Friday, September 23, 2011

David M. Freidenreich's "Foreigners and Their Food"

David M. Freidenreich is the Pulver Family Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Colby College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Foreigners and Their Food: Constructing Otherness in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law, and reported the following:
From Page 99:
Upon her baptism in Philippi, a God-fearing gentile named Lydia urges Paul and his companions to accept her hospitality: “'If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.' And she prevailed upon us” ([Acts] 16.15). Lydia recognizes that the true test of one's acceptance within a community is if its members will accept one's hospitality and, with it, one's food. Some members of the Jewish communities that attracted “God-fearers” like Lydia would not have accepted Lydia's offer; the Christ-believers do.
Paul and his companions, all Jewish by birth, accept food from Lydia, a non-Jew. This deceptively simple act constitutes a crucial moment in the origins of the Christian community as a movement separate from Judaism. Foreigners and Their Food explains how and why this is so.

We commonly think of religious dietary laws as relating to ingredients: pork, for example, or alcohol. Jewish, Islamic, and even Christian sources from antiquity and the Middle Ages also contain what I call foreign food restrictions, rules based not on the contents of the food but on who makes it or who shares it. Refusal to share a meal or to accept food prepared by someone who is not of one's own community conveys powerfully the message that the divide between “Us” and “Them” should not be bridged.

Many Jews of Jesus' era abstained from food prepared by non-Jews. This practice helped to set Jews apart from gentiles, reinforcing the notion that Jews constitute a distinctive, holy people. Jesus himself observed this practice as well. Although the Gospels famously recount that Jesus ate with “tax collectors and sinners,” people on the margins of Jewish society, we never hear of Jesus eating with gentiles.

After his death, however, many of Jesus' followers came to feel that one need not be Jewish in order to gain full membership in the community of those who believe in Christ. In Acts of the Apostles and also in Paul's letters, passages about food convey this message and chronicle its implementation. The participation of Jews and gentiles alike in the community's meals marks these participants as Christians first and foremost. Page 99 offers a glimpse into this momentous transformation.

This page, however, offers no hint of the food practices that developed once Christianity became fully established. Medieval Christian authorities instructed their flock to abstain from Jewish food, and forbade sharing meals with Jews as well. Nor does page 99 allude to the history of Islamic attitudes toward non-Muslims and their food, or the fact that Sunni Islam was the only Abrahamic tradition to consistently endorse consuming food prepared by adherents of any scriptural religion.

The role that food has played in shaping and communicating ideas about religious foreigners is too richly complex for one page to capture. Does the entirety of Foreigners and Their Food do justice to this subject? That is for readers to decide.
Read more about Foreigners and Their Food at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue