I am thinking of founding a religion in which everything is permitted. It would be the First Church of Anything Goes, and its followers would be known as Any’s. Wouldn’t it be great to have perfect freedom, sanctioned by the Almighty!
But I must admit that this idea, attractive as it may seem at first glance, does not seem to accord with human nature. In fact, the whole rationale for Religion (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) seems to be that people need some ethical and moral structure – they need to be told how to behave. This of course can affect many different facets of one’s life. But in particular, many religions seem to have become fixated on food. Christianity is a happy exception here. Except for participating in the almost universal abhorrence of cannibalism, most Christians can eat almost anything without any sense of religious guilt.
It may be that this permissiveness derives from wishing to distinguish their own faith from that of the parent religion, Judaism. Having myself been brought up in the Jewish tradition, I am well aware of the multitudinous dietary restrictions imposed upon Orthodox Jews – many of these injunctions having been teased out of ancient scripture by centuries of Rabbinic interpretation. For example, the Bible instructs, “Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.” Upon this has been built a fantastically elaborate code, dictating the “Kosher” handling, preparing, and consuming of food. This involves the classification of all foods into two broad categories, of milk-related and non-milk-related. And each class requires, for example, its own table-ware, and even its own kitchen sink.
Very few Jews adhere strictly to all dietary laws, but those who do are generally respected by their more liberal co-religionists, as “keepers of the faith,” without whom Judaism would have perished long ago. In my own family, although we were far from strictly Orthodox, there was still some effort to separate milk from meat. And above all, we observed the prohibition against eating pig-meat in any form. This particular law was again derived from abstruse biblical passages, forbidding consumption of animals with “cloven hooves.” I myself was soon emancipated from all these taboos, once I left home – with one curious exception. Although I can take ham or bacon without a qualm, I still, in my mid-eighties, have a certain lingering repugnance to eating pork.
This anti-pig taboo is one of many characteristics shared by Judaism and Islam. And both religions tell the same story of Adam and Eve eating forbidden fruit, and thereby losing Paradise.
Then of course there are the Hindus, with their well-known intolerance for eating beef, predicated upon their reverence for the cow as a sacred animal. But their eating of other meat, including pig, is much less emphatically condemned.
With other religions, such as Buddhism, dietary rules and practices tend to merge with attitudes towards the taking of animal life – bringing us to the realm of Vegetarianism, which is not necessarily religion-connected at all, but might be principally a matter of health and nutrition – speaking of which, let’s not overlook the fact that, for many or most people, especially those more in tune with their times, the most forbidden foods are self-forbidden, particularly in the interests of health.
In that connection, the foods most condemned are those supposedly leading to excessive weight, which in turn is blamed for a host of maladies. For many years I personally denied myself many of the foods which formerly had been among my staples, such as jam and peanut butter, ice cream and pastries, because I was medically advised that I was overweight. Ironically, I have now dieted persistently enough, and lived long enough, to find myself in a condition in which, according to the charts, I actually need to gain a few pounds. When I asked one doctor how I could best accomplish this, her laconic answer was a single word: “CALORIES.”
At the same time, our whole society seems to have changed its mind about what constitutes good nutrition – particularly concerning the evils once supposedly inherent in another word: “FAT.” For an entire generation, an enormous number of foods were marketed under the appealing banner of “LOW FAT” or even “NON-FAT.” But more recent food fashions, no doubt based on the latest research, have determined that fat is no longer the villain in this drama of forbidden foods. What then should be forbidden? To find out, you may have to go back to your Imam or your Rabbi.