Review: Foreigners and Their Food

by Daniel Picus

Foreigners and Their Food: Constructing Otherness in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law by David Freidenreich. University of California Press, 2011.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/…Good fences make good neighbors.” — Robert Frost, from “Mending Wall ”

David Freidenreich, a professor of Jewish Studies at Colby College, begins his book, Foreigners and Their Food: Constructing Otherness in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law with the well known Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall.” It begins a book that spans an historical and geographic range all the way from ancient Israel and Hellenistic Alexandria to medieval Europe and Fatimid Egypt. Freidenreich is interested in how food has been used as a neighborly wall between religious Others. His project is both comparative and historical. It is an expansive study of how restrictions on foreign food have been used to mark and create both similarities and differences. Freidenreich looks at what Jewish, Christian, and Islamic texts say about the consumption of food prepared by foreigners. Are we allowed to eat it—and if not, how come? Is it the preparer? The food itself? Or something else entirely? Freidenreich explores all of these restrictions and more, showing, to some degree, both the historical circumstances out of which they arose, and the ways in which they are different and similar to each other.

Because food is common across all of humanity—because its preparation, consumption, and sharing is one of the few sets of practices that scholars can rightly call “basic”—Freidenreich calls it a “powerful medium for the transmission and expression of culture.” He believes it is intimately related to identity. Who eats what, who they eat it with, and conversely, what they don’t eat, and who they don’t eat with, create a compelling representation of a how a group conceives of its own selfhood. This locates the book in traditions of scholarship that links food and identity, and the study of identity through the construction of the other.

Frost’s “something that doesn’t love a wall,” the elusive quality or entity that gives these practices their similarity, remains undefined throughout both the poem and Freidenreich’s book, and perhaps even defies definition altogether (though I’m happy to call it “religion,” or even “culture”).

9780520253216For Freidenrich, food restrictions are like a set of walls built over a landscape of seemingly similar practices. The figures building these walls—writing the restrictions—are often concerned that one set of practices not be mistaken for another, and that those who participate in one set not become involved in another, even though they might look the same, or even simply be appealing to a broader spectrum of the population. Take an example commonly cited from late antiquity, when John Chrysostom, in fourth century Antioch, instructs his congregation to keep away from Jewish festivals. Whether or not Jewish and Christian festivals were so similar as to be mistaken for each other didn’t matter—each belongs to a specific group. These walls are the codes written in order to cordon off a community’s customs as its own and transform them into a singular tradition that belongs to one group and not another. Judaism and not Christianity. Christianity and not Islam. Otherness itself needs to be defined, and it is in these ancient acts of defining it where Freidenreich locates the importance of food restrictions. “Good fences make good neighbors,” remember?

Foreigners and Their Food contains a section each on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, before turning to case studies that highlight each respective religion’s attitude toward the other two. Within each section, Freidenreich gives a brief history of the scriptural, then legal traditions that develop into the specific foreign food restrictions that are the ultimate object of his study. This means that said histories are succinct, but comprehensive, a necessary balancing act, as the book is aimed at an audience of both educated lay readers and academics. Sometimes, he sacrifices more contemporary scholarship (the account of the beginnings of Christianity in chapter 6, for example) for the sake of brevity.

Each of the middle three sections focuses on a set of legal restrictions that was developed in a religious context distinct from the other two traditions that Freidenreich examines. He then compares that set of laws to those of the other two. Each comparison makes use of three different types of comparative axes. He calls these “horizontal,” “vertical,” and diagonal.” In brief, a horizontal comparison is performed within a single time period or cultural milieu; vertical, in a single intellectual tradition, but across time. A diagonal comparison is between two fields that share neither a common tradition nor a common milieu. This practice of diagonal comparison, Freidenreich claims, is especially informative.

As some readers may know, works of religious comparison have become controversial in recent years. And yet, by laying out this tripartite approach in the introduction, Freidenreich attempts to mitigate many of the critiques that might otherwise be leveled against him (for example, that comparing different traditions to one another should be replaced by studying each tradition on its own terms).

Following in the tradition of Jonathan Z. Smith, he reminds us that no comparison is “natural”: therefore, the practice of diagonal comparison is just as valid as horizontal or vertical. Smith has famously advocated for the study of religion as a work of comparisons. By eschewing any idea that there are natural or fundamental affinities between certain traditions or religions, he has used comparative method to bring to light aspects of religious history that might otherwise have remained unnoticed. This is Freidenreich’s goal as well, and while he does make concessions for the historical connections between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, he does so only within the broader context of comparing things that are not automatically assumed to be alike.

Freidenreich’s historical and comparative projects come together when he makes the important claim that that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each construct otherness differently. Frost comes to mind yet again: “We keep the wall between us as we go./To each the boulders that have fallen to each.” Perhaps the wall looks different on either side, the boulders necessitating different strategies of construction—but it is still a wall. After comparing foreign food restrictions from these three traditions, and recognizing the many ways that Otherness is created, Freidenreich claims that we can understand the historical causes that have created these other forms of Otherness. This is perhaps where the book is at its weakest: the comparisons, which have led Freidenreich to this conclusion, are clear, but the historical evidence in support of why these differences came about is harder to grasp.

Still, though, the differences are tantalizing. Freidenreich even gives his readers a pithy shorthand with which to conceptualize them. His commitment to clarity is paramount. If each group in question conceives of themselves as “Us,” or a value of “one,” “+1,” or “positive,” Jews conceive of Others as “zero,” “nothing,” or “0” (not-Us), Christians construct Others as “negative,” or “-1” (anti-Us), and Muslim law vacillates between the poles. For rabbinic Jews, the food of gentiles is simply banned; for Christians, it is blasphemous, and therefore the food of idolatry, and various Muslim authors fall all along the spectrum.

Perhaps this is clearest when Freidenreich discusses various restrictions on the creation and consumption of cheese. The Tosefta, for example, a Palestinian rabbinic text from around the early third century, is very concerned with the level of involvement a gentile might have in the production of cheese. If a gentile is involved in making it, a Jew is permitted to eat it, as long as it is a Jew who performs the action that makes it into cheese (setting the mold), even if a gentile does most of the rest of the work. The Other is not anathema here: they are simply “not Us.” This requires, of course, that the Jew know just who made the cheese. A later Shi’i Muslim commentator, however, says that all cheese sold in a Muslim market is permissible. Even if it was made using improper ingredients, and set by a non-Muslim, factors which would normally render it unclean, as long as the consumer does not know that is was prepared improperly, they cannot be held accountable, and is therefore allowed to eat it. On why this approach is justified, Freidenreich tells us that one commentator simply states, “I like cheese!” The Other here is neither a “zero” nor a “negative one,” “not-Us” or “anti-Us”: they are willfully non-existent.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims each build their fences, and Freidenreich shows us how those fences traverse the landscape of food and eating practices. “Good fences make good neighbors” seems to have been standard knowledge amongst the legal writers of each of the three traditions, although whether it was inherited, transmitted, or simply inherent in the idea of culture itself is a question the reader is ultimately left to grapple with on her own.

The strategies that are used to construct these fences, however, while distinct to each “intellectual tradition” (to use Freidenreich’s term), and sometimes even distinct to each author, reveal more similarities than they do differences. Between the rabbinic academies of late ancient Babylonia, the Muslim courts of the middle ages, and the monasteries of early Christian Europe and the Middle East, strategies of differentiation are used, rejected, reused, and transformed. An anxiety about remaining distinct leads to numerous practices of restriction—practices that, when taken on the whole, look more alike than they look different. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, indeed.


Daniel Picus is a Ph.D. student in Brown University’s Department of Religious Studies. His research focuses on religion in late antiquity, particularly rabbinic Judaism, although his interests extend to Latin, Greek, and Syriac sources.  He served as the Resident Instructor at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome during the 2014-15 school year. He is currently writing a dissertation on late ancient reading practices.

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