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Locusts and Rationalism
The rationalist vs. non-rationalist divide is extremely useful in understanding many issues in Judaism - even the controversy over the kashrus of locusts. Take a look at these rather rude comments which were posted over at the Zoo Torah blog:
obviously you never heard that the Taz (Y"D 85, 1), Ohr HaChaim (Vayikra 11: 21) and Aruch Hashulchan (Y"D 85, 5) assert that there is no mesorah on them and they are assur!! Zoo Rabbi???
I responded that I am certainly familiar with all the sources on this topic, thank you very much, to which the following retort appeared:
I would think otherwise as these are "very big guns" in your vernacular - who pasken for ashkenazim and even sefardim (Ohr Hachaim was Sefardi which I am sure you know) that it is assur! Yet, you eat them with no qualms whatsoever! I did not realize that slifkin was a Yemenite name. [either that or you simply are of the opinion that even these Gedolim's rulings can simply be discarded at whim]. It's nice to know that you apparently do not suffer from a case of anava - that you are familiar to "all sources on this topic". how about the teshuvos avnei yahpei vol. 8, 116 - to aris zivotofski and greenspan? I guess one may (hopefully erroneously) conclude that your brand of rationalist judaism is anything but.
So, allow me to explain why Rationalist Judaism very much endorses this approach to locusts. First of all, though, it's important to clarify that of course this is a complex topic, with which my blog post was an extremely brief outline. There are aspects to this topic which are beyond the scope of this post, too. And, as I hopefully made clear in my brief post, there are opinions on both sides. What I would like to do in this post is to explain how a significant portion of the opposition to eating locusts is rooted in a non-rationalist approach.
Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar of Morocco (Pri Toar, Yoreh De’ah 85:1; summarized in Ohr HaChaim, Vayikra 11:21) is the most prominent opponent to eating locusts. He brings several objections, not of all which can be addressed here, but his main objection relates to the description of locusts given by Rashi. This occurs in the context of the following ruling in the Mishnah:
"With locusts, anything that has four legs, and four wings, and kartsulin, and its wings cover most of it, (it is kosher). Rabbi Yosi said: And its name must be chagav." (Mishnah, Chullin 59a)
Rashi explains the word kartsulin as follows:
“and kartsulin” – they are the two long legs, aside from the other four, that are close to its neck (emphasis added), above its legs, to jump with them when it wishes to leap. (Rashi to Chullin 59a)
The problem is that, in contrast to the description given by Rashi, the locusts that are eaten by North African Jewish tradition have their leaping legs located further away from their necks than are their four walking legs. It is for this reason that Rabbi Chaim ben Ittur insists that the locusts claimed to be kosher cannot be the kosher locusts described in the Torah. He notes that some respond that there is no locust which matches the description given by Rashi, and therefore Rashi must be reinterpreted; however, he points out that there may well be many varieties of locust unknown to us, and the kosher types of locust are thus presumably unknown to us.
Now, in eighteenth-century Morocco, that might not have been an unreasonable position to take. However, in the 21st century, matters are very different. Zoologists have described over eleven thousand species of grasshoppers and locusts, amongst many hundreds of thousands more insect species. They all share the same basic body plan, in which the long jumping legs are the hindmost legs, further from its neck than the four walking legs.
Another point to bear in mind is that the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria, for which there is a widespread mesorah, is far and away the most common and destructive locust in this part of the world. It is hard to imagine that the various references to locusts in the Torah do not refer to this species.
So, there are two possibilities. Either the kosher locusts are indeed those familiar to entomologists, described by various Torah scholars over the ages, and traditionally eaten by many different Jewish communities - and Rashi's description needs to be reinterpreted (as has been proposed in several ways) or is simply inaccurate. Alternatively, Rashi's description is to be taken at face value as being authoritative - after all, he had ruach hakodesh - and the kosher types of locusts mentioned in the Torah are fundamentally anatomically different from all other locusts known to science, have completely disappeared without trace, and the various Jewish communities with traditions of eating desert locusts are all making a grievous error. From a rationalist perspective, with its approach to nature, scientific knowledge and the authority of Rashi's comments, the choice is obvious.
Other sources cited by opponents to locust-eating are likewise weak from a rationalist standpoint. The Taz notes that the custom is not to eat any locusts, due to uncertainty regarding their identity. Indeed, it is not at all surprising that a scholar living in 17th century Poland would be uncertain regarding their identity. However, that has little bearing on whether a person living in the 21st century, with access to both modern entomology as well as North African traditions, would be uncertain regarding their identity.
Again, this is a complex topic, and there are other, more legitimate grounds for those who do not eat locusts, involving issues relating to the nature of tradition. (I must also reiterate that when I first ate locusts, some eleven years ago, it was after receiving a specific psak from my posek.) But, from a rationalist perspective, there is no reason to doubt that Schistocerca gregaria is the locust described in the Torah as being kosher, while at the same time it can certainly be understood that earlier authorities were in doubt, for reasons that are no longer applicable. Now, if I could only actually find some locusts...
(For those who asked - it is not possible to obtain kosher locusts in North America. In the UK, they can be easily purchased online at many reptile-food suppliers, such as http://www.livefoods.co.uk.)