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11/27/2017 09:30:23 AM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

The Kosher Pig®
Vayetzei 5778

As Jacob prepares to leave the land of his birthplace, the land of Canaan, the land of our heritage, he dreams a dream.  His dream is not just a mere dream, but a symbol to him as he journeys outward to the world.

“Jacob dreamt a dream.  And behold his ladder was firmly attached to the ground and its top was climbing heavenward, vehineh sulam mutzvav artzah, verosho magiah hashamaimah” (Bereishit, 25:12).

I love this image of Jacob’s ladder.  Here is what the image means to me.

Jacob’s ladder is firm on the ground, but it is not resting on anything.  It just keeps climbing towards heaven.  It means that our faith must be rooted and grounded, but at the same time it must be dynamic, soaring heavenward.  Rooted, but not static.  Dynamic, but not floating.  

Too rooted and we run the risk of becoming stagnant.  Too dynamic and we become separated from our tradition.

This image to me must be our anthem – we must be both rooted and dynamic.

As a case study lets discuss inyana deyoma, the matters of the day: whether or not the turkey is a kosher bird.

On the one hand, turkey is of course kosher.  After all, its sold in all the kosher stores and it is a staple of our diet.  On the other hand, the matter is actually very complicated.

Birds are different than other creatures in that the Torah doesn’t give us signs to indicate if they are kosher.  Instead, the Torah lists 24 specific birds and “their types” as being non-kosher.  All other birds are presumably kosher.  

Yet, we do not know how to identify properly these 24 birds, so the Talmud lists four character traits which help us determine if a bird is kosher: 1) the bird cannot be a dores, a bird of prey.  But note that there is a dispute as to what this means; 2) the bird must have a crop; 3) a gizzard that can be peeled; and 4) an extra toe that is larger than the other toes.

Since there is dispute about how to identify some of these characteristics, Rashi writes that one can only eat a bird if there is a strong tradition (mesorah) that the bird is kosher.  This is how Rema rules as well in his gloss on the Shulchan Arukh—even if a bird has all the necessary traits, we cannot eat the bird without a mesorah.

The difficulty as it relates to eating turkey is that turkey was certainly a bird that the Jewish community did not have a mesorah about.  The domesticated turkey that we eat today comes from Mexico, and there were no Jews in Mexico until after Columbus’ time.  The first time that the turkey reached Europe was only in 1524!

So how can we eat turkey today?

Actually, there are some rabbis who are strict about it.  Thus, Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (d. 1869), Chief Dayan of Brody, writes if there is no a mesorah we cannot eat a bird.  Students of R. Hershel Schachter have said that he is personally careful not to eat turkey, despite the fact that R. Schachter writes that his own teacher, R. Soloveitchik, specifically permitted eating turkey on Thanksgiving (Nefesh Harav, 231).

Nevertheless, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of Jewish people consider turkey to be a kosher bird, so how do we reconcile this phenomenon with the fact that there was no mesorah that turkey is kosher.

There have been many attempts to answer this question, but the one that is most interesting to me is that of R. Naftali Zevi Yehuda of Berlin, Rosh Yeshiva of the famed Volozhin yeshiva (Netziv, 1816-1893).

Netziv’s argument is that even though from a technical perspective there are certainly questions about how a mesorah for the turkey was established, once it became accepted by the overwhelming majority of Jews, that in and of itself became the new mesorah.  

So despite the fact that there was no mesorah at all about the turkey, since enough Jews started eating it –at first without explicit rabbinic sanction -- that turned it into a viable mesorah.

This to me is a radical idea that suggests that the concept of mesorah, which is so often wielded as a sword against any change happening in the halakhic Jewish community can in reality be a shield as well. 

I see two major implications:

1) It demonstrates that mesorah can be created, where none was before – even in the face of clear Jewish law on the matter.

2) The example of the turkey shows that people –the amcha—can create a mesorah even without rabbinic imprimatur. 

This concept of mesorah understands that mesorah is not a chain tethering us to the past but a dynamic link to the future.

Even the Orthodox Union (OU) which cites mesorah as a reason preventing women from being considered clergy, itself recognizes that mesorah is actually an elastic concept.

For example, when the OU published the decision of leading rabbis to ban women from the rabbinate, the rabbis themselves wrote: “The idea of mesorah is often mistaken as a mere historical record of Jewish practice. That misunderstanding, combined with both the absence of historical uniformity of normative practice, and the gradual evolution of halakhah, can be misconstrued as compromising the authenticity of mesorah. Authentic mesorah is rather an appreciation for, and application of, tradition as the guide by which new ideas, challenges and circumstances are navigated.”

I completely agree with the OU in this regard.  Mesorah does not mean that we can’t do something just because it was never done before.  Rather, it means that we should use our tradition as a guide to how we act in the future.

The image of Jacob’s ladder is to me the image of how we should act in the future.  On the one hand tethered to the past and on the other hand climbing forward towards the heavens while embracing change and an evolving world.  

This idea that our religion will change in a dynamic fashion is actually a basic principle of what our messianic era will look like.

R. Hayyim ibn Attar, in his classic and revered commentary on the Torah (1696-1743, Ohr Hachaim, Vayikra 11:3) cites a source that declares, “Why is a pig called in Hebrew a chazir? Because one day it will return (chozer) to become permissible.”  He himself explains that in messianic times the pig will somehow become kosher.

I imagine that for over two hundred years as traditional Jews studied that text our ancestors were at a loss as to how that could even be possible.  But it is very possible!

A few weeks ago, after realizing that we are indeed very close to making a kosher pig, I submitted a trademark application for the term, The Kosher Pig. 

Here is how we can have a kosher pig:

The Talmud in Sanhedrin records an incident in which some people were mocking rabbis by saying, “What do these rabbis ever do for us?  They can’t permit a raven and they can’t forbid a dove.  Lo sharu lan orvah, ve-lo-asru lan yonah” (Sanhedrin, 100a).

R. Yissacher Ber Eilenberg (16th c., Beer Sheva, ad locum) comments on this text that if he was there he would have defended the rabbis by citing a text from tractate Chullin (69b) which states that if a kosher animal is slaughtered and inside it a pig is found, then that pig is considered kosher.  And so, he argues, the rabbis can in fact make a pig kosher by citing that situation.

When I read that commentary I felt that today we are not that far off from such a reality through interspecific pregnancies.  Scientists are now experimenting by taking the embryo of a panda and inserting it into a cat.  And some scientists who I spoke with imagine that interspecific pregnancies are a real possibility for the not too distant future.  

So we can imagine a world in which a pig embryo might soon be inserted into a cow.  Then as the cow carries the pig to gestation, we have another halakhah called a ben pekua—if we slaughter the cow just before it gives birth, then the fetus in the cow is actually kosher even without ritual slaughter (shechitah).  So if we take a pig embryo and insert it into a cow, and then slaughter this pregnant cow, the fetus will be permitted to be eaten without shechita.  If we mate two such pigs then their offspring and their offspring’s offspring for eternity will be kosher without even a required shechitah.

Now you are probably thinking one of two things:

1) This rabbi is out of his mind—a kosher pig -- impossible!

2) Who needs it?   

To address the first question: I called up numerous rabbis with my suggestion.  No one disproved it.  But the most interesting response was one I got from a senior rabbi at a very well respected kosher supervising agency.  He said to me why are you talking to me about the theoretical.  Instead, let me tell you what is actually happening as we speak.  I just got off the phone with the CEO of a company that is currently producing meat in a laboratory.  He wants us to provide supervision for his product.  We are prepared to do it and, he continued, I think that such meat should be considered pareve—i.e. non-meat.

So pareve meat is coming.  Not in 50 years with leisure space travel, but in less than 5 years.

If one argues that such meat is pareve, that means it is not meat at all.  If so, then one can advance the argument that such meat when produced from the cells of a pig are also pareve, and therefore kosher!

And so we can easily envision a time in the not too distant future where after shul on Friday night people will go home in their self-driving Kosher Shabbat cars and sit down at their Shabbat table and eat their kosher pigs with their Swedish meatballs and it will all be one hundred percent in accordance with Orthodox interpretation of halakhah. (There are many other benefits of this laboratory produced meat: hopefully it will help diminish hunger; be a huge advancement for animal welfare; and improve our environment.)

But that leads us to the second question: who needs it?

I certainly don’t need it from the perspective of a desire to eat a piece of pork.  But I do need it for what it represents. 

Some people will hear this and fear the consequences.  

This is not a new phenomenon.  With every change there is fear.  The Torah says, “You shall not kindle a fire in your dwelling places on Shabbat” (Shemot 35:3).  

In Temple times there were certain sects of Jews who understood this to mean that no fire was allowed at all in the house on Shabbat.  But the rabbis said, “No, it just means that one can’t kindle a fire, but a pre-existing flame is not only permitted, it is ideal!” The rabbis said, “vekarata leshabbat oneg, you must call the Shabbat a delight.  This is the commandment to light the Shabbat candles, as to sit in the dark is not a delight (Tanchuma, Bereishit 1).

Being connected to our tradition means recognizing that our tradition is not afraid of change and of recognizing the dynamism of the world around us.

There is a reason why the Ohr Hachaim said that in the messianic age a pig will be kosher.

There can be nothing more fundamentally non-kosher than a pig.  And yet, in the messianic era it will be kosher.  This to me is symbolic of the concept that our faith must always be evolving.

Of course there are very scary consequences to all this.  Think about how the internet has changed our world with so much good coming out of it, and yet, there is so much danger associated with it.  Not all innovation is good.  

That’s why we must return to the image of the ladder.  We must be firmly rooted in the ground while we dream for the future.

And for the future, the potential is enormous: If we can make a pig kosher, and ignore the lack of an historical mesorah as it relates to turkey, then certainly we can address fundamental inequities in our faith that are tearing people’s lives apart – like, for example, the fact that there is still even one single agunah.  If we can solve the problem of a kosher pig, then for sure we can fix some of the world’s real problems—like hunger and poverty, and hatred that exists in the hearts of man!

Our religion is not static.  It is grounded firmly, but it is very much soaring heavenward!

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780