Israeli president Shimon Peres had to cancel his trip to the Olympics to attend the opening ceremony. Why? Because according to the rules of Orthodox Judaism, one is not allowed to travel by car on the Sabbath. He could only attend only if he could stay at the Olympic Village so that he could walk to the ceremony and back but the authorities would not allow it. What is interesting is that Peres himself is supposedly not Orthodox or even particularly observant but seems to feel obliged to show deference to the religious.
I find laws and rules based on religious ideas to be silly if not outright reprehensible. But the most ridiculous are those rules that deal with food that specify what you can and cannot eat and drink and even how food should be prepared. It beats me why anyone would take seriously the cooking and eating guidelines of nomadic tribes who lived thousands of years ago, long before we had the knowledge of food we have today.
I am not talking about those general practices that arise out of some religious traditions that ask followers not to kill and eat animals or other non-plant foods. Those broad moral principles are understandable and admirable and can be justified on secular grounds as well. What I am talking about are rules that do not have any rational justification these days but are based on distinctions that are arbitrary, such as that you can eat beef but not pork, you can eat chicken but not beef or pork, the animal has to be killed in a particular way, and so on.
People have suggested that there may have been, at least partially, some economic or health-based reasons for the rules when they were originally formulated. For example, it has been suggested that prohibitions against eating pork was due to the fear of trichinosis and rules against meat and milk at the same meal arose in days of scarcity when people had to choose between getting their protein from milk or slaughtering the cow that gave them milk in order to get meat. To eat both milk and meat was considered extravagant and wasteful. While those speculations have some value as explanations of the origins of rules, they also show why the rules need not be followed any longer.
What is astonishing are the extraordinary efforts that people are willing to go through nowadays to meet restrictions that were invented at a time when it may have been easy to follow them or where people’s ignorance prevented them from realizing that they were violating the rules.
Take Jewish kosher food with its Byzantine set of laws governing it. Elizabeth Royte in her book Bottlemania (2008, p. 100) gives an amusing example of the consternation that arose in 2004 when a test of New York City’s water supply revealed that it contained microscopic crustaceans called copepods. Talmudic rules forbid consuming creeping creatures without fins and scales (a classic example of an incomprehensible rule) so this triggered an immediate and excruciating theological debate as to whether observant Jews needed to install expensive filtering equipment in their domestic water supply to get rid of these god-forsaken critters. The fact that observant Jews had, like everyone else in the city, already been unknowingly consuming these minute organisms for years was presumably excused by invoking some sort of ignorance loophole.
As is usually the case, the Talmudic scholars found a way to rationalize not doing anything that might cause too much inconvenience or expense to modern day life, as they did with kosher telephones, certified Sabbath mode ovens, and Shabbat elevators.
Jon Stewart on The Daily Show discussed a recent news item in which a company that advertises that it sells kosher hot dogs was found to not have been as scrupulous in making them. But not to worry! He showed how to retroactively make hot dogs kosher.
(This clip appeared on June 26, 2012. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)