Dr. David Freidenreich, Colby College – Origin of Religious Dietary Restrictions

Jul 4, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. David Freidenreich of Colby College explains the historical meaning of dietary restrictions within the world's major monotheistic religions.

David Freidenreich is the Pulver Family Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. His research explores attitudes toward adherents of foreign religions, primarily as these attitudes are expressed in ancient and medieval religious law. He hold a Ph.D. From Columbia University.

About Dr. Freidenreich

Dr. David Freidenreich – Origin of Religious Dietary Restrictions

What we don’t eat can say a lot about who we are.  In the Middle Ages, observant Jews and Muslims avoided eating not only certain kinds of food, like pork, but also various foods prepared by members of other religions, like bread baked by non-Jews and cheese made by Zoroastrians.  Pious Christians, meanwhile, made a point of refusing to eat with Jews.  Restrictions like these are an especially powerful means of expressing identity and distinguishing Us from Them.  These rules express very different ideas about members of other religions and, by extension, about what it means to be a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew. 

Jewish laws about the food of gentiles, which regulate everything from milk and wine to fish and pickles,  divide the world into two groups, Jews and non-Jews.  In the process, they reinforce a conception of Jews as uniquely holy.  Medieval Christian rules about food—yes, there really were such rules—also emphasize Christian uniqueness, but they give voice to a more complex worldview.  These laws, which forbid Christians to share meals with Jews or eat Jewish foods like unleavened bread, convey the message that Jews are dangerous anti-Christians.  The Qurʾan’s permission for Muslims to eat Jewish and Christian food instead emphasizes the ways in which Jews and Christians are like Muslims.  Within this worldview, Muslims aren’t unique, but simply the best.

Restrictions on sharing food with members of other religions constitute obvious barriers to interaction.  The different ways in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims see themselves and one another pose a more subtle challenge.  These differences, in fact, continue to hamper interfaith understanding even as many of the food restrictions that once reinforced them are forgotten or ignored.  Eating with one another, it turns out, is much simpler than truly seeing eye to eye.