Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Living Symbolically

 

I don’t think it is much of a stretch to argue that the way in which people think dictates more about what people do than anything else. This is, in my opinion, why culture matters. It also helps us understand why language matters – the strengths and weaknesses and thought patterns of any given language give words to our thoughts, which in turn help shape and mold our deeds. To take one extreme example as illustration: in lands where the phrase “inshallah,” meaning “if Allah wills it,” is dominant, then people end up with more fatalistic and less curious approaches towards any new idea.

Symbolism in turn underpins culture and language. How we live symbolically trickles through the rest of our lives. Eco-warriors, who really are doing acts that have no concrete impact beyond symbolism, may not make any real difference to the planet, but they certainly make an impact on themselves and on the people with whom they come in contact. So do other unhelpful symbolic belief systems, like those of Social Justice Warriors or anti-Israel BDS activists.

But Western Civilization was not built on such negative symbolic systems; we were built instead on Jewish and Christian and even Greek and Roman symbolism. So we have the symbolism of the Torah in Judaism and that of the New Testament for Christianity, both valuing human life even in the absence of rational justifications for doing so. From the Greeks we have the ideals of logic and reason, of rational explanations for natural phenomena, and from the Romans we gained institutions and laws and processes. All of these are wrapped in their own languages and cultures, preserved by symbols that help shape the way in which we understand and approach all new data.

One of the key symbols that is shared by people the world over is found in what we choose to eat. Food is not merely sustenance for any people living above subsistence (animal) levels. Food is, instead, one of the primary ways in which people identify who they are and what their family story is – in just the Arab world alone there are probably thousands of unique identifiers in precisely how regional dishes are prepared, served, and enjoyed.

Food is also invested with meaning and rituals, from “special china” to table manners to seasonal hits from Thanksgiving Turkeys to Christmas eggnog to Passover Matza.

The Torah is equally interested in the symbolic value of food: it is where “kosher” is defined – the animals we may eat, and those we may not. Things are kosher and not kosher because of symbolism: in a nutshell, kosher food helps us learn, remember and act in ways that teach us to be holy and how to have a relationship with the divine. Eating non-kosher wrong food is thus a rejection of both our people and our G-d because of the meaning contained within the food choice itself.

Many thousands of words appear before any of the commandments about what animals we are allowed and forbidden to eat; there is, however, a very strange commandment of a very specific thing we must not eat:

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him…. That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle.

But what does not eating the thigh muscle have to do with anything? What possible meaning is there in this being the very first thing Jews are forbidden from consuming?

The entire episode of Jacob wrestling with the man/angel/G-d invites creative exposition. I am fond of the explanations about Jacob’s putting himself in a position to flee. In the middle of the night, he made it possible to cut and run, leaving his family and all his possessions to face his potentially-murderous brother, Esau. And so, in the middle of the night, Jacob wrestled himself. Or if you prefer, he wrestled with his inner self. Perhaps G-d sent an angel to keep Jacob there through the night, so he could not get away, forcing him to face his brother and his future head-on. (All of these – and many more – are possible and within normative Jewish textual analysis.) In a nutshell, the wrestling match in the middle of the night was all about Jacob confronting his fears, his doubts and uncertainty.

This would explain why Jews are forbidden from eating meat from this part of any animal: if what we eat has symbolic meaning, then avoiding the thigh muscle is a reminder that G-d wants us to be courageous, to confront evil and fear, both within and without. The thigh muscle is the ultimate in symbolism: Jacob was on the verge of using his legs to run away – and so we keep that in mind when we eat from an animal. Whether the enemy is our own doubt or an external enemy who threatens all that we love, we are not meant to flee: we are always to remember that we are enjoined to stand and fight.

[Another iWe and SusanQuinn production.]

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  1. Arahant Member

    True in so many ways, in so many human endeavors.

    • #1
    • December 10, 2019, at 7:25 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  2. Songwriter Member
    Songwriter Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Another good post. Thanks iWe & Susan for reminding me that symbolism matters, and it effects how a society sees the world and itself.

    • #2
    • December 10, 2019, at 7:38 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  3. aardo vozz Member

    Not to nitpick, @iwe, but I’ve read that the thigh meat may be eaten if the sinew is removed. I believe the process to remove the sinew is called “travering (spelling?). Please correct me if I’m wrong about this.

    • #3
    • December 10, 2019, at 7:48 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  4. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    aardo vozz (View Comment):

    Not to nitpick, @iwe, but I’ve read that the thigh meat may be eaten if the sinew is removed. I believe the process to remove the sinew is called “travering (spelling?). Please correct me if I’m wrong about this.

    Right you are!

    That is why I referred to the muscle – though I admit to being a bit non-specific.

    The process of removing the biblically-forbidden muscle/nerve is known as “porging” but it is almost never done. Because of the gravity of the commandment, it is easier to just sell the entire area to a non-Jewish customer than to try to porge and possibly get it wrong. Porging is quite a hassle.

    • #4
    • December 10, 2019, at 7:57 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  5. aardo vozz Member

    iWe (View Comment):

    aardo vozz (View Comment):

    Not to nitpick, @iwe, but I’ve read that the thigh meat may be eaten if the sinew is removed. I believe the process to remove the sinew is called “travering (spelling?). Please correct me if I’m wrong about this.

    Right you are!

    That is why I referred to the muscle – though I admit to being a bit non-specific.

    The process of removing the biblically-forbidden muscle/nerve is known as “porging” but it is almost never done. Because of the gravity of the commandment, it is easier to just sell the entire area to a non-Jewish customer than to try to porge and possibly get it wrong. Porging is quite a hassle.

    True, but porging is still done, and you can get kosher filet mignon online. However, due to the hassle factor, it is VERY expensive.

    • #5
    • December 10, 2019, at 8:14 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  6. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    aardo vozz (View Comment):
    True, but porging is still done, and you can get kosher filet mignon online.

    I think you will find a divide among the observant community: among sephardim, filet mignon can be had. But among ashkenazim, it is really rare. See here and here.

    • #6
    • December 10, 2019, at 8:30 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  7. GrannyDude Member

    I am already planning to quote you, yet again, in a sermon. 

    I had a related thought the other day, namely that it is tempting (for anyone, so I’m trying to resist adding “for the left”), upon discovering what the symbolism of an prescribed activity is, to then say “oh, okay. We understand this. Now we don’t need the symbolism anymore.”

    So I don’t need to be careful (care-full) to avoid the thigh muscle. If there is a threat to myself or those I love, I just need to be courageous, stand and fight. 

    Ah, but how you practice is how you play…

    In the Unitarian Universalist church we make this mistake often (indeed, the whole denomination could be said to be predicated on just this error!). We assure one another that religious language is metaphor (true) and therefore the bien pensant can simply translate the metaphor into rational language and that will work the same way (false). “God” being the big and obvious one.

     

    • #7
    • December 10, 2019, at 9:40 AM PST
    • 9 likes
  8. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    #Grannydude, I am honored! And you are right, of course.

    • #8
    • December 10, 2019, at 12:18 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  9. Michael Brehm Member

    @iwe and @susanquinn (and you too @GrannyDude): I read a book this past year that you may appreciate, it’s titled “The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis” by Matthieu Pageau.

    His impetus for the book was to help the reader recover the symbolic way of interpreting the world as opposed to the strict materialist way that has been ascendant since the time of Copernicus.

    I found it to be an eye-opening read. I won’t pretend that I understood every word of it, and even now I don’t think I could adequately summarize it (which has prevented me from reviewing it here on Ricochet); but like your posts, it caused the metaphorical lightbulb above my head to glow a little bit brighter. It’s definitely a book I plan on revisiting later. 

    If it sounds interesting to you, here is a discussion by the author and his brother ( an icon carver who has a channel about symbolism on Youtube) that provides a good overview of the book.

    • #9
    • December 10, 2019, at 12:27 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  10. Saint Augustine Member

    iWe: So we have the symbolism of the Torah in Judaism and that of the New Testament for Christianity, both valuing human life even in the absence of rational justifications for doing so.

    And the Torah for Christianity–and the rest of the Tanakh.

    iWe: So we have the symbolism of the Torah in Judaism and that of the New Testament for Christianity, both valuing human life even in the absence of rational justifications for doing so.

    How is that not a rational justification?

    • #10
    • December 10, 2019, at 3:12 PM PST
    • Like
  11. Saint Augustine Member

    iWe: I don’t think it is much of a stretch to argue that the way in which people think dictates more about what people do than anything else.

    Right on, right on.

    And yet it must be argued.

    Or at least suggested again and again so that people with eyes to see and ears to hear can think through it on its own merits.

    It seems we humans are perpetually tempted to materialistic explanations that tend to miss the main point: Explain murders in terms of guns rather than people and their intentions, explain protest movements in terms of economic difficulties rather than people and their ideas.

    • #11
    • December 10, 2019, at 3:30 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  12. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    iWe: So we have the symbolism of the Torah in Judaism and that of the New Testament for Christianity, both valuing human life even in the absence of rational justifications for doing so.

    How is that not a rational justification?

    Because the rationally justifiable value of an old or handicapped or newborn is very low, indeed. So is the rationalizable value of one’s opponent’s life.

    • #12
    • December 10, 2019, at 5:24 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  13. Saint Augustine Member

    iWe (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    iWe: So we have the symbolism of the Torah in Judaism and that of the New Testament for Christianity, both valuing human life even in the absence of rational justifications for doing so.

    How is that not a rational justification?

    Because the rationally justifiable value of an old or handicapped or newborn is very low, indeed. So is the rationalizable value of one’s opponent’s life.

    That only means that the more crass forms of utilitarianism fail to provide a rational justification for valuing some lives. But crass forms of utilitarianism do not have a monopoly on rationality.

    What particularly interests me is the rationality of faith. Trust in the Scriptures is rational. Their teaching is a rational justification.

    • #13
    • December 10, 2019, at 5:57 PM PST
    • 1 like
  14. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    What particularly interests me is the rationality of faith. Trust in the Scriptures is rational. Their teaching is a rational justification.

    This reads like a statement of faith, not reason!

    I am a deeply religious person, and while I gain enormous benefit through my faith, even I do not believe that trust in Scripture is rational. If it was, then rational atheists could not exist.

    Languages do not necessarily intersect. Biologists and physicists and chemists all describe the same thing in wildly different ways. Each are correct (and their language even gives them predictive powers), within their own language.

    Reason and Faith do not have to intersect. Indeed, I am perfectly comfortable with the existence of G-d NOT being logically determinable, either way.

    • #14
    • December 10, 2019, at 7:41 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  15. Saint Augustine Member

    iWe (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    What particularly interests me is the rationality of faith. Trust in the Scriptures is rational. Their teaching is a rational justification.

    This reads like a statement of faith, not reason!

    It’s both.

    I am a deeply religious person, and while I gain enormous benefit through my faith, even I do not believe that trust in Scripture is rational. If it was, then rational atheists could not exist..

    An argument that only works if you assume that rational disagreement is not possible.

    I always took your pragmatic test as a rather good test of rationality.

    Maybe you’re using some special sense of the word “rational”–as meaning based on evidence, perhaps. But that’s not what the word “rational” actually means; it’s not among the five definitions given at Dictionary.com, for example.

    • #15
    • December 10, 2019, at 7:54 PM PST
    • 1 like
  16. Songwriter Member
    Songwriter Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    iWe (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    What particularly interests me is the rationality of faith. Trust in the Scriptures is rational. Their teaching is a rational justification.

    This reads like a statement of faith, not reason!

    It’s both.

    I am a deeply religious person, and while I gain enormous benefit through my faith, even I do not believe that trust in Scripture is rational. If it was, then rational atheists could not exist..

    An argument that only works if you assume that rational disagreement is not possible.

    I always took your pragmatic test as a rather good test of rationality.

    Maybe you’re using some special sense of the word “rational”–as meaning based on evidence, perhaps. But that’s not what the word “rational” actually means; it’s not among the five definitions given at Dictionary.com, for example.

    I want to be the third person at the dinner table some day with you and iWe. Just to listen.

     

    • #16
    • December 11, 2019, at 6:43 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  17. cdor Member
    cdor Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    iWe:

    [Another iWe and SusanQuinn production.]

    Filling the void left by Harvey Weinstein?

    • #17
    • December 11, 2019, at 7:10 AM PST
    • 1 like
  18. Susan Quinn Contributor

    cdor (View Comment):

    iWe:

    [Another iWe and SusanQuinn production.]

    Filling the void left by Harvey Weinstein?

    I don’t think you mean that the way it sounds, @cdor. . .

    • #18
    • December 11, 2019, at 7:21 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  19. Al French of Damascus Moderator

    Songwriter (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    iWe (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    What particularly interests me is the rationality of faith. Trust in the Scriptures is rational. Their teaching is a rational justification.

    This reads like a statement of faith, not reason!

    It’s both.

    I am a deeply religious person, and while I gain enormous benefit through my faith, even I do not believe that trust in Scripture is rational. If it was, then rational atheists could not exist..

    An argument that only works if you assume that rational disagreement is not possible.

    I always took your pragmatic test as a rather good test of rationality.

    Maybe you’re using some special sense of the word “rational”–as meaning based on evidence, perhaps. But that’s not what the word “rational” actually means; it’s not among the five definitions given at Dictionary.com, for example.

    I want to be the third person at the dinner table some day with you and iWe. Just to listen.

     

    I’ve heard that iWe sets a good table, so do it there.

    • #19
    • December 11, 2019, at 10:33 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  20. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Songwriter (View Comment):
    I want to be the third person at the dinner table some day with you and iWe. Just to listen.

    Come for a Shabbos meal! We host many Ricochetti at Chez iWe!

    • #20
    • December 11, 2019, at 3:13 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  21. Songwriter Member
    Songwriter Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    iWe (View Comment):

    Songwriter (View Comment):
    I want to be the third person at the dinner table some day with you and iWe. Just to listen.

    Come for a Shabbos meal! We host many Ricochetti at Chez iWe!

    One day perhaps! In the meantime, keep the posts (and the enlightening, civil discussions with @saintaugustine ) coming.

    • #21
    • December 12, 2019, at 5:51 AM PST
    • 3 likes