What is the relationship between religion and food?
In the past few weeks two different incidents made me stop and pause to think how much eating or not eating meat is starting to divide our society.
A vegan lifestyle, which once was a complete rarity in our country, seems to have become popular overnight among the hip and happening crowd.
This is in stark contrast with the general public, which is still very much in love with their steak and bacon.
A good example of that contrast was shown in the way the general public as well as vegans responded to the December edition of Allerhande, a popular supermarket magazine. People who like to celebrate Christmas in a traditional way, lamented the absence of classic meat-heavy recipes, while vegans rejoiced about the multitude of creative vegan recipes.
Because the complaints as well as the compliments were so vocal and heart-felt, it struck me how much veganism or refusal of it has almost become a religion of its own.
The loud complaints were nothing compared to the antisemitic vitriol that was spewn when the popular Palestinian vlogger Nas (Daily) decided to make a vlog about Tel Aviv, the vegan capital of the world.
All this made me curious about the relation between religion and food laws and more specifically islamic and jewish food laws as well as to the reasons why even non-religious people get so worked up about food guidelines they are living by.
Food: the last bastion of faith?
The popular saying "you are what you eat" rings even more true in the case of faith. In fact, you could argue that, for the believer, "you are what you don't eat".
For people with the Jewish faith, it is important that food is prepared according to Jewish food laws, called the kashrut. Food that is properly prepared is 'kosher'.
Kosher is a Hebrew word that means 'fit' or 'suitable'. If a food is labelled as kosher, it means that it conforms to Jewish dietary laws.
On the other hand, the word taref indicates foods that are not permitted by Jewish dietary laws.
Taref foods include pork, shellfish, all insects and reptiles, and their by-products. It is also not permitted to combine meat and dairy products. In Orthodox families, separate utensils and cutlery are often used for each group.
The way in which the animal is slaughtered is very important too. The Jewish ritual slaughter is called shechita.
It is striking how many similarities there are between Jewish and Islamic religion as in that both food laws share their disgust of pork and have similar words for what is good and 'bad' food. Even the slaughter method gets a similar but different word.
The word halal means 'lawful' or 'permitted' and indicates foods that conform to Islamic dietary laws.
On the other hand, the word haram indicates foods and drinks that are not permitted by Islamic dietary laws
Other haram foods and drink includes: animals that were not deliberately slaughtered for consumption and that died of other causes, pork and its by-products, blood, and alcoholic beverages.
The way in which the animal is slaughtered is very important too. The Islamic ritual slaughter is called dhabihah.
Dietary rules serve a double purpose: the first is bringing people together; eating the same food makes convivial dining much easier.
Paradoxically, the second purpose is setting people apart, creating boundaries between communities and forming religious and cultural identities.
Even those whose faith and religious conformity has lapsed - secular people who were brought up in religious families - can find dietary laws hard to abandon.
So when an individual decides to embrace a secular life, is food the last bastion of their faith?
Historically, food has been a tool used by people to keep their identity in check.
Soon after World War II there were stories of Jewish parents telling their children to eat pork in public, should they be offered any, in European countries where the memory of the Holocaust was still fresh.
Refusing to eat pork was so clearly associated with Jewish identity that it was deemed risky.
Yet, during the same period, many of these parents still named their children Esther or David - a more immediate testimony to faith than refraining from eating pig meat in front of others.
For some, breaking the rules can be liberating.
Most teenagers will try to break away from laws and practices and indulging in foods that are haram, is one of the ways to revolt against parents. Yet, many adults who cannot even bring themselves to indulge, even many years after abandoning their faith.
Food is a powerful cultural label, and suddenly introducing ingredients that were previously seen as unholy into our diet can feel like a serious offence to our roots.
"Since reaching adulthood I've followed very few religious rules, only those that make some sort of sense to me," says Devid, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community. "But I still cannot bring myself to eat pork or shellfish - I never have."
Devid is unsure whether this has anything to do with God.
"In a way, I think I may have convinced myself that I don't like these foods just so that I don't have to eat them, because they've been forbidden to me since I was a child."
He adds: "Breaking the other major Jewish dietary law and mixing dairy products with meat doesn't feel as bad to me. It's the thought of eating taref [unholy] foods that's a big no no."
Feasting and fasting
And it's not just about forbidden foods - holy fasts and restrictions on certain days of the year seems to be hard-wired for many people.
Nariman, a former muslim who was born in Egypt, lived in Britain for more than 10 years and is now back in her homeland, says: "Years after I stopped practising all other aspects of Islam, I was still fasting during Ramadan.
"Although I mostly don't now, nostalgia still makes me fast the odd few days every Ramadan.
"It makes me feel part of an event that links me with other human beings, family and friends but also millions that I don't know: we all feel hunger together, we all sit down to eat at sunset."
Nariman says she found it easier to break other dietary restrictions, but fasting was "the last to go".
"Perhaps because as a child, it was a sign of being grown-up," she explains, "it made you proud to be allowed to fast with the adults.
"So that will always be linked for me to a sense of achievement, of proving that I can."
She says that going against the restrictions of what to eat and when not to eat is like "breaking deeply ingrained taboos".
"It can be liberating but can also feel like you've cut yourself loose, which is potentially scary.
If I can eat a bacon sandwich on a Ramadan morning, who knows what else is possible?"
A group exercise
Eating can also form a group ritual, something that is central to organised religion, and, more broadly, can make people feel like they belong.
In her book Natural Symbols (1970), British anthropologist Mary Douglas described how the Catholic Irish community in London was so attached to the tradition of abstaining from meat on a Friday.
By sticking to eating fish when the rule became less widely followed, Irish people declared their loyalty to their homeland and faith.
Countless "lapsed Catholics" and secular Christians decide, each year, to give up delicious luxuries - such as chocolate - for Lent, without necessarily seeing it as some form of religious penitence.
Religious festivals obviously give these personal challenges meaning, but people are also more likely to succeed at such a test of will if they feel the virtual support of thousands of others. Like all rituals, eating has a great symbolic value.
The food we put into our bodies is not just fuel: it can allow us to express ideas about our moral stance, our culture and our world view.
For example, some feel a responsibility to refrain from eating meat, others want to make the most of what nature has to offer by foraging for food, and some claim a passion for making food that reflects their own cultural roots.
Faith is just one of the many guiding principles that shapes what we choose to eat.
Why is veganism popular among Jews?
In many ways, veganism makes it easier and cheaper to observe the laws of kashrut; this might attract new adherents to keeping kosher and eventually to other Jewish practices. A vegan need not be concerned with using separate dishes and other utensils for meat and dairy foods, waiting 3 or 6 hours after eating meat before being permitted to eat dairy products, storing 4 sets of dishes, pots, and silverware (2 sets for regular use and 2 for Passover use), and many other factors that the non-vegan who wishes to observe kashrut strictly must consider. In addition, a vegan is in no danger of eating blood, which is prohibited, or the flesh of a non-kosher animal.
Some people today reject kashrut because of the higher costs involved for kosher foods. They can obtain proper nutrition at far lower costs with a balanced, kosher vegan diet.
Veganism and Jewish history
There are several examples in Jewish history when a change to vegetarianism or veganism enabled Jews to maintain the dietary laws. Daniel and his companions avoided non-kosher food while they were held captive in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, through a vegan diet (Daniel 1: 8-16). The historian Josephus related how some Jewish priests on trial in Rome ate only figs and nuts in order to avoid eating non-kosher meat. Some Maccabees, during the struggle against the Syrian-Greeks mentioned before, escaped to the mountains where they lived on plant foods, since no kosher meat was available.
The Torah looks favorably on vegan foods. Flesh foods are often mentioned with distaste and are associated with lust as in lack of control over one's appetite for meat. In the Song of Songs, the divine bounty is mentioned in terms of fruits, vegetables, grapes, and nuts.
There is no special blessing recited before eating meat or fish, as there is for other foods such as bread, cake, wine, fruits, and vegetables; the blessing for meat, milk, and eggs is a general one, the same as that over water or such foods as juice or soup.
Jewish holy days
Some Jews feel that they are required to eat meat in order to celebrate Jewish festivals and the Sabbath day. However, according to the Talmud and many other classical Jewish sources Jews need not eat meat on holidays; rejoicing with wine is sufficient.
A number of modern Rabbis give many sources that indicate that Jews are not required to eat meat today, even on festivals and Sabbaths. To reinforce this conclusion, several Chief Rabbis have been strict vegetarians.
In summary, there is no contradiction between Judaism (and its dietary laws) and veganism. In fact, as argued above, veganism appears to be the diet most consistent with the highest Jewish values.
Why did Tel Aviv become the vegan capital?
For anyone still wondering why Israel and more specifically Tel Aviv has the highest percentage of vegans in the world, there are otgher plausible reasons besides complex Jewish food laws.
Thanks to the sun-kissed climate, high quality fruit and vegetables are picked close-by. You can see it in the colour, taste it in the flavour and smell it in the aroma.
Israelis are very liberal minded, and thinking about moving forward. Tel Aviv is a young and exciting city, and part of that charm is the great culinary cuisine, that can even appease the most commited of carnivores. An example is how a popular Eastern European that formerly relied heavily on meat, turned vegan overnight when the owner became a vegan.. and yet, customers didn't run away screaming, but embraced the more daring culinary menu.
Think about that before complaining when your favourite culinary magazine adds a few more vegan recipes in their Christmas edition, but embrace the chance to prepare something entirely different. Or mix it up with traditional recipes, which can be found in abundance both on and off the internet.