Thursday, January 7, 2010

Jewish Food Laws from the Perspective of Fish

As noted in an earlier post, I am reading Jose Saramago's Gospel according to Jesus Christ, and, in a portion when Jesus is with Simon and Andrew telling them to cast their nets again when they had not yet caught fish. Upon having their nets surprisingly full of fish (and, in this version, Jesus is equally surprised, although has some troubling feelings that God--who is not portrayed in a particularly favorable light in the novel--is behind it), Saramago writes about the food laws, but from the perspective of the fish:

...the net may have caught fish, but the law, as elsewhere, is quite unambiguous, Behold what you may eat of the various aquatic species, you may eat anything in the waters, seas, and rivers that has fins and scales, but that which has neither fins nor scales, whether they be creatures that breed or that live in the water, you will shun and abhor them for all time, you will refrain from eating the flesh of everything in the water that has neither fins nor scales, and treat them as abomination. And so the despised fish with smooth skins, those that cannot be served at the table of the people of the Lord, were returned to the sea, many of them so accustomed to this by now that they no longer worried when caught in the nets, for they knew they would soon be back in the water and out of danger. With their fish mentality, they believed themselves the recipients of some special favor from the Creator, perhaps even of a special love, so that in time they came to consider themselves superior to other fish, for those in the boats must have committed grievous sins beneath the dark water for God to let them perish so mercilessly.
(trans. Giovonni Pontiero)

This is a particularly striking (at least to me) way of reframing the kashrut. For the unclean fish, the abominable sea creatures, it is a special dispensation; their neglect is salvation and the acceptance of the fish with fins and scales is a mark of their sinfulness. Perhaps God does have a special place in the heart for those animals rejected by the food laws and that's why they are forbidden to be eaten--that is at least one level of reading. The other level is parabolic: the rejected fish who think they are actually the good, righteous fish are those people who are righteous in their own eyes and yet, in reality, their very survival and seemingly good lives by comparison to other "fish" marks their rejection; those who we see as sinners, the kept fish, are the accepted ones. While in some ways Saramago's gospel could be read as an anti-gospel--in this very scene, Jesus is not in control; he has an intuition and the response troubles him and rightly so, because God is portrayed as a bloodthirsty villain whereas his opponent, Pastor, is portrayed as the one who seeks to save lives--this is a very gospel-like maneuver of reversal: those whom you see as righteous are the rejected; those who seem the sinners are the accepted.


Michael said...

I think it is in Leviticus as Literature that Mary Douglas points out the benefits awarded animals not kosher under Jewish dietary rules. She speculates that such rules represent an attempt at ethical treatment of animals in the Torah. Working on the hypothesis of the Torah's composition in the Persian period she notes that the concern for animals is a key issue in religious and philosophical discourse then, from the Mediterranean to India.

I think there's a lot of merit in her argument.

Jared said...

Thanks Michael. I have always liked Mary Douglas despite her structuralism more broadly being considered passe today. Her discussions of systems of symbols has a great deal of explanatory value. And I do like the broader perspective ("mediterranean to india"), and have heard the "ethical treatment" in other respects of the kashrut (the manner of slaughtering, etc.). I read her leviticus book a couple years ago, but do not recall that aspect of her discussion--I personally better recall her discussion of literary technique and the broader architecture of Leviticus as based upon the zones of holiness on Sinai as mapped onto the Tabernacle. I have her book on Numbers on my to-read list. I have been greatly enjoying thinking about the different perspectives given throughout Jose Saramago's novel. I personally have never thought about the fins and scales rule from the perspective of a non-kosher fish! :)

Michael said...

Jared, her book on Numbers is very definitely worth reading as is her book Jacob's Tears, and, checking my copy I see she does discuss this there but not to the same detail I recall reading i.e. the concern for ethical treatment of animals in the broader ancient world around the presumed time of Leviticus' composition (5th-4th centuries BCE) And right now I cant find my copy of Leviticus as Literature :(

But, yes, being non-kosher is really good news for prawns and crabs and rabbits and pigs etc