- Foreigners and Their Food: Constructing Otherness in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law by David M. Freidenreich
David Freidenreich opens this “work of comparative jurisprudence” in well-placed and bemusing fashion: “A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What is this, a joke?” (3). Most appropriate for scholars and the well-educated general reader, Freidenreich’s study examines Jewish, Christian, and Islamic texts—both ancient and medieval—that address food restrictions within and outside lines of identity, defined here as “collective self-definition.” The study has multiple aims, one of which is to “broaden the interpretive context associated with any given norm” (12). Another aim is to demonstrate “the connectedness of efforts by religious authorities to disconnect from one another” (xi) in order to counter with the value of making connections. An ordained rabbi and religious studies scholar at Colby College, Freidenreich seeks to show that “understanding sources from multiple traditions helps us understand the norms of any single tradition more clearly” (xii). For those interested in historical inquiry and imaginative scholarship, Foreigners and Their Food offers both. Not only do we have a rich analysis of traditional jurisprudence, we have an observant guide through whom to glimpse insider and outsider perspectives on practices surrounding food and their relation to communal identity.
The opening line establishes an amusing warrant for the study: the near impossibility, within texts, for leaders to share food together. The Sunni and Shi`i imams could not participate in a bar, so we learn the joke requires a restaurant. Following the food restrictions to be examined, a Sunni imam could order either vegetarian or make a case for eating meat, if a Christian owned the joint. The Shìi, on the other hand, would eat an undressed salad at a table by himself. The rabbi would order a salad too but for different reasons. The Christians might eat anything on the menu as long as the cooks weren’t Jewish, though they would probably also eat at separate tables from one another. “Under such circumstances,” Freidenreich observes, “it seems unlikely that these members of diverse religious communities would bother walking into a restaurant together in the first place. At a certain level, that’s precisely the point” (3). The text courses through five sections, with scholarly energies increasing from early single-tradition sections to a final one with multiple-tradition case-studies. Freidenreich intends hereby to minimize pitfalls to comparative religious studies—in other words, insufficient attention to differences, to changes over time, to original context.
Part One, “Imagining Otherness,” establishes the methodological underpinnings for the study, including the broad inclusion of horizontal (single time period/cultural milieu), vertical (single intellectual tradition, different time periods) and diagonal comparisons (those that share neither common tradition nor cultural milieu). Throughout the study, two types of religious food restrictions focus the choice of historical texts: commensality-based regulations, those that prohibit the sharing of meals with certain people, and preparer-based regulations, those that prohibit eating food made by certain people. Freidenreich’s warrant? “These manifestly and directly contribute to the formation and maintenance of a communal identity because they address not only foodstuffs but also the distinction between [End Page 141] Us and Them” (6). The second chapter, “A People Made Holy to the Lord” roots all that is to come within a measured portrayal of Hebrew Bible texts (with commentary) and an overview of types of impurity, à la Milgrom, Douglas and others.
Part Two opens the analysis of Jewish texts with their propensity to “mark otherness” in food restrictions that focus on foodstuffs while ignoring non-Jews. Freidenreich traces the distinct but hospitable observance through a Hellenistic lens in Alexandria alongside the “heroic” Judean disdain for food associated with foreigners. Chapters 4 and 5 follow the evolution of this Judean proclivity into early rabbinic literature and “Talmudic scholasticism” with specific attention to gentile bread (pp. 76ff). The study then moves to Christian Sources in Part Three that “define otherness...