In Parshat Shmini, the rudiments of the laws of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, are taught and, in particular, the animals which are considered off-limits. The Torah outlines several basic rules governing which animals may be eaten and which cannot: animals must chew their cud and have split hooves. After outlining these principles, the Torah gives examples of animals which do not meet standard. The most well-known on this list is the pig, which, of course, somehow became the “poster animal” for all that is not “kosher” or acceptable for eating.
Why the pig and not the camel or rabbit? In Greco-Roman times, the pig likely stood out because it was the most popular meat in the ancient world and not eating it made the Jew different and unassimilable. This fact was most recognizable in Hasmonaean times when the Greeks tried to impose the sacrifice of pigs and their consumption on the Jews. Swine consumption continued to be pronounced in Roman times and Jews were castigated in Roman “stand-up” comedy for not eating it.
The famed anthropologist, Mary Douglas tried to get at the root of the biblical prohibition. She claimed that the consumption of pigs was prohibited because they belonged to a species that had only one of the two required qualities — they had split hooves but did not chew their cud and consequently, did not fall into clearly defined categories. Biblical society, she contended frowned upon such ambiguity.
The sages seemed to have recognized this quality in the pig, but turned its ambiguous status into a means both to poke fun at their Roman adversaries and to teach a moral lesson: “’Why is Rome compared to a pig?’ they asked. To inform you that just as a pig, when it lies down, puts forth its paws and says: ‘Look, I am pure (since it has split hooves, even though it does not chew its cud); so it is with the wicked kingdom (the Romans) which [prided itself on its benevolence and righteousness] while robbing and extorting, all under the guise of carrying out justice.’ The midrash goes on to relate an anecdote to illustrate its point: “There was a certain government official in Caesarea, who after sentencing to death thieves, adulterers and sorcerers, leaned over and recounted to a fellow official: ‘I, myself, have done all three of those things in a single night.’” (adapted from Leviticus Rabbah 13:5, Margoliot ed. pp. 391-2)
In this midrash, the pig is used to represent duplicitous behavior. It tries to pass itself off as being kosher, while it is nothing of the sort. The sages had an idiom for those whose behavior was inconsistent with their purported image: “ein tokho k’boro”, literally, “his inner self is not like his outer self”. The critique in the above midrash is aimed at Rome for obvious reasons, but its message is intended for all of us, particularly those who wield power. None of us our perfect, but Torah living means that God expects that we strive for consistency, namely, that we try to stand behind the principles by which we guide our lives.