Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Salami Conspiracy and Great Evolution Debate

The Italian butcher in the neighborhood I grew up in Johannesburg made salami that is the yardstick by which I measured all salami to follow – the perfect blend of pepper, fat and flesh. Even though it never last long in our household, we were always well stocked. There was only one problem: the salami was made from pork (of course) and for South African Jews consuming pork is seen as tantamount to betrayal. Oddly enough, not opposing a morally reprehensible and economically backwards system never assumed the same taint. Since my mother was the only one in the family who forbid pork in the house, the rest of us concealed the true nature of the salami for about ten years – I managed to keep it concealed until I was 8.

We started to keep a kosher home when my wife converted to Judaism two years ago. Technically speaking, the law of kashrut is a what’s referred to as a ‘(c)hok’ – essentially a law that is entirely derived from commandment and can’t be explained in either societal or spiritual terms. The intention of kashrut, of course, hasn’t deterred Jewish scholars over the years from positing an explanation: Wikipedia on kashrut. Apart from the stipulations on how an animal should be slaughtered, (as humanely as possible) the restrictions can be characterized as relatively arbitrary. Although wine is used in ritual ceremonies, any liquid containing grapes have to be certified as kosher, fermented or not. And while you can make the argument that anyone’s better off avoiding shellfish and pigs given that neither are very discerning about what they eat, what about the docile grass eating rabbit? Or why is it necessary to wait an extended period of time to consumer milk after meat? Why is six hours any better than 15 minutes to have ice cream after a steak?

It’s the arbitrary nature of the restrictions that lead me to my own interpretation of the reason for kashrut. The driving force of evolution is finding the most efficient and sustainable way of securing sufficient food to exist and perpetuate genetic material. While that guiding principle ensures that every ecological niche is neatly filled, the process that drives it is essentially blind. The only outcome that is acceptable is a steady supply of energy, and how the organism gets there is less important – unless you happen to be an evolutionary biologist. By creating hurdles and artificial boundaries to human beings fulfilling their evolutionary destiny, kashrut establishes a discontinuity that ideally awakens in our conscience the question of why rather how the world came into being. It’s in the denial of the principles that account for our pinnacle on the evolutionary scale where its pedagogic value lies, and by extension the recognition that science has its rules. The purpose, therefore, is to recognize the power that is elevated above science, that is not required to conform to the physical principles that govern our world. And in the context of evolution and creationism, kashrut explains this: the purpose of religion and primary texts is not to explain the mechanics of how the world came into being. Whether you believe it’s the big bang or the ‘contraction’ of the divine spirit as the kabbalah teaches that brought the universe into being, is fundamentally (no pun intended) a matter of choice.

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