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Of Sacred Leopards and Abominable Pigs
How common practice becomes ritual law
By Ronald S. Hendel
Franz Kafka once wrote a brief parable about the origin of a fabulous Temple ritual: “Leopards break into the Temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.”1 In this strange, dreamlike way, a random and perhaps terrifying event comes to be ritualized as part of the sacred routine. As a Temple ritual, it would naturally be invested with deep theological significance. In this way, a recurring historical event becomes a mysterious religious symbol.
As Kafka’s parable suggests, the way that historical practices become religious rituals is indeed mysterious. An example that is not quite as fabulous as Kafka’s leopard is the biblical pig. The avoidance of pork is one of the hallmarks of biblical dietary laws, and it remains a basic prohibition in the Jewish rules of kosher food. Why does traditional Judaism prohibit pork? Some rabbis will say that it is because pork is unhealthy if not prepared correctly. But this explanation doesn’t really work in the context of the other prohibited foods—rare camel or badger meat aren’t unhealthy, and they are prohibited too (Leviticus 11:1–7). Other rabbis will say that these laws are divine mysteries, and we must show our faith by obedience. This explanation is close to the sense of Kafka’s parable—the laws are mysterious, seemingly random, and obscure.

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