.'

The command to Israel to separate itself from the nations of the world comes at the end of the weekly portion Kedoshim which, Rashi explains, was taught to all of the people of Israel - men, women and children - because upon its principles all of the Torah depends. In a portion which begins by exacting 'you shall be holy' - explained as distancing oneself from illicit relationships - Rabbi Elezar insists that when it comes to observing chukim, G-d's heavenly decrees, or 'ordinances' as King James renders, He wants the people of Israel to be honest about their desires. Being scrupulous about G-d's decrees does not mean pretending to be something we are not.

'Do not walk in the ordinances of the nations of the world,' G-d commands, 'but rather you shall keep My ordinances.' In Onkelos's Aramaic translation, the 'chukim' of the nations are n'musot, manners or social forms. It's not just the people of Israel that abide by unquestioned decrees: all cultures - true in ancient Athens as well in my hometown in Long Island - abide by social forms, not necessarily rational, which are accepted unquestionably and from which one does not divert. In the time of the sages, it was participating in the culture of 'stadiums' and 'theaters' - what every one does, because ... that's just what you do. They are engraved for the nations - chukim - in the sense that they are engraved, accepted and unquestioned, social conventions. The people of Israel have their own chukim - also not subject to rational explanation. But they are the decrees of the divine. Separating from the nations means avoiding their particular practices, but also abiding by our chukim in a way that is distinctive. If I simply strive to get in line with accepted norms of social behavior - 'I hate pork!' - then I am turning G-d's will into etiquette advice.

Our service is difference. So Rabbi Elazar tells us: 'You should separate yourself from transgression.' Separation comes through an action, and chukim - more than any of the other of the Torah's laws - show our separateness. So we acknowledge to ourselves that left to our own, we might do otherwise. We are not embarrassed by our desires, treating them like pictures in an old photograph album to be hidden away from the children; they are part of our service. To say that my desires are already in line with the will of G-d may appear righteous - what people in my community call 'frum' - but ask Rabbi Elazar: it is not what G-d wants. To the contrary, if I refrain from b-l-t's and the latest fashion because I claim it's natural to me, then I am following the ways of the nations. Through acknowledging my desires and refraining in any event, I distance myself from transgression, enacting my separateness.

True, some things - especially given current epidemiological realities - may seem truly disgusting.

But if we claim to find things repulsive which G-d knows we really want, then we are - because of our over-zealous attempts at frumkeit - becoming more like the nations, and less like the chosen servants of G-d. G-d wants our separateness, but to fulfill the command, 'you shall be holy,' to be truly separate, we can't pretend a robotic observance, but we need - another paradox - to recognize our humanity even as we perform G-d's will.


sayheykid said...

That's not just a cheeseburger. That one is a Bacon Cheeseburger.
Did I miss the point - cuz I can't stop thinking about bacon cheeseburgers.

naomi said...

Well said. I think it's an important message to people (Jewish or not) who view Judaism as a mark of superiority over others. I suppose my only question would be, 'how about the rational justification of chukim and the belief in a morality beyond human comprehension as a basis for these chukim?' Does that tread on the same ground as these sem girls?

wdk said...

That's right Willie (hope you don't mind the familiarity), that is a Bacon Cheese Burger! - and as long as you are not eating one, you are getting the point!

And Naomi, I'm not sure, do graduate students and sem girls - horror of horrors! - tread on the same ground? Don't know - I have to think more about your suggestive question...

Tr8erGirl said...

As long as we are making confessions.....I'd like to eat Marshmallow Peeps! Kosher marshmallows are gross!

Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

The one thing that keeps bringing me back here William is your honesty. Some of your arguments drive me nuts but your honesty is commendable, your intellectual gift intriguing and your constant searching within Judaism identifiable. I guess when it all comes down to it, pork suvlaki, bacon cheese burger what ever we jews share a jewish neshama!