Forbidden Taste

by David P. Stern
                    27 December 1979

    "Strange looking pig" said the rabbi, squinting at the photograph.

    "It isn't a pig" answered Dr. Levy.

    They were in Levy's large office, surrounded by stacks of books and journals. The latest copies of "Annals of Biochemistry" and "Genetics" were carelessly filed in a journal rack. Outside the windows the green mass of the Carmel Range loomed in the distance, darkened by shadows of oaks and cliffs. The building was quiet, except for the steady thump-thump of a vacuum pump down the hall.

    "Hmm. There is a strong resemblance, you know. I wonder if I could see one from closer by."

    "It can be arranged." Ben Levy was fortyish and his curly hair contained streaks of gray, but his eyes were earnest and direct. "At 40 years comes wisdom," said Yehudah ben Teima when he enumerated the ages of man two thousand years earlier, and Levy's face indeed projected wisdom. Even without knowing that he was among the ranking biochemists of his generation, few of those who met him failed to note his searching eyes and probing mind. And yet, Ben had also learned to project a certain restrained gentleness whenever he spoke to outsiders, to put them at ease and avoid overshadowing them with his own personality. With a few exceptions, his colleagues at the institute openly cherished him with a blend of respect and admiration.

    Rabbi Simantov was about 20 years older. "At 60 comes old age" the same sage had said, and in the case of the rabbi old age only enhanced a natural aura of dignity. The well-groomed beard, the bushy eyebrows and tranquil eyes, even the somewhat outmoded hat, all these framed his image. Yet behind the faŤade of the chief rabbi dwelled a complex soul. Some people found him stiff and formal, others valued his superb scholarship, and still others felt he was ruled by passion and devotion, and all of them were right. Only very few knew the full spectrum of the rabbi's qualities well enough to realize that the parts complemented rather than contradicted each other. Those few included his wife, to whom he confided his hopes and misgivings, an uncommon attitude for someone deeply steeped in religious orthodoxy.

    "It can be arranged" repeated Ben, "but I'm afraid it won't be today. They are all on the institute's farm, and that is some way from here."

    And just as well, he thought, for while their appearance was unusual for pigs, their smell was not exactly pleasant. We have worked hard on making them different from pigs, he thought--the ears drooped and were rounded, the tail was thicker and bushy. But one can do just so much before other genetic properties are affected. In fact, with all the genetic tinkering, it seemed remarkable that the final product was so pig-like.

    "Do people call them pigs?" This was Simantov's secretary and assistant--Rabbi Glaser, younger and chubbier, dressed in somber shades of gray, white and black.

    "No. At least we don't think of them as pigs."

    Glaser smiled. "Coneys, perhaps?"

    Ben faced him squarely, as if the man's reply had been rude--which in a way it was. The covenants by which kibbutzim were allocated their land always banned the raising of pigs, but quite a few settlements had tried to sidestep the ban by inventing a different name: "coneys" was the favorite. Unsuspecting relatives from the city would be greeted by their grandchildren: "Come, grandpa, you have got to see our coneys!" But when they arrived at the pens, all they saw was a bunch of fat hogs.

    "Not coneys. This is a new and different kind of animal, and it would not do if we called it by the name of something else."

    "So what is it called?"

    "We call it 'Nover.'" He put the accent on the end, Nov-air. "In Hebrew it means the one that grubs in the ground."

    "You are surely aware of the reason for this visit" Simantov said crisply. We at the office of religions are concerned. Word has it that your institute has been breeding pigs, for consumption by Jews."

    "No, the only pigs we are raising are for scientific experiments, mainly the study of human disease. The Nover, now that is a completely different story. Like the pig, it has a cloven hoof, but it also chews its cud. As far as the laws of Moses go, the laws of the Torah, it is fit to be eaten"

    "It looks like a pig."

    "Yes. But biologically it is completely different."

    "You really mean that it chews its cud? The scriptures use the term rather broadly, they include the rabbit, for instance, and its relative the coney. Is your--what did you call it? Your 'Nover'--is it an animal of a similar kind?"

    "Quite different. Its digestion is like that of a cow or goat, not like that of the animals you names. Or like that of a pig."

    "Hmm." Simantov stroked his bearded chin, trying to find some grasping point on this slippery problem. "A completely new animal, you are saying. I have never before heard anyone suggest that such a thing was even possible."

    He began to realize the significance of this matter, how different it was from the common "pig raising infractions" referred to his office. Had he appreciated the difference earlier, when the matter was rather casually brought before him, he might have found out more about genetic manipulation, he might have prepared relevant questions for Levy to answer. Now he felt unsure, unprepared.

    He looked at Levy's face. There was something vaguely familiar in it, some quality which reminded him of the strange fire in the eyes of more than a few of his colleagues in the rabbinical college. Several of those students, he knew, ended up in scholarly pursuits of a rather different kind: was that Levy's background, too?

    Levy, on the contrary, had anticipated the meeting. Even before the lab had embarked on what later would go informally by the name "Project Nover" he realized that it would be too much to expect a change in a ban of three thousand years without confrontation. Earlier, when Simantov called and set up the appointment, his forthcoming visit became the focus of the entire research team. By mutual consent, the rest of the institute was not told: the director knew, of course, but he did not want a confrontation any more than Levy and his partners. In the labs and by the coffee machine, only one topic was debated all week long, various objections which the rabbis could raise were studied and dissected, and possible answers were analyzed with the attention to detail common to both scientists and theologians.

    Levy remembered a discussion with Mira Benvenisti, during a lunch break some days earlier. "Why should we be concerned with the Jewish angle?" she asked. "This thing is not just for us, it will transform the whole world. In the Philippines, in Bengal, and in every place where many people hardly remember when they last ate a full meal--that was where an animal that grows and multiplies like a pig but digests grass like a cow was really needed. Even if the rabbinate here was completely negative, the project could claim success."

    "We have put it together, but we haven't sold it yet" was Levy's reply. Mira was a key person in the project, and in the lab she had spent on it nights and weekends. Her strong feelings were well known.

    Levy went on. "You talk of the Philippines and Bengal, and maybe you should include all of Asia and Africa, but it isn't so simple. Many of the people there are Muslims, and I am not sure how they will feel about the Nover."

    --"When they get hungry enough, they will love it."

    "Maybe and maybe not. If we were Americans, we might have very well ignored everything except the practical angle. Unfortunately, most of the world is not practical, most of the world resists change. I know Americans who still wonder why the improved living conditions which they bring to other nations often reap hostility instead of thanks. No, I would much rather convince people than force anything upon them."

    --"Nu, say you are right." That was Mota Herschkovitz, drinking his after-lunch potion of strong tea. He used to claim it was superior to coffee, and it was certainly just as dark. "Even so, where do we Jews enter the picture? If the Nover is something for the whole world to share, what does the world care whether we stamp this freak "kosher" or not?"

    "Because this ban on pork started with us" said Ben, paused and then continued. "Practically, it might make no difference whatsoever. But I wonder: if the discovery came from the American department of Agriculture, as one of it contributions to the welfare of humanity, what would people in Asia and Africa have said? Perhaps just 'those Americans have no feeling for our traditions, they just want us to eat pork the way they themselves do'."

    --"And Jews?" "We can say: look, this whole thing started with us, part of the package deal of Mt. Sinai, part of our covenant. And we have kept to it longer than anyone else. Only now new things are possible. We can splice DNA and blend species, and it so happens that in the meantime the world has also become much more crowded and more hungry. So we have done it--produced a new and useful animal and still managed to obey the same old rules."

    "New wine in old vessels," Mota grumphed between sips. He had abandoned his orthodox upbringing during his army service, but could still be depended upon for apt Talmudical quotations."

    "Exactly. When Hillel proclaimed that 'an eye for an eye' meant 'the value of an eye for an eye' he too was bending the law in order to preserve the spirit, because society had changed."

    "And you think that what we are doing is in the spirit of Jewish tradition?" Mira asked. "Do you think you can convince Simantov that our work here is no more than a continuation of Hillel's?"

    Mota smiled, "That's some jump. Hillel wasn't a biochemist."

    "You know what I mean."

    "I am not sure how to answer you, Mira," said Levy. "Sometimes I feel proud and confident, as if this work we have done, and it has taken at least six years as you both know, as if this work was no more than the fulfillment of our people's destiny as told to our forefather Abraham, to "Avraham avinu", that 'the families of the Earth will be blessed through you.'"

    "And at other times I fear that we are only helping bring a great change in everything, and that Jewish tradition will need every bit of its ingenuity to survive that change."

    "It will work out," said Mota. "Somehow, it will. As our sages, may their memory be blessed, have said, 'any difference of opinion that is for the sake of heaven is vindicated in the end.' Still, you are going to have a hell of a time convincing Simantov."

    And now Simantov was sitting in the office. Levy knew him to be one of the brightest, most enterprising and most perceptive people ever to hold the post of chief rabbi of Israel. Strangely enough, that by itself gave reason for hope: a lesser man might have temporized, might have passed the decision to a committee which would have argued it to death. But with Simantov that seemed unlikely: he was known to have little patience for the religious bureaucracy and its proverbial inertia, and little appreciation for committees. The man really belonged to a different era, and had he lived 2000 years earlier, he could well have been a worthy companion to Hillel. Levy was far more inclined to deal with him, rather than with the gray nonentity which accompanied him on this visit.

    "Where did these animals originate," Simantov asked, "are they descended from pigs?"

    "They are no ordinary hybrids, if that's what you mean. We have genetically changed the genetic material of a pig: some part of it was removed, and appropriate sections from a goat have replaced it. From this we grew our first animal, and when we knew that this was indeed what we were looking for--it took many tries--we cloned it and modified it further, so that we now have both males and females, which breed true descendants."

    "Like creating Eve from Adam's rib?"

    "A biochemical procedure, something like that." Levy did not like the comparison, it sounded as if man was beginning to imitate his creator. "It is more or less straight copying, but the details are delicate."

    "But some of the original material must have come from pigs."

    "Yes, of course, but only as a chemical extract. One can write down the formula and we have even produced it artificially." Mira did that, a tremendous feat of careful technique and sheer drudgery. The lab had a clever machine which compared strands of DNA from various mutations and related sources, and from this combination an experienced scientist could determine, with luck, which genes encoded which bodily traits and functions. The machine helped, the computer was indispensible, but it was Mira's ingenuity that deserved the ultimate credit.

    "You could perhaps say," he added, "that the original DNA was indeed part of the pig--the essence of piggishness, so to speak. But we destroyed that quality when we cut out selected sections and replaced them with others."

    "Did the animal grow in a laboratory bottle?"

    "No, it grew inside a pig. But a living animal does not pass on its uncleanliness by contact." Glaser leaned forward: "How is that?"

    "Well, my field is biology, or what in the news is called 'molecular genetics', but in this project one cannot help but be concerned with all angles. Of course I made it a point to study the related scriptures and the 'halachot', decisions which became law. What I have said ties in to the book of Leviticus--dead unclean animals transmit uncleanliness, from which scholars deduced that live ones do not."

    Levy paused, then went on. "There is a story about this in the Talmud. Food prepared for a great banquet was deemed unclean when a lizard was found on one of the dishes, but Rabbi Gamliel who was called in resolved the problem by throwing on it a glassful of cold water. It moved, showing it was alive and therefore did not pass uncleanliness."

    "Well, well!" For the first time the chief rabbi smiled. "You scientists do your homework. But tell me please: would it be possible for the Nover and swine to cross-breed?"

    "No, this cannot happen." Levy did not tell them that at first, it was in fact quite possible. Additional manipulations had to be developed to prevent this possibility, even sterile hybrids had to be prevented. The rabbis continued to probe, and Levy appreciated the time he took to read everything he could find about the subject, even using communication links to tie the institute's computer to the cross-reference files of the Talmudical Institute in Jerusalem. At the time it seemed like an unnecessary effort, but not any more.

    Yes, of course what they have done was different and novel, he told Simantov, but there also existed similar cases. The old "halachah" forbade Jews to shave with a razor, but allowed beards to be trimmed with scissors. Then suddenly the electric shaver appeared, which sheared hair like scissors and was therefore permitted.

    "Still... the whole idea. Have people tasted the meat?"

    "Some non-Jews work with us here--Burney, he is on a sabbatical from the Washington University in St. Louis, and Elias, from Haifa. And a few more. They liked it, very much."

    "What did they say it tasted like?"

    "Somewhat like pork, but more lean. Burney said it reminded him of venison." Levy smiled. "I hope you did not expect me to give an opinion."

    Glaser also smiled. "One never knows. A lot of Jews eat pork these days."

    Simantov had always felt cool about Glaser, but could never state exactly why. The man was observant, capable and hard-working, yet something vital was missing. Perhaps it was that so much of his personality was external, in keeping with the spotless clothes he always wore. Where politics were involved, or a presentation had to be made to a committee, Glaser was in his own element: but Simantov could sense no inner fire, no deep-down passion. Even in private he always seemed cautious and calculating, never losing his temper but also never baring his soul.

    This time, however, Glaser had hit a sore spot. In centuries past Jews might have chosen martyrdom rather than partake of unclean meat (or so the stories told), but now, not only did many break the ban, they even lacked the shame to keep the fact secret. The chief rabbi had fought a losing battle on that front ever since he took office.

    "There is a problem here," Simantov said. "If Jews are permitted to consume the Nover, they might acquire a taste for pork. It would not be exactly unlawful, but our entire tradition has been to build 'outer fences" around the Torah, to surround any laws with added precautions, so that no one would get even close to a sinful act. It would not be a good thing if observant Jews were allowed to develop a taste for pork."

    Levy held back. Deep down he suspected that this argument was at best temporary: within a generation, if not before, there may be very few pigs left outside zoos or research facilities. Because the Nover was so much more economical, it would take over the pig's niche in the food chain. Would farmers call it the "Nova," the new thing? And among the millions who would benefit, how many would know of this lab overlooking Haifa Bay, about himself and Mira and Mota?

    But in debating matters of faith, he thought, it was best to leave the future alone. However plausible, future events were unproven: only the past, no matter how distant and beclouded, only the past could be safely invoked.

    "There exists no ban on taste alone," he said instead. "Food stores sell textured protein extracted from plants, flavored with an artificial bacon taste. It may be unseemly for Jews to eat it, but it isn't sinful."

    "No observant Jew buys it, I can assure you," said Simantov. "But I can see your point."

    What a complex world, he thought. When I was younger, I was asked to rule when does Sabbath begin on a spacecraft circling the Earth. On the ground Sabbath begins with sunset, but what is the proper time in orbit, where sunsets follow each other in 90-minute intervals? He finally unearthed a precedent of sorts, the beginning of Sabbath on a submerged submarine--and accordingly he decreed that the time should be the same as the one computed for the port of departure.

    But this was much more serious, because it touched all of society. According to the letter of the scriptures, Simantov conceded privately, Levy was right, and developing a taste for pork was a secondary issue at best. The core of it, the real gut issue, was irrational: over the thousands of years, the pig has come to symbolize all things forbidden to Jews. It formed the essence of all the things a Jew was commanded to shun: just as the menorah, the golden candelabrum of the Temple, was the ultimate symbol of purity, so the pig had come to represent the utmost depth of uncleanliness.

    "Rabbi, may I offer a suggestion?" said Levy.

    "Please, I would very much like to hear it."

    "The Nover may pass the test of the laws of Moses. On the other hand, if you want to surround the law with yet another outer fence, you could advise all observant Jews to abstain from its flesh, lest they develop a taste for pork. Following that recommendation, people would be adding another dimension to their observance--a "hiddur," an added flourish in fulfilling a commandment, above and beyond what has been ordained."

    "But think also about those who have broken away from the rules. Or better still, about those who might cross the dividing line in the next year, the next two, the next ten. We ought not write them off: many of them are young, creative, enterprising, and they still have a stake in everything Jewish, in our culture, history, yes even in our faith. Many seek a spiritual purpose to life, but still they drift away, having given up on ever finding it in a tradition which drags its feet whenever it encounters change."

    "If we value these people we need a fence for them too, not an inner fence to keep them out but an outer fence to keep them with us. With the Nover we have something like that. It might make it easier for them to stay within the laws of kashrut, the restrictions on what may or may not be eaten, but it is also something much more important: it can be a symbol of the adaptability of our tradition, of the ingenuity which we are willing to exercise in order to stay with ancient rules. This lab is in the very forefront of biochemistry, yet its product is in harmony with one of the oldest traditions on Earth."

    He fell silent and the rabbi did not answer, because Levy had touched a great concern of his: he, too, had been alarmed by the detachment of too many bright Jewish minds, of people whose passion and devotion had left its mark on science, on industry, on the army and on commerce, on almost any field except their old culture. How could one keep hold of such Jews? It wasn't so in his earlier days, when life seemed more purposeful, because an old culture was being rebuilt in its native land. When a new identity was being crafted from a wide spectrum of views and traditions, all quite different yet all equally Jewish. and when many old ideas came back for the first time in 2000 years.

    Now he missed the sparkle, the uncommon spirit of those times. He visualized row upon row of rabbinical students, facing him at a recent graduation. The building was a palace compared to where he himself had studied, but the atmosphere was placid rather than charged, too much prejudice in the air, people too predictable. Why was it that today's "leaders of Jewish thought"--that was his phrase at the graduation ceremony--why were they so pedestrian? Where have the visionaries gone?

    "I appreciate your thoughts" he said, taking in the compromise Levy had hinted at. "Do you suggest that officially we would discourage, but not ban?" Levy nodded. Was Levy one of the visionaries whom Judaism had failed to capture?

    "We may have to set up a committee to study the matter and report to the National Rabbinical Assembly," he heard Glaser say.

    "In that case, please tell them all what you have seen and heard here today."

    "I will select the committee myself," said Simantov, "and the matter is sufficiently important that I myself shall prepare a presentation to the Assembly. And you, Dr. Levy will be able to repeat before the Assembly all you have told us today."

    Their eyes met, and Levy knew he had a possible supporter in the other camp. The final outcome, he realized, was anything but certain, but the first hurdle was over. Suddenly it came to him how tense everyone in the room had been, even the secretary who had not said a word so far.

    Levy nodded to her and she went out, and a minute later Hershkovitz brought in the coffee and the cake--the cake sealed in a box marked "kosher", the coffee served in paper cups. Several other members of the lab joined them and Levy introduced everyone to the rabbi, who showed genuine interest in the work of the institute. How was cloning carried out? How could individual genes be manipulated?

    Later, after refreshments and formalities, Levy found himself once more alone with the rabbis. Soon they would have to start the long journey back home, to Jerusalem, but there was one thing which still bothered Simantov. "I have been greatly impressed by the extent to which you are familiar with Jewish tradition," he told Levy, "and even more by the skill with which you argued your case. I often get involved in debates over points of law, but not many rabbinical scholars can present their views as well as you have done. Have we met before? Have you ever, perhaps, studied to become a rabbi?

    "Thank you for saying so, but no, I have never attended a rabbinical college."

    "Your family must have produced some outstanding scholars of the law, in the old times," said Glaser. "I have seen few people argue a point of Jewish law with the chief rabbi and manage to hold their own."

    "I still feel as if I have seen your face before," said Simantov. "Maybe we shared some ceremonial occasion?"

    "Yes, we have met," said Levy, "but it was a very long time ago." He walked over to the table, refilled his cup from the very end of the coffee urn's contents, took a sip and continued.

    "About thirty years ago, after you graduated from your own studies, you served for a year as headmaster of an orphanage and talmudical school in Jerusalem, 'The Glory of Israel. I attended that school and yes, we did share a ceremonial occasion there." He strode to the desk, reached into the bookshelf behind it, and from among the varied texts on genetics and biochemistry pulled out a drab black book. He opened it in front of the rabbi. "The Holy Scriptures", he said, and I think you have seen this particular copy before."

    The rabbi looked at the faded handwriting and suddenly, a long-forgotten scene snapped back into his memory. A little boy, bright eyes, dressed for the occasion in a hand-me-down jacket, frayed but clean. Proud parents--probably poor, the school admitted families who could not afford a more prestigious education--stood in the back of the school's only large hall, and the students in front of them sat in orderly rows, as befitting graduation day. Ceremonial occasion indeed, reflected the rabbi, as his eyes scanned once more the familiar words:

For top scholarship in talmudical debate,
this prize is awarded to the outstanding
student Benjamin Levy.

                    Jacob Simantov, Principal.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern     
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Last updated 18 May 2012