The Religious Politics of Swine Flu

Government discussions come and go; often people seldom care what is being discussed; political channels like C-Span are not known for their high ratings. However, in Israel, government discussions at the Knesset are often the kind of material that a Jay Leno or a Saturday Night Live or Mad T.V. comedy writing team would definitely consider using as a part of their programming. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?

The defacto Health Minister, MK Rabbi Yakov Litzman, went on public record saying that the “Swine Flu” would be from here on in referred to as “Mexico Flu,” as pork is non-kosher and considered unclean under Jewish law.  Was he being serious? Of course! We need not look at Saudi Arabia or Iran for religious or pontifical declarations—all we need to do is look in our very own backyard!

According to an editorial in the Ha’Aretz News, ‘Haredi government minister gone wild’ comment that makes for great office banter, the truth is that it’s just one more in a series of state-sanctioned declarations by a government official that serves only to further humiliate Israel in the eyes of the world.” Yes, let’s give our kudos to Netanyahu—that’s what happens when religious fanatics are allowed to be a part of the government.

Politics and religion is a lot like meat and milk in the Torah; each one by itself is permitted, but when mixed, they become a forbidden mixture! Politics and religion functions much the same way. By itself, religion is fine as is politics (when the politicians behave themselves!), but when we mix religion and politics–we end up with a draconian combination that only serves to oppress the people! And the writer further explains:

Such is the system that produces a government where a party representing a community whose media cannot print the word sex, airbrushes women out of photos, and binds them into a strict second-class status, can be put in charge of the Health Ministry, a ministry legally bound to protect the well-being of all Israelis, regardless of gender, race or religion. How can a man whose usage of the Hebrew language is governed by his own interpretation of Jewish law, deal with issues like teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, or post-natal care for women?

As I read the article, I found myself laughing at the Rabbi’s lack of wisdom. Nowhere in the Torah does it say that swine is “treif” (attacked by an animal of prey);  it is simply “ta’me”  (”unclean”) and even this kind of designation does not make it an evil creature. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel once had a similar reaction once when they found out they were getting porcine insulin that derives from pork derivatives.

Actually, pigs and humans seem to have more in common than most Haredi rabbis realize; while pigs and humans are not exactly “kissing cousins,”  modern medical technology has been using pigskin for human skin on victims for many years. Human skin and pig skin is so similar that pig skin is used for skin grafts on human burn victims until their own skin can heal. Portions of a pig’s eye have even been used for human eye transplants. Even the valves in a pig’s heart have been used to save human lives (my old Rabbi emeritus used to joke about his special pig valve that kept him alive for many years and Rav Moshe permits it in his responsa).

Furthermore, the pig is the only mammal that will voluntarily drink alcohol and for that reason is often studied by scientists who wish to better understand the effects of human alcoholism. Humans and pigs are the only species affected adversely by the web-like evolution of influenza strains. Interestingly, pigs are being modified with human genes so that the organs of their offspring can be transplanted into humans to hopefully better combat certain types of diseases. Indeed, the relationship between pigs and humans is very interesting from a zoological and anthropological perspective—not to mention from the religious perspective as well. [1]

The bottom line: rabbis should refrain from making disparaging remarks on their anatomical cousins! We have more in common with the pig than most of us ever imagined possible. I think the State of Israel suffers more from “Mad Rabbi’s Disease,” than they do from “Swine Flu.” And now you know the rest of the story  ….

Pressure from the pork industry has recently forced politicians to give the “Swine Flu” a new name since the “Swine Flu” has resulted in a loss of business, as one of my congregants, who happens to be a pig farmer has told me. Hence the new name is now H1N1. Maybe Rabbi Litzman will have the last laugh after all. However, in the final analysis, there is nothing “Kosher” a flu–whether it comes from swine, or ducks and cows!

On a positive note, Israelis, Jordanians, Egyptians, and Palestinians are working on ways to minimize the pandemic nature of this new strain of flu. Perhaps something meaningful may come from this potentially dangerous disease!

For further information on this article, see the posting on how the Israeli Kabbalist Rabbi David Batzri attempted to banish the Swine Flu from the country’s airspace. Unfortunately, his effort did not work.

Oh well . . .



Umberto Albarella, Keith Dobney, Anton Ervynck, Peter Rowley-Conwy, Pigs and Humans: 10,000 Years of Interaction (New York: Oxford UP, 2008).