B’tayavon!: Professor David Freidenreich highlights how food defines religious differences

Many of us were fortunate enough to have shared a meal with friends and family this past Thanksgiving. For most Americans, what defines the holiday is the preparation and ultimate consumption of food with family. In return, the holiday has defined what makes Americans American. Identity is powerful, and oftentimes people use food to distinguish their own identities and the identities of others, as is the case with Americans and Thanksgiving.

On November 13 in Pettengill Hall, Professor David Freidenreich discussed how food and religious identity are intertwined. In his talk, he sought to unwrap some of the ideas about what makes food Jewish and how Jewish food is used to distinguish it from other religions in his lecture titled, “Food and Jewishness: Jewish, Christian and Islamic Perspectives.” Freidenreich is the Pulver Family Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Colby College and the author of the book, “Foreigners and Their Food: Constructing Otherness in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law.”
At the beginning of his talk, Freidenreich asked the audience to consider these questions, “What makes food Jewish in the first place? And why, given that definition of whatever Jewish food means, should you make a point of eating it, or perhaps of not eating it?”

Professor Freidenreich proceeded to answer his own queries by drawing from various authors in the field of religious academia: “They all agree that the difference between Jews and non-Jews matters. They also agree that food is an ideal medium to express and emphasize this distinction between Jews and non-Jews, even though the distinction itself really isn’t about food at all.”
Even though the real difference between the Jewish religion and other religions doesn’t pertain to food, restrictions surrounding food are used to set apart the Jewish from the non-Jewish. According to Freidenreich, Christians and Muslims also use ideas about Jewish food to set themselves apart from each other and from Jews.

Freidenreich used a hypothetical scenario, or what he called the start of a bad joke, to demonstrate the beliefs of various religions pertaining to food. The premise: a rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Sunni imam, and a Shia imam walk into a cafeteria. All adhere to the medieval food-related restrictions of their respective religions from the past. In this situation, the rabbi would order a salad and would worry whether the cook was Jewish. The rabbi would order the salad to avoid biblically prohibited foods such as shellfish and pork and to make sure that it wasn’t transformed by non-Jewish persons.

According to Freidenreich, the Catholic priest would refuse to eat any food if the cook was Jewish and would refuse to eat with the rabbi. Per Freidenreich, the archetypical Christian, while not facing religious dietary restrictions, would refuse to sit with the rabbi in order to avoid being led astray by his supposed false interpretations of the Bible.
The Shia imam, in his example, would order a salad and would sit at their own table. The Shia imam would renounce the food practices of Christians and Jews as a means of distancing their own religion from the others. This appeals to the stereotype of Shias refusing to eat food tainted by Christians and Jews because it would transmit impurity.

In Freidenreich’s demonstration, only the Sunni imam would be able to eat any of the food selections, and would be able to sit with the Rabbi. Sunnis would be tolerant of all of the food because they believe that legitimizing Christianity and Judaism makes the circle larger of those who believe in certain fundamental principles of Islam. This reinforces the idea that all Muslims have access to God.
The only common denominator between the religious leaders in this long, complicated, and somewhat inflammatory scenario is their concern for the Jewishness of their food. The multitude of rules and regulations concerning food distinguishes and separates the religions. As Freidenreich put it, “Rules about who you can’t eat with reinforce identity and social hierarchies in powerful ways,” and tell us that “the divide between us and them should not be bridged.” Even though the food regulations in the Torah are rather insignificant, they have far-reaching global impacts.

Over all, Freidenreich wanted the number one takeaway from his lecture to be that identity matters, and food can be used to distinguish identities.