“They sit apart at meals”: Early rabbinic commensality regulations and identity construction
From the pages of Leviticus to Emily Post, the cultural mores and legal statutes that guide both how and what one ingests create a code that, much like a language, one can translate. While anthropologists and scholars of religion have devoted much attention to biblical gastronomic legislation, the study of commensality laws in the early rabbinic (tannaitic) movement lags severely behind. Addressing this oft overlooked subject, this dissertation examines how early rabbinic sources construct identity through commensality regulations.
Using a practice-based conception of identity and focusing on the prescriptions found in early rabbinic literature (cira 3rd century C.E., written by a group of rabbis in Palestine collectively known as the Tannaim), this dissertation develops a theoretical model that can be applied to other geographical places and/or time periods, so as to aid scholars who study boundary formation and group identity in other contexts. This model is informed by previous work in the fields of social anthropology, social and intellectual history, literary criticism, and religious studies. While the data set is located in a specific time and place, the theoretical model aims to be portable across time and space.
Chapter One surveys the contemporary historical realia of food (circa first to third century C.E. Roman Palestine). Building on this information, Chapter Two explores how the Tannaim manipulate food rules to create a distinctly Jewish identity. Chapter Three turns attention to issues of gender and offers an analysis of how tannaitic commensality regulations construct a Jewish, male identity. Finally, Chapter Four examines the various tannaitic practices that form a Jewish, male, rabbinic identity. Throughout, both Jewish and non-Jewish precedents are considered, so as to ascertain which commensality regulations are truly tannaitic innovations.
Food rules create and destroy society. Through commensality restrictions, groups form distinct identities: those with whom ‘we’ can eat (‘Us’) and those with whom ‘we’ cannot eat (‘Them’). Whether in the third or the twenty-first century, this identity is enacted daily, turning the biological need to ingest calories into a culturally significant activity.
0751: Judaic studies