Hint: Carciofo alla Giudia

posted 20 Jun 2018, 07:58 by Lodzer Shabbat-Bulletin

The Red Heifer

When in Rome...

The great paradox of the Red Heifer is its controversial ability to carry remedy against itself; indeed, the very ashes of the red heifer that purifies all the impure people coming into contact with them, turns any pure person who touches it in preparation... into impure!

We have probably heard by now so many different explanations of this unusual law. Starting with, "indeed it's inexplicable, even King Solomon was stumped by it; are you trying to be wiser than the officially wisest guy ever?", to: "the red heifer is on a level of its own, purer than the impure but less pure than the pure ones"; from "everybody who tries to cleanse others should start with themselves", to "Well, what's the big deal with that simple binary code of purity on/purity off switch"? (Yeah... maybe the source of that last one was not entirely Rabbinical but none the worse for wear; we were only married for less than a year when my Rebbetzin who is a software engineer offered that insightful spin into the Biblical law.)

Let's hold that thought for a moment.

3 months ago, I shared with you on Shabbat the news of a growing conflict between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Jewish community of Rome. The new bone of contention was Carciofo alla Giudia, the famous Jewish-style artichoke. This dish has been the staple of Jewish Roman cuisine for (literally) thousands of years, and when the Rabbinate announced it could no longer certify it as kosher in good faith (pun intended) for the fear of not being able to check the vegetable properly for insects before deep-frying it whole, as the recipe requires, the Jewish community of Rome was aghast. The general feeling was that the Rabbinate is attempting a mere demonstration of power, at the expense of one of the oldest and most symbolic traditions the community has, hallowed by generations of Rabbis and cooks alike. Various representatives of the Rabbinate, meanwhile, offered variations of reaction, from the official 'We are very sorry but it cannot be helped, it's not our call, the Halachah says that', to the very unofficial: 'Kashruth wars are fun, and easy to win'...

3 months later, sitting in my friends' kitchen in the old Trastevere neighbourhood of Rome, I learned of the further development of the struggle. Apparently, by now we can see three different schools of thought. Let us name them by the Italian communities that embraced each respective approach.

There is -

  • The North approach: the Jewish communities of Milano and Florence accepted the new ruling and worked to reinvent the dish by cutting the 'chokes up before deep-frying it. Here we have a new tradition, not quite Roman but nonetheless Jewish in its core.

  • Rome approach: an absolute majority of the Jews in Rome stay faithful to the classical recipe.

In fact, all of the city's kosher restaurants but one continue to serve Carciofi alla Giudia - but now you can also buy, in the old Ghetto, t-shirts and cups with maximas like: 'There is no Pope in Judaism' and 'Io sono carciofo' (I am artichoke - that later one a transparent and humorous albeit grim allusion to the expressions of solidarity with the periodical Charlie Hebdo whose employees were attacked by terrorists for their cartoons.)

  • The South approach: Rabbi Piperno, the chief Rabbi of southern Italy (based in Naples) brought forth a small but enthusiastic team of Jewish scientists who just patented an ultra-sound device said to be able to discern with certainty whether there are any insects in your artichoke (Yep! We are all Jewish; the Rabbinate is not the only one who will try to solve a problem by offering to sell you something.)

It was at that point in the conversation (returning to last week's portion of Korach), it struck me that the three above approaches could be a great illustration of various takes on the upcoming portion of Chukkat and its law of the heifer. If it is your position that it is the process of purification that is important for everyone, you will see everyone as impure - some because they have touched the heifer ashes and others, precisely because they didn't.

If you hold that pure is pure and impure is impure, you will struggle to maintain the line between what you know to be clean and good, and that which is clearly not.

And if you think you have the solution (whether in the shape of the ashes or the form of a super-duper miracle ultra-sound anti-insect canon) you will try to apply it no matter what, and be none the worse for wear.

Here is a thought I want to leave with you; perhaps the whole point of the enigmatic law of the red heifer is to keep us wondering and trying to wrap our brains around it. As in the old fable where neither standing nor sitting for the Kaddish was "the tradition" for an old congregation; rather, the tradition was arguing about it! Perhaps the message the Torah wants us to internalize is a warning, a reminder that when all you have is a hammer, everything around very quickly starts resembling a nail...

Wishing you Shabbat Shalom from Rome, I also need to come clean; while not taking any definitive position (officially) on this Kashruth conundrum, I am at least 1/8 an artichoke. Apparently, one of my grandfathers was half an artichoke. If that bothers you, come to me, and we'll talk about racism in our history.

Rabbi Eli