September 20, 2012 By K Ashraf

Food, Tradition and Religious Other

foreigners-and-their-food-constructing-otherness-in-jewish-christian-and-islamic-law“I love food. I enjoy eating out. Even more, I love preparing food and sharing it with others. Many of my fondest memories and formative experiences are associated with meals …………….. I have been fortunate enough to grow up and live in committed, supportive Jewish communities, and many of my meals have taken place within these circles. I have also been blessed with opportunities to share food with Christians and Muslims in settings ranging from relaxed Shabbat dinners at my home to intense conversation in an Arab classmate’s dorm room over baklava and Iraqi coffee (not to be confused with identical substance called “Turkish coffee”).This study is an exploration of a topic that I am passionate: interaction with foreigners over food”

These are opening lines of Foreigners and Their Food: Constructing Otherness in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law a passionately written book by David M Freidenreich on food, religion and other published in 2011 by University of California Press.
Every Religious tradition has its own way of self-identification and has its own theological mechanism of exclusion and inclusion. For instance, Islamic theological discourse contains a strong notion of exclusion and inclusion which is manifested in technical terms like iman and kufr  (roughly translated as ‘faith’ and ‘disbelief’). There are different types of inclusionary and exclusionary mechanisms that can be traced in religious text and tradition. Beyond the theological text and hermeneutics, food and marriage are the two important institutions which help create exclusive Religious identity. Scholars who work in the field of contemporary discussion of “Religious pluralism” find these terms and practices very difficult to handle and most of them apologetically bypass these kinds of religious texts and practices. There are only a very few scholars available in this field of comparative religion and religious pluralism  who move beyond apologetic tendencies  and succeed in finding a new language of politics, solidarity and religion. Farid Essack, in his analysis of Self and Other in Religion, insists on “rediscovering and reappropriating the subsumed meaning” of religious vocabulary, rather than “avoiding them” to find religious pluralism for liberation and justice .
The observation made by Freidenreich is novice in the sense that it approaches the question of food as a religious discourse and tries to make comparison .This book essentially seeks highlights on how Jews, Christians and Muslims conceptualize “Us” and “Them” through rules about the preparation of food by adherents of other religion and how to act with such outsiders. The construction of Religious Other by the authorities “who formulate such restrictions imagine “Them”to be not-“US,” “anti-Us,” “like-Us,” or “unlike –Us”.  This book also asks the question about religious authority and restriction of food and “how these restrictions have developed over time and how they relate to their counterparts in other religious traditions.” It is not a book written for mere objective and comparative scholarship but it is an intense theological reflection of a Jewish Rabbi on Religious ‘Other.’ David M Freidnreich says, “Although I am an ordained Rabbi and consider myself as an observant Jew, I eat food prepared by non –Jews and I share meals with non-Jews despite traditional norms prohibiting such activities”.
The book contains fourteen chapters and examines historical developments of foreign food restrictions within three Abrahamic religious traditions for the construction of religious identity. It starts with Biblical and extra-Biblical or Talmudic Jewish texts and traditions, and then considers early Christian and medieval reinterpretations. The analysis of Islamic tradition begins with Qur’anic sources and Hadith and distinguishes between the Sunni and Shi’ite approaches to these basic sources.  The last three chapters contain exciting comparative analysis of all these traditions.
The central theme of the book is the question of   Judaic, Christian and Islamic understanding and ruling on food. The author identifies two important criteria common in these three religious traditions. First, the restrictions and legal rulings based on the contents in the food. Second, the restriction and ruling based on who makes it or who shares it. However, in a larger sense, the author focuses on the religious textual discourse of a particular religious community to exclude others rather than nature and content of the food of a particular religion and its theological legitimacy.
The issue is not confined to inter religious relationships but it also found in the political and historical developments of a particular Religious tradition. For example, classic Judaism and medieval Judaism show many fundamental differences between legal rulings on the content of the food and the food prepared by ‘foreigner’. In Islam, the Shia and Sunni tradition had a lot of difference as regards legal ruling on food. Within the Sunni tradition itself, Hanafi legal school had lot of difference with the other dominant legal schools. Sometimes, Hanafi School agrees with Shia ruling by differing from its own traditional basis. The beauty of the book lies in identifying historical and textual parallels within the religious tradition, tracing the identity crisis of religious communities and showing incongruities in a single religious tradition.
Audience of the book is not limited to specialist in Judaism, Christianity and Islam and it is meant for the broad and diverse array of non-academic readers. David says that his book will also address those who are immersed in a particular religious tradition with minimal exposure to other traditions as well as students and scholars of comparative religion, law and food culture. The book has succeeded in keeping technical discussion to a minimum in order to increase the readability even though it is a necessary part of the engagement. However, let me conclude with an interesting quote which can be applied to both food and reading. It is quote from bishop Stephan Tournai :  “If you invite two guests to dinner, you will not serve the same fare to those who demand opposite things. With the one asking for others scorn, will you not vary the dishes, lest either throw the dining room into confusion or offend the diners?”.
There is fundamental anxiety as regards  the question of common ground between religious traditions while reading the book. The lesson is the absence of common ground between religious traditions. The radical endorsement of ‘difference’ is the way to pluralism rather than the rhetoric of undefined common ground between the religious traditions.

(K Ashraf is MA candidate in Religion Studies Department of University of Johannesburg.)

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