Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Jordan D. Rosenblum, Food and Identity in Early Rabbinic Judaism. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xiv, 223. ISBN 9780521195980. $85.00.

Reviewed by Matthew Kraus, University of Cincinnati (tthew.kraus@uc.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


Planning a dinner party for scholars of food, Classics and rabbinics would present a formidable challenge for any chef. Jordan Rosenblum assumes this task in Food and Identity in Rabbinic Judaism, a respectable attempt to serve fare both edible and satisfying to all. By examining the Tannaim's innovative adaptation of Jewish and non-Jewish customs, Rosenblum claims to develop a methodology for cross-cultural and trans-historical food studies. Rosenblum demonstrates how tannaitic texts establish a discrete rabbinic identity through the discursive construction of culinary and commensal practices. This essential thesis is not difficult to swallow, but it should be noted that the size of the portions vary. The rabbinics scholar has the most to digest, albeit abundantly seasoned with contemporary food theory. Classicists might enjoy the tastes, but will depart still hungry.

According to the author, three methodological weaknesses characterize current scholarship specifically on diet and identity in ancient Judaism. The critiques do not apply in general to the post-Neusnerian approaches to rabbinic literature. First, he properly criticizes works that continue to treat rabbinic sources monolithically without attention to crucial geographical and chronological differences. Second, other studies that examine food and dining regulations for Jews and non-Jews or rabbinic and non-rabbinic Jews do not consider how these rules construct identity. Third, Rosenblum argues that the term identity has been under-theorized creating an aporistic distinction between self-understanding and external perceptions of identity.1 Rosenblum, by focusing on tannaitic self-identity as a practice rather than analytical category, avoids the irresolvable question of whether tannaitic discourse represents imaginative rhetoric or historical reality. Thus, Rosenblum differs from Sacha Stern who sees identity sometimes as practice and sometimes as passively experienced. For Rosenblum, "culinary and commensally constructed tannaitic identity is always about practice." Rosenblum explains how discourse as an activity delimits the parameters of the tannaitic Jew, thereby wisely avoiding any attempt to articulate an essentialized yet ever elusive account of "actual" identity. For the scholar in rabbinics, Rosenblum offers an old dish of tannaitic literature newly seasoned with literary and anthropological theory. For the anthropologists of food, the discussion may have a familiar smell, but it is unlikely that they have sampled Mishnah, Sifra, Sifrei or the Mekhilta. (Rosenblum provides a "Brief Introduction to the Tannaitic Corpus" [pp.13-14] for those unfamiliar with the ingredients of these texts.) He even has a chef's surprise, coining a new term "edible identity", a "complex of culturally significant activities surrounding the preparation and ingestion of food that allows diners to make an identity statement by the manner in which they partake of their dinner" (p.7).

In Chapter One, "Realia," Rosenblum describes what people ate and how they obtained, prepared and ate their food during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. He concludes that Jews and non-Jews differed in their food practices primarily on the micro, not the macro level. If we observed Jews acquiring and cooking the common staples of bread, oil and wine, sitting at benches or chairs three times a day (two times for the poor), we would not be able to identify the diners as Jewish. Evidence from Sepphoris suggests that some Jews may have even eaten prohibited foods such as pig, camel, hyrax, and catfish. Only when the diners opened their mouths and spoke a blessing rather than poured a libation would the meal become marked as Jewish. While Rosenblum competently summarizes culinary aspects of the Greco-Roman world, table-fellowship receives minimal attention despite his promise in the "Introduction" to reconstruct "the...commensal world" of tannaitic-period Palestine according to Greek, Roman, and Christian sources (p.10). The reader is left wondering how Greek and Roman commensal practices inscribed identity. In Chapter Two, "Jewish Identity" we learn that the Tannaim created boundaries through three techniques: metonymic foods that inscribe in-group and out-group status; integrating commensality with other potentially problematic social interactions with non-Jews such as intermarriage and idolatry; and a connection between the status of the cook and the status of the food. Here Rosenblum introduces the "sous-chef" principle to explain why food prepared by non-Jews (or non-rabbinic Jews) may be considered acceptable. Also, Rosenblum rightly notes (p.58) that abstention from certain foods plays a role in identity formation (we are what we do not eat). According to Chapter Three, "Jewish Male Identity," tannaitic food discussions established a specifically male identity. The women in these texts are only important in so far as they affect male practice, not a particularly novel idea as duly noted by Rosenblum.2 In Chapter Four "Jewish Male Rabbinic Identity," Rosenblum outlines how four food practices distinguish between rabbinic and non-rabbinic Jews: a distinctly rabbinic cuisine, an expansion of purity laws through food and consumption, the "sous-chef" principle, and the exclusion of non-rabbinic Jews from festival observances (which included commensality). Rosenblum significantly observes that purity concerns are only relevant to interactions between rabbinic and non-rabbinic Jews, whereas idolatry represents the greatest threat from socializing with non-Jews (p.145).

The book contains a number of tasty highlights. Rosenblum has a talent for reading rabbinic texts. Typical is his interpretation of the Mekhilta on Exodus 13:17 as a classic example of "edible identity": God requires the eating of manna and drinking of well-water for forty years in the desert in order to form the identity of the Israelites into rabbinic Jews ([so that] Torah will be absorbed...into their bodies, p. 61). Similarly, Rosenblum convincingly utilizes Levi-Straussian categories to explain why tHullin 1:1 puts Gentiles and apes in the same category of unacceptable butchers. Proper slaughter is a human (civilized) act while improper slaughter is a non-human (uncivilized) act (pp.79-80). Sometimes these readings are relegated to the notes. In n.28 on p.112, Rosenblum explains how tannaitic texts apply the sous-chef principle in allowing women and gentiles to knead dough as long as a Jewish male performs the baking. Readers familiar with Petronius's Widow of Ephesus will find Rosenblum's interpretation of tAvodah Zarah 4:6 useful since the tannaitic text suggests that commensality leads to idolatry and illicit sexual relations (pp.91-93). Rosenblum also offers a convincing historical reconstruction for the emerging significance of dining practices. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah lack commensality restrictions because the table was not the locus of identity formation in the Persian Period. In the Hellenistic period, however, as outsiders became insiders, commensality became more dangerous. This only partially accounts for the food restrictions in the book of Daniel. Relying on David Freidenreich, Rosenblum endorses the Levi-Straussian explanation for Daniel's avoidance of cooked food. It is "civilized" by the wrong civilization (p.38).

Classifying all commensality as dangerous is, however, problematic. Suggesting that increased interaction between Jews and Greeks accounts for the perceived threat of commensality fails to account for the complex significance of meals as a common cultural practice in the Classical world. This underdetermination points to a few lacunae in Rosenblum's work. He does not explore how the Greco-Roman table functioned in identity formation (even the seating order at the triclinium made a difference).3 The Greco-Roman texts that derive Jewish misanthropy from their dining practices indicate that for Greeks and Romans the table similarly distinguishes between self and other (Greeks and barbarians). For the Greeks and Romans, abstention from commensality was problematic. Rather than being exceptional (Rosenblum's view), the banquet in the letter of Aristeas is also metonymic, albeit of a different notion of identity. The banquet represents the possibility and success of translation, just as translation is metonymic of the integration of Jew and non-Jew. Just as the Greek of the Septuagint is hebraized, the meal is Judaized.4 Similarly, Rosenblum oversimplifies the martyrdom stories in Second Maccabees by reducing the refusal to eat pork to an act of resistance to foreign domination (p. 50). The Socrates-like Eleazar objects to even fake pork in Second Maccabees in part lest he submit his soul to his body. Thus, the event is simultaneously symbolic of the incompatibility of Greek and Jewish worship and the compatibility of Greek philosophy and Judaism. Rosenblum's discussion of Jewish abstention from pig in Roman satire (pp.54-55) may raise some eyebrows. Not only is it odd to group together the carnivalesque Petronius and the militant ironist Juvenal, the intimate connection between satire and food readily accounts for the representation of Jews through food. Finally, given Plutarch's lengthy discussion of why Jews abstain from pork,5 the basis of Rosenblum's claim that abstention from pig receives the most attention in Roman satire is unclear.

The presentation of the meal could be improved with some more careful editing. Rosenblum defends the thesis that food practices in tannaitic literature inscribe rabbinic identity quite convincingly, perhaps too convincingly, as he makes the point repeatedly. For example, the phrase "you are what you eat" appears at least five times (pp.46, 49, 51, 153, 189). Similarly, references to identity creation through culinary practices occur far too often throughout the book. In a short sample from pages 45-47, I found seven phrases synonymous to "commensality regulations are part of...Jewish identity construction." Rosenblum even offers two conclusions to Chapter Two, "Conclusions" (pp.89-91) and "Jewish Identity: Conclusions (pp.101-102). This repetition may result from the fact that several chapters and sub-chapters came out as independent articles without all the redundancies being removed by the editors. I would have preferred more space dedicated to his expert analysis of specific tannaitic texts.

To be sure, there are a few items I would return to the kitchen. On the whole, however, the chef is well-trained, talented, and works in a kitchen amply stocked with a broad range of ingredients. The variety of tasty morsels of textual exegesis alone justify a visit to this book. Even if the classicist, rabbinics scholar and anthropologist are not completely satisfied or feel they overate, they will surely have enjoyed dining together. Rosenblum confirms the value of interdisciplinary commensality. If we learn anything from this book, we are with whom we eat.

Errata: p. 68 Hebrew fe is inconsistently transliterated as "p" and "f" (nepes and terefah); p. 69 n.122 the first "e" in Terefah has an unnecessary subscript dot. On p. 147 n. 32 the Hebrew is backwards.


1.   P. 5. Rosenblum must be referring to discussions of Jewish identity in antiquity since he specifically mentions, among others, Sacha Stern, Jewish Identity in Early Rabbinic Writings, New York: Brill, 1994, Shaye Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000, and David Kraemer, Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages, New York: Routledge, 2007. Theoretically sophisticated approaches to modern Jewish identity are quite common, such as Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism, ed. by David Biale et al., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, Mapping Jewish Identities, ed. by Laurence Silberstein, New York: New York University Press, 2000 and the numerous articles and books by Sander Gilman and Naomi Seidman.
2.   Rosenblum cites Sacha Stern, ibid., Tal Ilan Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine: An Inquiry into Image and Status, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1995; and Charlotte Fonrobert, Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
3.   The absence of Emily Gowers' The Loaded Table: Representations of Food in Roman Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993 from the bibliography is most unfortunate because she anticipates much of Rosenblum's theoretical model, albeit with a different database.
4.   See Tessa Rajak, Translation and Survival: The Greek Bible of the Ancient Jewish Diaspora, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
5.   Quaestiones Convivales 4.5.

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