When the vegan meat manufacturer Impossible Foods requested kosher certification for its new line of “Impossible Pork,” the OU balked. Although the actual product is made of kosher ingredients, the OU found that certifying Impossible Pork as kosher was… simply impossible.

For years, there have been many “faux unkosher” products, such as imitation shrimp, dairy-free cheeseburgers, and even imitation bacon, but the OU felt that pork was different. Chanie Apfelbaum, a New York kosher food blogger and cookbook author, explained to the Wall Street Journal that she had no problem eating Impossible Cheeseburgers, but that she has “a hard time getting past the idea of eating something that’s called ‘pork’ and is meant to taste like pork.”

This resistance to pork seems strange from a halachic perspective. The prohibitions on other foods, such as chametz on Pesach or the fat of the hindquarters, are more severe than that on pork. Yet despite this, the metaphor for something unquestionably non-kosher is “chazer treif,” as non-kosher as pork. Clearly, Jews have a particular problem with pork.

Jews have had negative feelings about pigs for over 2,000 years, and in many ways, the antagonism was created by anti-Jewish polemics. The Greco-Roman world saw the Jewish refusal to eat pork as extremely strange; along with monotheism, circumcision and Shabbat, it was a Jewish practice that perplexed outsiders. Pork was a staple of the Roman diet, and both Greeks and Romans used pigs for animal sacrifices. Outsiders mocked the Jewish refusal to eat pork.

In the year 40, a violent battle raged between Greeks and Jews in Alexandria. Philo Judaeus, a leader of the Jewish community, led a delegation to Rome to meet with the Emperor Caligula. As both parties to the dispute stood before him, Caligula asked Philo: “Why is it that you abstain from eating pig’s flesh?” The Greeks burst into laughter, certain that Caligula meant this as an insult.

Many in the ancient world saw the Jewish refusal to eat pig meat as misanthropic, part of a larger Jewish refusal to engage with the rest of the world; the desire to remain “a nation that dwells alone” irritated many in the ancient world. It is for this reason, when persecuting the Jews, that many of their tormentors forced them to eat pork. The Book of Maccabees, which relates the history behind the Hanukkah story, tells of martyrs who refused to eat pork and gave up their lives instead. Included among them were a mother and her seven sons, all of whom refused to eat pork and were all killed.

Diodorus, a first-century BCE Greek historian, explains that Antiochus, the villain of the Hanukkah story, sprinkled pig’s blood on the Temple’s altar, poured pig gravy on the Temple’s Torah scrolls and forced the High Priest to eat pork. Diodorus explains that Antiochus assumed if he could break Jewish habits regarding pork, he could break Judaism.

In the Roman era, there was a change in rhetoric; the Jewish refusal to eat pig was not seen as an expression of hostility to pigs (and those who eat them), but rather as an expression of affinity for pigs. Juvenal, the first-century poet and satirist, wrote that among the Jews, ‘‘a long- established clemency suffers pigs to attain old age.” Another satirist commented regarding Herod, who killed several of his own children, that he would “rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.” Petronius referred to the Jews as worshipers of a ‘‘pig god.” The Jews’ refusal to eat pork was twisted into evidence of a Jewish fondness for pigs.

This theme continued into the medieval era. Irven M. Resnick writes: “The pleasure-loving pig, then, became a familiar image in medieval Christian anti-Jewish polemics. Moreover, the pig will be understood to have been forbidden to Jews precisely because the two share the same natural qualities or characteristics. That is, Jews will be viewed as ‘pig-like’ while, conversely, pigs will be viewed as ‘Jew-like.’”

In other words, Christians can eat pork because they have a superior disposition; but Jews, who are ravenous gluttons, are prohibited from doing so, because it will reinforce their already pig-like disposition.

Popular culture in medieval Europe was far more malevolent; the Judensau, “the Jews’ pig,” which depicts Jews in close contact with a pig, became popular in the 13th century. It was disseminated on woodcuts, paintings and sculptures, and a frieze of the Judensau was found on multiple churches and cathedrals. (Images of the Judensau remain on nearly two dozen churches in Europe to this day.) Martin Luther reports approvingly about the Judensau at his local church:

“Here on our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud, as though he were reading something acute or extraordinary….”

This nauseating anti-Semitic image is the culmination of centuries of anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic polemic, all focused on Jews and pigs. One simple dietary law became the focus of profound hatred, all because Jews wouldn’t eat pork.

In rabbinic literature, one sees a mirror image of these polemics; the laws regarding the pig are read as a reference to the Roman Empire. To the rabbis, the negative attributes of the pig symbolize the excesses of Rome, which like the pig was destructive and self-centered. This polemic has a fascinating nuance. One well-known Midrash regarding the pig/Rome analogy focuses on how the pig is in a sense “half-kosher,” because the pig has one of two signs of the kosher animal; it has split hooves but does not chew its cud. But this isn’t seen as a reason for praise. Instead, being “half-kosher” emphasizes the hypocrisy of the Romans.

The Midrash says: “Why is he [Rome] compared to a pig? Just as the pig, when it lays down, it puts out its hooves and says, ‘I am kosher,’ so too does the kingdom of Edom [Rome] arrogantly commit robbery and violence, while making believe they are smoothing out a tablecloth on the table (and acting very civilized and hospitable).” It then continues to tell a story about a Roman magistrate who sentenced thieves, adulterers and sorcerers to death, and afterwards remarked, “I did all three of these last night.”

The Roman Empire had achieved a great deal; it had abundant public works, and a fully functioning legal system. But the rabbis saw through the hypocrisy of a leadership class that satisfied their own rapacious desires without limits; they saw up close the inhumanity of a so-called “civilized” empire that used violence indiscriminately to achieve its goals.

Jews associated the pig with the Roman empire, and the pig was the food of the enemy. This is why pig is “chazer treif,” and pork is the most “anti-Jewish” of non-kosher foods— because pork carries with it a legacy of centuries of anti-Semitism and antagonism.

There is one final twist to the impossible history of Jews, Romans and pigs. There is a tradition, attributed to the Midrash but first recorded in the 13th century, that in messianic times, the pig will return to the Jews and become kosher; this insight is based on the similarity between the Hebrew word for pig, “hachazir,” and the word for “to return,” “l’hachzir.”

This unusual tradition creates a lot of debate; some, like Rabbi Baruch Epstein, reject the Midrash as a forgery, while others reinterpret it. However, many accept this tradition; Rav Chaim ben Attar, the author of the Ohr HaChaim, says that when the Messiah arrives, pigs will begin to chew their cud and become kosher. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was an advocate of this Midrash, although he took the view that in messianic times, pigs would not chew their cud, but rather our perspective will shift, and will reveal the goodness within the half-kosher pig.

Undoubtedly, this change in the kosher status of pigs carries a larger lesson about the Roman Empire and its successors; when the Messiah comes, the descendants of Esau and Jacob will join hands in peace. The good works of the Roman Empire will now be united with a higher morality and spiritual purpose. The age-old divisions of anti-Semitism and animosity will dissolve, and brothers will be brothers once again.

I have a particular affinity for this tradition because it is rooted in the unending optimism of the Jewish people. Even the pig, a symbol of Roman oppression and ages of anti-Semitism, is still able to become kosher and return to the Jewish people. There is always potential for change, always a possibility for rapprochement.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the senior rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.

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