From the Marrakesh to the Sahara: A Desert Journey, Spanish Travelers, and Tracing Jewish History in the Ancient Hills 🐪
A road trip from Marrakesh to the Sahara: Camels, COVID, new friends—and History
I found myself conflicted before I even started on my journey to the mikveh
Interpreting the exact words of Torah is tricky enough, and then you get the layer of Rabbinic debate on top of it. Halacha – Jewish law – has some very clear things to say about what we can and cannot eat, for example.
The list of prohibitions on animals seems arbitrary at first, and maybe it is! But it also is very specific, so interpretation of its meaning isn’t really widely questioned. You either eat kosher or you don’t, but you don’t argue that the text doesn’t say “no pork”. This part is nice; it gets dicier with many other topics, like Shabbat, sex, and interactions with others.
And I actually think the list of kosher animals isn’t arbitrary. ? Pork. ? Shellfish. Most folks know those, but also banned: a variety of animals that eat things we ourselves would not. You are what you eat, and shellfish are bottom-feeders, pigs will eat absolutely anything as I understand it, and most the rest are either wildcards or carnivores. The land animals that are kosher all chew their cud, which means they’re herbivores. We avoid eating carnivores to avoid eating whatever they ate, which may have included an animal they already found dead (not kosher).
Going Kosher was mostly easy for me: I already don’t eat a lot of red meat and don’t eat dairy at all—so mixing it with meat isn’t a concern, though I think that practice is taken too literally. I also eat a lot of organic and gluten-free foods, and especially during lockdown this has led to an increasingly vegan existence.
And then there’s the piglet in the room: I love bacon, I miss bacon, and I’ve eaten it when it’s served to me, G-d bless my parents. I keep sending them the memo (Hey, I’m trying not to do this), and definitely have turned it down on Shabbat especially; but I admit once it hits my nostrils, like coffee—it’s damn hard to refuse. If pigs are so smart, why do they insist on smelling and tasting so amazing?
The first mention of kashrut – kosher eating – is in Leviticus, as are the most famous passages supposedly about homosexuality. They’re the big ones that stick in our craws, and I think they’re wildly misinterpreted and misunderstood.
Many scholars believe the list of kosher animals was written to rationalize what was already in place, such as using domesticated animals while eliminating animals that were used in neighboring religions. I think the prohibition on tattoos and the famous mention of sodomy are much the same as banned critters: don’t do these things, because pagans are doing it while worshipping multiple or false gods. Here we go:
Finally, the gay stuff! First off, Leviticus’ notorious parshahs are just incorrect in English translations (as is much of Christian Bible), and the rabbis can’t even agree on what the original Hebrew means. So translating it is impossible and insisting that these things say one thing for certain does a huge disservice to entire populations, not to mention society at large. It’s spiritual violence often resulting in actual violence.
The word “homosexuality” didn’t exist until the 1800s, and the word sodomy, derived from Sodom, is incorrect as a reference to that tale. Sodom is about inhospitality and rape; later in Ezekiel we get:
“Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquillity; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.”
If you changed the gender of the angels the people of Sodom tried to rape, it’s still the same story and lesson.
The other famous “prohibition” on gay sex, which only mentions men, is almost certainly a prohibition on two things: The Greek apprentice system, and sex rituals in other neighboring religions.
Again, the idea was that Jews should not engage in sex in the temple or as some kind of ritual practice, not that the gender of those involved was important. Neighboring cultures did this just as they sacrificed a variety of animals. There’s a reason we don’t eat our house pets in this and the larger culture; Leviticus isn’t meant to apply to anyone other than the Jews and certainly not meant to be read as a prohibition on gay rights. The Greek system, too, involved men of power apprenticing high-born boys at a young age, and a famous part of that practice was sexual. The Jews knew this and banned it. No Temple prostitutes, and no borrowing from a neighboring, pagan culture. To biblical authors, homosexuality and Grego-Roman culture were intertwined, writes Rabbi Danya Rutenberg (G-d, I love her), and that culture posed a violent, existential threat to the Jews.*
The biblical ban on tattoos reads the same way to me; other cultures used tattoos in religious rituals, and the word used in Torah may also refer to etching or carving the skin as a part of that practice. So I argue that tattoos are potentially kosher, assuming they’re not religious, self-harmful, or otherwise excessive (as with anything). In fact, tattoos are a form of self-care to many, with studies showing that those of us with ink (I have 10) are more likely to have trauma or have suffered abuse. I think a bit of gay body dysmorphia and being excessively scrawny led me to begin accepting my body, and to design it and decorate it as I chose. That’s not something everyone may understand, but if you’ve ever wished to not be in your body for even a moment, getting even a small tattoo can feel like wild empowerment.
Of course I knew none of this when one of my first Jewish educational google searches was “can you convert to Judaism if you have tattoos.” Yes, and you can be buried in a Jewish cemetery, though your Bubbe may tell you otherwise. My tattoos are self care. Most I got post divorce, after 35, after an extended bout of trauma, an emotionally abusive relationship, and longterm pain and illness. I image that for those growing up with abuse, getting tattooed feels like in inversion; if you were physically or emotionally scarred, choosing to do it again but on your own terms and with a design of your choosing is a relief and reclamation of your body.
I’ll leave you with a reminder that even if Leviticus 18 magically said in your native language “gay secks is bad, y’all”, it makes no reference whatsoever to loving, consenting relationships. Here is a wonderful translation from Keshet: Leviticus 18 actually prohibits gang rape, a crime so much more severe than consensual sex it would actually justify the severe punishment stated. This also happens to be the same crime for which Sodom was destroyed, further reinforcing this interpretation.
And an honorable mention to bring us full circle from foods to noods: Rabbi Adam Greenwald informed me that semen is in fact kosher, so you don’t have to worry one drop.
I hope this post wasn’t too much to swallow. (Sorry).
*The irony here is that the Greco-Roman threat ceased being Greek and turned into a very real Roman one: the attempted-genocide of the Jews. And yet we mostly associate homosexuality-as-a-pagan-practice with the ancient Greeks, who (drumroll) initially let the Israelites continue practicing ancient temple Judaism under order of Alexander the Great. And Alexander was a homosexual who many Jews went on to name their children after in gratitude.