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Food and Identity in Early Rabbinic Judaism (review)

From: Hebrew Studies
Volume 53, 2012
pp. 408-410 | 10.1353/hbr.2012.0038

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Recent years have seen a growth in the field of food studies focusing on the impact of food on the creation of personal and national identity. At the same time, within rabbinic scholarship there has been a spurt of research on Jewish identity and the construction of rabbinic masculinity. Jordan Rosenblum's book Food and Identity in Early Rabbinic Judaism combines these trends and examines how the Tannaim constructed their Jewish, male and rabbinic identity through various food regulations concerning what, with whom, and how they ate.

The book consists of an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion. In the introduction, the author outlines his methodological framework based on insights gleaned from anthropological and sociological studies that regard food preparation and consumption as a language to be decoded. The author seeks to avoid three weaknesses he has detected in previous research on food and identity in rabbinic literature: First, scholars had usually pieced together sources from a wide range of rabbinic texts from different periods and places. To avoid this scrapbook approach the author limits himself solely to the Tannaitic corpus. Secondly, previous scholarship focused either on commensal regulations between rabbinic and non-rabbinic Jews or between Jews and non-Jews. Rosenblum wishes to examine and differentiate both sets of relations, suggesting that "with different guests there is a different etiquette" (p. 5). His third critique is that "much of scholarship on Jewish identity rarely theorizes the term itself" (p. 5). The author coins the term "edible identity" and offers to focus on the "tannaitic self-identity as a category of practice and not as an analytical category" (p. 5). Identity is not a passive experience but rather an active social practice (p. 7).

The first chapter supplies a short survey of previous scholarship dealing with what the various foods consumed in Palestine of late antiquity were and on how they were obtained and prepared. The author concludes that on the macro level, the Tannaitic evidence of food acquisition and preparation does not differ greatly from that of their non-Jewish neighbors (p. 32).

The second and largest chapter, titled "Jewish Identity," outlines how food regulations were used in order to separate the Jew from the non-Jew. The author identifies three food practices which the Tannaim use in order to construct their Jewish identity: certain foods are understood as metonymic of Self/Other. So for example, non-Jews are identified as pork-eaters. Secondly, "the status of a food is correlated to the status of its preparer" (p. 36). This "chef/sous-chef principle" (p. 85) means that in order for the food to be applicable for the rabbis, the rabbinic Jew does not necessarily have to be active in its preparation but has to at least supervise it. Third, "the commensality between Jews and non-Jews is understood as potentially 'idolatrous'" (p. 36). Hence, eating with Gentiles is to be avoided even if the food itself is kosher.

The third chapter discusses how the Tannaitic commesal practices were used in order to maintain or create a male Jewish identity. Since the Tannaitic discussions of food prepared by women are concerned mainly with how it affects the male practice, the "chef/sous-chef principle" is at play: women should be relegated to the status of "sous-chefs" supervised by the male "chef." The second part of the chapter discusses the scant evidence concerning the presence of women at the ideal "tannaitic table" and concludes that their presence "is, at best, problematic" (p. 137).

The fourth chapter deals with the Jewish male rabbinic identity and analyses how the rabbis distinguish themselves from non-rabbinic Jews focusing mainly on the various sources dealing with the interaction between the Haber and Am Ha'arets. The rabbis use the purity laws as a "mechanism by which culinary and commensal practices establish a distinct Jewish, male and rabbinic identity" (p. 182) and create a clear distinction from the non-rabbinic Jew without excluding a certain controlled interaction. Another method of solidifying the rabbinic identity is reinterpreting the culinary and commensal festival regulations (Passover, Sukkot, and Shabbat). This is done, for example, by the use of table talk (such as the seder, the various blessings...

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