This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

This Little H1N1 Stayed Home*

The spread of the lethal H1N1 influenza virus is a cause for concern, as new cases continue to crop up locally and around the globe.

The forces of political correctness have made it difficult to attach a name to the disease. The earliest occurrences stemmed from Mexico, and therefore it was understandable that it could be designated "Mexican flu"; however, the Mexicans took offense at this approach..

The new virus strain evolved from strains that were originally restricted to the pig family, leading to the the widespread adoption of the name "swine flu." This, however, provoked vocal protests from the meat industry since it creates the impression that the disease can be contracted by eating pork products, which is not really the case. Several European or international bodies have opted for neutral names like "novel influenza"; and the Canadian news media have generally adopted the cryptic term "H1N1 flu" that is being promoted by the World Health Organization--though in unguarded moments the reporters often slip back into the more comfortable terminology of "swine flu."

Israel injected its own distinctive spin on the debate over the naming of the illness, owing to a public declaration by Yaakov Litzman, the country's Deputy Minister of Health. Litzman, who belongs to the Gur Hasidic sect and represents the Agudat Israel faction of the hareidi "United Torah Judaism" party, could not stomach the prospect of a prominent epidemic being named after a notoriously non-kosher animal. He therefore issued a pronouncement to the effect that the sickness should be officially referred to as the "Mexico flu." This led to a flurry of diplomatic exchanges, as both the Mexican ambassador to Israel and the Israeli envoy to Mexico lodged indignant official protests with the Israeli foreign ministry, who subsequently denied that they had any intention of getting into the business of naming viruses.

As it happens, Litzman was following a time-honoured tradition of avoiding mention of the prohibited animal. Some ancient rabbinic texts preferred to sidestep the objectionable word (as well as several other terms that they considered unseemly) by substituting the circumlocution "davar aher"--"something else." Nevertheless, in the present context some observers have noted that it might have made more sense for the Deputy Minister to emphasize the unsavoury association with the non-kosher animal as a way of discouraging Jews from partaking of what many Israelis enjoy illicitly as "the other white meat."

In fact, not all our sages believed that we should be viscerally disgusted by the thought of swine-flesh. A well-known midrashic teaching states that the prohibition of pork should be accepted as an inscrutable divine decree that is not based on any logical reasoning or aesthetic repugnance. "A person should never say 'I have no desire to eat swine flesh.' On the contrary, one ought to say: 'I would really love to eat it, were it not for the fact that my heavenly father has decreed that I may not.'"

Maimonides harmonized the apparent dissonance between the two approaches, writing that the "I would love to eat it" attitude is an appropriate one to adopt when dealing with ritual prohibitions whose primary purpose is to reinforce our internal discipline and obedience. We should, however, try to instill within ourselves an instinctive revulsion for things that are ethically or morally distasteful.

Talmudic law taught that in response to a real or potential disaster Jewish communities should declare public fast-days in which we express our contrition by refraining from physical pleasures and by participating in special penitential prayers. Drought, war, plague or infestations of wild beasts were enumerated as appropriate occasions for convening a communal fast. In principle, only the affected locality is expected to fast; however, if there is a solid reason to fear that the danger might spread, then the obligation would extend even to places that have not been directly affected.

The Talmud reports that the third-century Babylonian sage Rav Judah was once informed that a pestilence had broken out among the swine, and he thereupon declared a communal fast. The Talmud, assuming that the rabbi was not really concerned for the welfare of the pigs, inferred initially that Rav Judah must have subscribed to the general view that diseases can spread between different species, and therefore he anticipated that humans were also in imminent peril. In the end, they modified that conclusion, stating that even if we were to assume that diseases cannot be passed on to humans from other animal species, there is nonetheless a more substantial reason for anxiety in the case of pigs "because their intestines resemble those of humans." Indeed, Aristotle made a similar observation about the resemblance between the human and porcine internal organs; and it is a fact that the current variety of "swine flu" does contain two strains of the influenza virus that are normally endemic in pigs.

The Tosafot commentary to that passage in the Talmud draws the conclusion that Jewish communities should observe fasts if they hear of outbreaks of disease among their gentile neighbours. This is not so much an expression of universalistic solidarity as it is a matter of straightforward Jewish self-interest: for after all, if the Talmud found reason to fear that humans might be infected by a disease that is plaguing a completely different species, then there must be a far greater likelihood that an epidemic could spread between two ethnic or religious communities.

The notion that swine are inherently unhealthy is one that has a long history among the Jewish commentators. The most definitive statement on the topic is that of Maimonides. In his Guide of the Perplexed (3:48) he argued that all the animals prohibited to Jews by the Torah are in fact injurious to our health, or at least they are lacking in nutritional value. Pork, writes the great physician, suffers from an excess of moisture and superfluous matter. In fact, our contemporary nutritionists concur in including bacon and pork among the meats that contain "empty calories."

In this matter, Maimonides was tacitly contradicting his hero Hippocrates who had written that "of all kinds of flesh, pork is the best," provided that one knows how to select the right cuts and serve it in the proper healthy manner.

Maimonides goes on to argue that the Torah's antipathy to pigs derives not so much from the meat itself, but from the general culture that surrounds them. Because the creatures are so filthy and love to wallow in uncleanness, any community that cultivated them would necessarily be transformed into a disgusting swamp of grime and mud. "Their marketplaces and even their homes would be filthier than toilets, as you can see for yourself in the lands of the French"!

Maimonides' medically based rationales for the biblical dietary laws have not fared well among more recent commentators. After all, it would seem to follow from his assumptions that if the animals can be raised and processed under hygienic, disease-free conditions, then the ritual prohibitions against them could be rescinded--an option that no Jewish traditionalist wants to seriously contemplate.

Whichever opinion you might hold with regard to the relationship between swine and sicknesses--the important thing is, of course, that you should all be healthy!

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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