“In Particular With Regard to Dietary Matters”

In today’s Post, Chris Selley wonders whether Quebec’s proposed values charter will turn out to be a paper tiger, qualified as it is with all sorts of conditions and loopholes.

“When an accommodation is requested,” Bill 60 explains, “the public body must refuse to grant it if, in the context, the refusal is warranted for security or identification reasons or because of the level of communication required.” …  Private companies doing government work, for example, might have to adhere to the new rules regarding religious symbols “if such a requirement is warranted in the circumstances, in particular because of the duration, nature or place of performance of the contract or agreement.”  That’s not what you’d call specific.

Selley may well be right.  But his third example of a seemingly qualified or conditional restriction caught my eye:

A repeated activity or practice stemming from a religious precept, in particular with regard to dietary matters, must not be authorized if its aim, through words or actions, is to teach children that precept.

To Selley, this framing seems almost designed to allow for lax enforcement: “Is young Mordecai becoming more Jewish as he eats his kosher lunch, or is he just eating his lunch? … [G]ood luck to the inspectors[] trying to figure that one out.”

But here’s the thing: Jewish laws (the “mitzvot” or commandments) are, by tradition, divided into two main categories.  The first, “mishpatim,” are commandments “whose benefits in this world are evident, such as the prohibitions of stealing and murder,” as Maimonides explained nearly a thousand years ago.  The second category of laws are called “chukim,” often translated as “decrees”; they are the commandments “whose reasons are not evident.”

Jewish tradition teaches that both categories of commandments are of equal stature, and that all commandments must be fulfilled.  But tradition recognizes that the motivation involved in fulfilling each category differs.  We follow the mishpatim because we recognize the divine wisdom reflected in the order they establish.  We follow the chukim because God said so.

Guess which category the kosher laws are in?

“The chukim are those mitzvot,” Maimonides explained, “whose reasons are not evident … such as the prohibition of pig’s meat, [or] meat and milk.”  As a kid I remember being told that pigs were inherently (and literally) filthy – that they lived in their own filth and muck.  That may or may not be true, but it’s certainly not why they’re not kosher.  They’re not kosher because God said they’re not kosher.  And we don’t eat them because He said not to.

So maybe young Mordecai isn’t “becoming more Jewish” when he eats his kosher lunch in class.  But as a matter of Jewish tradition – and by tradition here I mean Jewish understanding and interpretation of Jewish law – Mordecai is certainly participating in a “repeated activity or practice stemming from a religious precept … [whose] aim, through words or actions, is to teach … that precept.”  That’s a pretty good, rough and ready definition of what the chukim are – practices based on precepts whose purpose is to teach the precepts.

Curiously, the relevant section of Bill 60 makes explicit reference to “dietary matters” as an example of such a precept-teaching practice.

Or perhaps it’s not so curious.