Anthropologists have long scratched their heads at the organizational logic underpinning kashrut, the rules and regulations surrounding the proscription, prescription, and preparation of foods in Judaism, also called “kosher laws.” Why are only animals that both chew cud and have cloven hooves permissible? Why only fish that have both scales and fins, thereby eliminating species like catfish, sharks, and all shellfish? Why are locusts okay to eat while nearly every other species of insect is forbidden?
Various arguments have been put forth, one of the most common being that of basic health. At the time when the Torah was being codified, so the reasoning goes, parasites like trichinosis were very common, vaccines didn’t exist, and, in the absence of thermometers, it was difficult to determine if meat had reached the requisite temperature to be safe for consumption when cooked over an open flame. Others argue that it was about differentiation. The Law of Moses generally contains a constant proscription on types of mixing: no linen and wool should be woven together (Deut 22:11); two different crops should not be sown in the same field (Lev 19:19); a kid should not be cooked in its mother’s milk (Deut 14:21); and the Israelites should not intermingle with the Canaanites and others. Even the word “holy,” repeated many times in the first five books of Moses, is based on the Semitic root q-d-sh, whose meanings include separation, differentiation, and designation for a specific purpose (see, e.g., Lev 19:2, “…Be ye holy, for I the Lord God am holy.”) Separation and categorization, this line of thought suggests, were the driving forces behind kashrut.
Yet neither of these two arguments seems wholly satisfactory. Even if they were combined – if we say it was about health and differentiation – something seems lacking. Perhaps, some say, the arguments may be combined and simultaneously reconceptualized in order to reach a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts: kashrut is about defining one’s people as recognizable and distinct to both insiders and outsiders. The very fact that all of the regulations cannot be explained as simply good diet and nutrition means that said regulations can appear arbitrary. Those who abide by this arbitrariness are unique and different – and easy to spot at dinnertime. And cultures are often defined by their unique, seemingly arbitrary practices.
One could easily apply the same thinking to the way that the Word of Wisdom has come to operate in Mormon culture. Like the system of kashrut, most of the recommendations included in Section 89 make good health sense. Smoking is without question dangerous; excessive alcohol consumption leads to all manner of health problems, not to mention societal ills. It is wise and humane to eat meat sparingly, and fruits and vegetables contain essential vitamins and nutrients. Yet, again like kashrut, the Word of Wisdom is difficult to explain entirely as a diet and nutrition plan. Tea, for example, is commonly held to have as many – if not more – health benefits as possible detriments.
Could the Word of Wisdom also serve as means of differentiation and self-categorization? It seems likely, particularly when we examine the ways that, as a culture, we have chosen to emphasize specific aspects of Section 89 as defining points of orthodoxy and proper observance. Nowhere does the text indicate that, for example, a lack of coffee in one’s diet should serve as a litmus test of piety – yet it has become one. In other words, we have pinpointed as religiously significant precisely those elements of the Word of Wisdom (i.e., abstention from coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco) that, when observed, make us unusual in broader American culture. Focusing on eating fruits in season or on eating little meat would not go far in demarcating us to our non-LDS neighbors as having a distinct, different diet. But never drinking coffee? That’s uncommon. By observing these rules – by avoiding those items (tea) that seem arbitrarily frowned upon – we impose upon ourselves a defining cultural marker of difference.
In my next post, I will argue that our current focus on modes of dress, particularly our growing equation of covering the deltoids with modesty, can also be explained as a means of anthropological differentiation and self-marking.