Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Social Identity Function of Israelite Feasts

"Festivals are powerful instruments for creating and maintaining social cohesion in the participants present.  One of the ways this happens is by linking them to their shared history.  Taking part in a feast fosters and maintains a sense of identity with all those understood to have performed the same rituals and eaten the same foods in the community's past.  Moreover, the images of the distant past, whether actual or constructed or some combination thereof, serve to legitimate the present order.  At some uncertain point in Israel's history, the historicization of the three main agricultural festivals contributed to this connection with the past.  Formative aspects of Israel's Heilsgeschichte--the story of departure from Egypt, wilderness journey, and Sinai covenant--were mapped onto these festivals, which thereby became the occasions for recounting the master narrative of escape to freedom and for affirming its associated values.  As a dramatic departure from the tedium of daily routines, Israelite feasts surely provided the occasion for regale the participants with the rousing songs and tales that conveyed their mnemo-history, the substance of their collective cultural memory.  In a world without television, newspapers, or the Internet, feasts were the setting in which collective memories were transmitted, maintaining and solidifying group identity and values in the process.
    Not only the recited festival narratives but also the foods themselves served as important vehicles in that process.  As is the case in many cultures, food and memory are powerfully interrelated.  Food is a material substance that both embodies and structures our relationship with the past in socially meaningful ways.  The special foods of a feast--and here the meat, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs associated with the exodus are the best examples--provided direct sensory engagement with the...Ur-experience said to have produced the first Passover.  Festival foodstuffs serve as material mnemonics, connecting people to their remembered past and to one another.  Food, memory, and religious ritual intersect, with 'ritual as a key site where food and memory come together.'  Cultural identity is thus powerfully reinforced in the sensory materiality, especially the food, of community feasts.  The recurrent sharing of a special meal commemorating a significant past event joins people together into what is called a communitas (people who share an intense sense of commonality and a heightened feeling of togetherness).  Commensality itself thus 'plays a central role in constructing and reinforcing social bonds,' with the culinary event serving as a medium for integrating people into social units, whether based on real or constructed kinship," (pgs. 157-159 of Social Theory and the Study of the Israelite Religion, Olyan).

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