Shaya Cohen -


Living Symbolically

I don’t think it is much of a stretch to argue that the way in which people think dictates more about what people do than anything else. This is, in my opinion, why culture matters. It also helps us understand why language matters – the strengths and weaknesses and thought patterns of any given language give words to our thoughts, which in turn help shape and mold our deeds. To take one extreme example as illustration: in lands where the phrase “inshallah,” meaning “if Allah wills it,” is dominant, then people end up with more fatalistic and less curious approaches towards any new idea.

Symbolism in turn underpins culture and language. How we live symbolically trickles through the rest of our lives. Eco-warriors, who really are doing acts that have no concrete impact beyond symbolism, may not make any real difference to the planet, but they certainly make an impact on themselves and on the people with whom they come in contact. So do other unhelpful symbolic belief systems, like those of Social Justice Warriors or anti-Israel BDS activists.

But Western Civilization was not built on such negative symbolic systems; we were built instead on Jewish and Christian and even Greek and Roman symbolism. So we have the symbolism of the Torah in Judaism and that of the New Testament for Christianity, both valuing human life even in the absence of rational justifications for doing so. From the Greeks we have the ideals of logic and reason, of rational explanations for natural phenomena, and from the Romans we gained institutions and laws and processes. All of these are wrapped in their own languages and cultures, preserved by symbols that help shape the way in which we understand and approach all new data.

One of the key symbols that is shared by people the world over is found in what we choose to eat. Food is not merely sustenance for any people living above subsistence (animal) levels. Food is, instead, one of the primary ways in which people identify who they are and what their family story is – in just the Arab world alone there are probably thousands of unique identifiers in precisely how regional dishes are prepared, served, and enjoyed.

Food is also invested with meaning and rituals, from “special china” to table manners to seasonal hits from Thanksgiving Turkeys to Christmas eggnog to Passover Matza.

The Torah is equally interested in the symbolic value of food: it is where “kosher” is defined – the animals we may eat, and those we may not. Things are kosher and not kosher because of symbolism: in a nutshell, kosher food helps us learn, remember and act in ways that teach us to be holy and how to have a relationship with the divine. Eating non-kosher wrong food is thus a rejection of both our people and our G-d because of the meaning contained within the food choice itself.

Many thousands of words appear before any of the commandments about what animals we are allowed and forbidden to eat; there is, however, a very strange commandment of a very specific thing we must not eat:

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him…. That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle.

But what does not eating the thigh muscle have to do with anything? What possible meaning is there in this being the very first thing Jews are forbidden from consuming?

The entire episode of Jacob wrestling with the man/angel/G-d invites creative exposition. I am fond of the explanations about Jacob’s putting himself in a position to flee. In the middle of the night, he made it possible to cut and run, leaving his family and all his possessions to face his potentially-murderous brother, Esau. And so, in the middle of the night, Jacob wrestled himself. Or if you prefer, he wrestled with his inner self. Perhaps G-d sent an angel to keep Jacob there through the night, so he could not get away, forcing him to face his brother and his future head-on. (All of these – and many more – are possible and within normative Jewish textual analysis.) In a nutshell, the wrestling match in the middle of the night was all about Jacob confronting his fears, his doubts and uncertainty.

This would explain why Jews are forbidden from eating meat from this part of any animal: if what we eat has symbolic meaning, then avoiding the thigh muscle is a reminder that G-d wants us to be courageous, to confront evil and fear, both within and without. The thigh muscle is the ultimate in symbolism: Jacob was on the verge of using his legs to run away – and so we keep that in mind when we eat from an animal. Whether the enemy is our own doubt or an external enemy who threatens all that we love, we are not meant to flee: we are always to remember that we are enjoined to stand and fight.

[Another iWe and SusanQuinn production]

Comments are welcome!

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