Friday, October 22, 2010

The Sliding Scale of Kosher

By Susan Esther Barnes

Earlier this week, the tour guide we had on our trip to Israel last summer came to our synagogue to give a lecture. Those of us who were on the Israel trip were invited to come for dinner with him before the lecture, as a kind of reunion.

It was a Tuesday night, when there are a bunch of teens there for classes the synagogue holds weekly for kids who are not in Jewish day schools. Before classes start, the kids are treated to a pizza dinner. So that’s what we had too: pizza and Caesar salad, plus a nice spinach salad one of the women on the Israel trip brought.

As we were talking, I noticed our guest from Israel was not eating. I heard him mention cheese to one of the other people. I asked him, “Do you not eat cheese?” and he replied, “I eat cheese, but not just any cheese.” Oh, right.

He’s Modern Orthodox, so although there were three flavors of vegetarian pizza offered, and therefore no mixing of meat and dairy, the cheese itself was not kosher. Plus, since the pizzas were made in a place that also cooks meat, in an oven where meat is cooked, the pizzas weren’t kosher even if the cheese on them had been kosher before it was used. Similar issues apply to the cheese on the two salads.

Luckily, the rabbi ran over to the cafĂ© at the JCC next door and bought our guest some tuna salad and a bag of Fritos so he wouldn’t have to go hungry. It did remind us, though, that what passes for kosher at a Reform synagogue doesn’t cut it with an Orthodox person, no matter how Modern they may be.

Last night, I went to a cafeteria-style burrito restaurant, where you walk down the line and point out the various items and condiments you want in your burrito (or rice bowl).

The woman in line in front of me happened to be from my synagogue. The man behind the counter grabbed the spoon in one of the two containers of beans and asked her, “Do you want beans?”

She said, “The other kind of beans, please, it needs to be vegetarian.” So he added the vegetarian beans, and then she asked for chicken on the burrito. He looked at her, startled, and repeated, “Chicken?” He was obviously confused, because she had just insisted on vegetarian beans. It made no sense to him that she would ask for meat with vegetarian beans.

Of course, to me it made perfect sense. In Mexican restaurants, the non-vegetarian beans contain either lard, or bacon, or both. The woman is Jewish, so she doesn’t eat pork, thus she wanted the vegetarian beans. But she’s not a vegetarian. Chicken is fine.

Along these same lines, which an Orthodox Jew might dub issues of “fake kosher,” I’ve also been contemplating the issues of “fake treyf,” or items that appear not to be kosher but are.

Probably the most common example of this is turkey bacon. Readers of my blog may recall that the thing I miss most about my non-kosher life is the bacon. (Please pause for a moment of silence while I reflect wistfully.) When I mention this to people, sometimes they ask, “Why not just eat turkey bacon instead? It tastes about the same.”

One helpful person even pointed out you can now get kosher bacon-flavored seasoning because, as the company’s slogan reads, “Everything should taste like bacon.”

Aside from my assumption that turkey bacon and fake bacon flavoring can’t be any healthier than “real” bacon, it seems to me to be missing the point. Why keep kosher if you’re going to eat things that appear to be, and taste like, forbidden foods?

Sure, one can argue we keep kosher because we’re commanded to, and since God didn’t command us to avoid eating kosher foods disguised as non-kosher foods it’s perfectly okay, but I’d like to think it’s deeper than that.

I’d like to think there’s something to the idea that we’re also learning a lesson about taming our desires. I’d like to think that by denying ourselves certain things, maybe we can learn to have a little empathy for others who have to do without things they would like to eat or have.

I would like to think that paying attention to what we eat reminds us of our covenant with God, and that we shouldn’t look for ways to weasel out of keeping kosher by using technicalities any more than we’d want God to look for technicalities to weasel out of God’s end of the bargain.

The same thing applies to Passover foods. On Passover, we’re not supposed to eat foods made with leavening, to remind us that when we fled Egypt we didn’t have time to let our bread rise. Yet the Passover section of the supermarket is filled with “kosher-for-Passover” cake and cookie mixes that look and taste like they have baking soda or powder in them even though they don’t.

In the end, it comes down to the letter or the law vs. the spirit of the law. Those who eat the turkey bacon and the Passover cake seem more interested in the former, while those who eat the vegetarian pizza seem more interested in the latter. And that’s how we get the sliding scale of kosher.


  1. susan, this was an *amazing* post on such a seemingly tricky-to-discuss topic. i love the sliding scale that you describe rather than a dichotomy of sorts. the spirit, it seems, is what speaks to me as what to strive for. well done, as always, lady!

  2. Thanks. I think much of the time when people think in terms of black and white - or kosher and not kosher - it helps to look at the shades of grey.

  3. Forget turkey bacon. Try beef fry instead.

  4. I enjoyed reading your Blog.The commandment to affix a
    Mezuzah is widely followed in the Jewish world, even by Jews who are not religiously observant.

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  6. The Talmud teaches us that there is no type of worldly pleasure that is forbidden to the Jewish people.

    That is to say, any pleasure that can be derived from a forbidden substance or action, can also be derived from a permissible substance or action.

    The holy sages of the Talmud then go expound on specific examples! There is the brain of a certain fish that tastes like pork.

    It is permissible to roast a cow's udder on an open fire - the result is tender beef with a milky taste to it.

    Certainly, the modern day application of this lies in soy bacon, and soy beef patties with real melted cheese on top.

    My personal favorite is a taco, using pre-seasoned ground soy, lettuce, tomato, and shredded cheddar cheese on top.

    When we find kosher foods that taste like treif (or passover foods that taste like chametz), we are actively fulfilling a precept that our sages taught us.

    Furthermore, we publicly demonstrate that our abstention from treif food is not a matter of personal taste, health, or any other consideration.

    We abstain only because the Eternal Creator has directed us to perfect ourselves through 613 directives - the laws of kashrut among them.

    So go enjoy that rabbi-approved bacon - it's the highest form of keeping kosher! ;p

  7. interesting. I sort of get your point about foods that taste treif, but then I'm confused by the scenario in the Mexican restaurant. In your perspective, is the person in the mexican restaurant who is eating unkosher chicken (w/cheese?) more in keeping with the 'spirit of kosher' than the person who eats kosher bacon-flavored food? That part I don't get at all. In the end, halacha still seems to me to go first - then if you want to add more chumrot (such as don't eat treif-tasting food) - do that *in addition* not instead...

  8. Homeshuling -

    The woman in the Mexican restaurant did not have cheese. An Orthodox person would say the chicken was not kosher because it was probably not slaughtered by a kosher butcher and it was served in a restaurant that also serves dairy items and pork. But as far as observance to what it says explicitly in the five books of Moses, what she ate was kosher.

    So I'd say she was following the "spirit" of keeping kosher because she didn't eat pork and she didn't eat dairy with meat, although she didn't meet the letter of the law of current halacha because of the origin of the chicken as well as other details that would disqualify the restaurant from receiving kosher certification.

    You say that it seems to you that halacha comes first. I assume when you say that, you mean the letter of the law is the most important thing to you in this case.

    To others, the "spirit" or presumed intent of the law is more important than strictly keeping to the details of current halacha.

    I am not saying that either way is better than the other. I follow one, because it feels right to me. Others follow the other, for their own reasons (it feels right to them, or that was what they have been taught, or other reasons - you'd have to ask them since I don't want to put words in other people's mouths).

    I would agree with you that some do both - in other words, they would no sooner eat turkey bacon than they would eat in a non-kosher restaurant.

    On the other hand, there are some people, like Former Reform Jew who commented above, who would assert that eating kosher bacon is the highest form of keeping kosher. Which was news to me, so thanks for that, FRJ!