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 My perspectives on Kashrut

Weren't the kashrut laws really for health reasons?

Saying that the kashrut laws were really for health reasons is like saying the purpose of the car is to keep you safe.  It would be a pretty strange thing if a car weren't safe, since it involves getting you from place to place at high speeds.  Similarly, it would be a pretty strange thing if our kosher dietary laws made you sick, since it involves the foods you eat.  So it's not surprising to me that some of the laws incorporate standards of cleanliness and avoid certain foods prone to conveying illness, just as cars incorporate safety features.  But to say that these are the purpose of the laws?  No:  that is a false reductio ad absurdum, a logical mistake where one aspect of something is judged as the whole of it.  So why did this become such a common explanation of kashrut?  It became the predominant explanation ofkashrut by the Reform Movement, whose charter for most of its existence has condemned kashrut as an archaic practice that does not speak to modern times, so the “health explanation” became a convenient way to dismiss the rules while making the tradition sound wise.  Recently, Reform has opened up to kashrut as a potentially relevant form of Jewish spirituality.  One of the more exciting developments in American culture – as I argued from the bimah on Yom Kippur 2012-- is the newfound awareness of the deep spiritual connections between what we eat and our nefashot, our souls that manage how we feel, how we think, our energy and our health.  There is also a newfound awareness of the corporate system our food stuffs emerge from, often to the detriment of animals (who also have nefashot), to the environment, and to our health.  These are more promising avenues for thinking about kashrut –which is highly attuned to respecting the souls of animals and humans, to the way food is produced and not just to the moment of eating, and to the spirituality of diet--  than the 19thcentury “health” excuse for dismissing Torah while pretending to compliment it.  Here are three ways to think about it.

Answer #1:  “It makes you a Jew.”

Answer #2:  It's about being mindful that animals have souls.

Answer #3: It's about faith in the Torah's sacred wisdom of the intersection of the plant world and the animal world. 

And More About Kashrut: There's More to It than Just an OU

Q:  What is the difference between Conservative and Orthodox standards of Kashrut:  First in a Series of Answers about Kashrut

Questions about Kashrut are really questions about Jewish Law.  Orthodox and Conservative rabbis in general (whatever the topic) tend to use legal precedent from Jewish law somewhat differently nowadays.  The Orthodox have increasingly relied only on the most recent case law, and therefore what the original legal codes (Talmud [c. 500], Rabbi Moses Maimonides' Mishneh Torah [1180], and Rabbi Yosef Karo's Shulchan Arukh [1563]) say hold relatively little weight.  Conservative rabbis used to be more influenced by Orthodox standards, but some –and especially myself-- see our special role as restoring the standards of our greatest Sages who wrote the legal codes, and therefore we give equal weight to earlier precedents rather than rely on later Ashkenazi customs.  Rabbis Hillel, Akiva, Rambam, et. al. should have a say equal if not greater than what increasingly stringent rabbis have said since 1800, in my opinion.  Using precedents is how case law proceeds, with a healthy respect for regional variations.  As a Conservative rabbi, I think Jewish Law's 3000 year history of pluralistic practice is a very important part of why we survived and kept a living Torah. (I think evolutionary biologists would agree.)  So I wish Orthodox decisors nothing but the best in their standards, but I wish to tether ours to an earlier, more optimistic, dynamic, and lenient time of our great rabbis.

Let's go into more detail There is no area of Jewish Law more complex than kashrut, and yet so often treated as the most simplistic.  “Is that kosher or not kosher?” people ask.  Except for the list of prohibited species (pig, shrimp, etc.), kashrut is not a binary system of “kosher” and “not kosher” but consists rather in a spectrum of standards of kashrut that have been established in different regions and in different time periods.  The legal codes on kashrut regularly say, “Some do this, some do that” or “Some choose to do this, may a blessing be upon them” [meaning it's a self-imposed extra-restrictive standard].   We have a variety of standards that are kosher.  Rabbinical training for centuries often focused on mastery of the laws of kashrut, for they entail a mastery of the subtleties and complexity of extensive variation, and clear contradictions, in rulings.  In short, they teach you about the very nature of Jewish law. 

Jewish law is a case-driven regional legal code, like the United States.  There is no central authority (like the Vatican or a “Chief Rabbi”) to create laws and clarify details.  Each rabbi has a “jurisdiction” --like each state supreme court does in America-- and those who choose to be governed by that authority answer to their opinion.  Virtually every page of the Talmud says some version of, “In Yavneh, they do it this way according to this ruling, while in the Galilee, they do it this other way based on another ruling, and in Pumbedita, they do it this other way.”  In fact, there are different jurisdictions within cities, so some might follow Hillel's way, and others Shammai's way, and so on.  This continued through the middle ages, with local rabbinic rulings varying widely from Egypt to Turkey, Spain to Italy to Russia.  Different standards/rulings on many issues developed.  Only in rare cases when a variation in standards was considered too great for the overall Jewish People to bear would a Sanhedrin convene or would a certain standard spread, not because one rabbi or community demanded it, but because most everyone felt a particular variation was too much to bear.  This is like America.  Different states are their own jurisdictions, with different laws and interpretations of what counts as “in accord with the Constitution,” just as we go by regional interpretations of what is “in accord with the Torah and Rabbinic Law.”  Carrying concealed weapons may be permitted in one state, while gun ownership overall may be highly restricted in another, both held to be in keeping with the Second Amendment.  Slavery was once considered constitutional in some states but not in others.  Similarly with gay marriage.  It is only when the American People as a whole cannot bear variation that the Supreme Court is permitted to hear a case and create a single standard.  Otherwise multiple, even contradictory, laws and standards regularly prevail.  American law and Jewish law are both PLURALISTIC:  meaning that very different and even contradictory standards can be “true” at the same time, even if a Texan and a Massachusettean think the other is just plain wrong.  The mind of an individual who can only tolerate simplistic right and wrong thinking bears no resemblance to the mind of God, which can tolerate a plurality of living rulings of Torah.  Jewish Law reflects the latter.

The main difference between Orthodox and Conservative rabbis is, perhaps surprisingly, not that Conservative rabbis are more likely to be progressive, but that Conservative rabbis are more likely to be regressive in their rulings!  Orthodox rabbis will give the greatest weight to the most recent case law (since many hold to a principle that a recent custom takes on the status of law when it becomes common practice for 200 years) while a Conservative rabbi may use and validate an earlier precedent/standard.  An Orthodox rabbi might say, “Hey, I don't drive according to a speed limit set a hundred years ago, but to the one set most recently!”  A Conservative rabbi might reply, “Hey, if you consider the laws of prayer, of kashrut, and so on like the speed limit, then you end up in a very strange progressive place that you wouldn't permit yourselves to pray with the rabbis who wrote the prayers or eat in the homes of the rabbis who wrote the kashrut legal codes.  As a Conservative rabbi, I feel free within my own jurisdiction (namely, Ner Tamid Synagogue) to use any legitimate legal precedent from Jewish Law to make a decision.  Can men and women sit together in synagogue?  Yes, because there is no indication they were separate in the Bible or Talmud before the rise of Islam.  Do you have to recite Aleinu at every service?  No, because it was written just for Rosh HaShanah.  Does a conversion have to take two years and the person adopt Orthodox practice?  The Mishnaic Sage Hillel would do a conversion in one afternoon, even for a Roman who showed little interest in Jewish practice.  (I do longer than a day, though.)  In other words, I'm willing to base a ruling on a precedent that prevailed in the time of the Talmud or in Medieval times.  I think it's pretty important to say, “If it was good enough for Rabbi Akiva, then it's good enough for me.”  For Orthodox decisors, however, while the older a ruling is, the more “holy” it is considered, “holy” doesn't carry weight, recent case law does.  So it doesn't matter if women were allowed to sing in front of men for most of Jewish history.  If a local rabbi rules that it violates “public decency” and people start keeping it for a generation (even if it violates all earlier Jewish Law) then that ruling carries more weight and one may not go back to an earlier precedent.  This is how Orthodox “strictness” inflation develops, and it has increased its pace dramatically in the past twenty years due to the internet and globalization, so strict standards suddenly set in one place no longer are labeled “that's just the way they do it in that region” but get quickly adopted across the globe, sometimes literally overnight, because of the social pressure that has globalized Orthodoxy.   If the Artscroll Press, which has no legal status, publishes a book telling people what the law is, most of the Orthodox world adopts it right away, even if only from peer pressure that one cannot appear to seem lenient in one's standards or disagree with a book everyone has put on their shelf, especially when it has such a fancy binding.  It says it's authoritative and it looks it, too!

The irony of Orthodoxy is that Orthodox Jews today would likely not eat in the homes of the great rabbis who wrote the legal codes originally.  And if a Conservative rabbi holds those standards, people say “That rabbi doesn't keep kosher.”  Similarly, Orthodox rabbis adopted and expanded on the restrictions on conversions set during the Crusades, when conversion meant torture and death, since those became the “most recent” standards at the time.  Barriers were erected to conversion, people were turned away 3 times, and so on.  But when those social conditions subsided, there was no consciousness to return to the original laws.  I think that's a great loss.

In a time when many congregants are prone to ask why they should pay a premium for rabbi with a Conservative training, when new independent, unaffiliated rabbinical training programs have popped up, or a Reconstructionist or Reform rabbi is available, I would remind them that these other programs lack the rigor in training in Jewish Law.  The Reform Movement rejected the very notion of Jewish Law in its charters, saying that law cannot exist without a country and police enforcing it, and so Jewish legal codes were considered archaic and irrelevant.  Orthodox rabbis are trained in Jewish law, but with a strong inclination toward binary thinking based on recent Orthodox practice.  Conservative Judaism, in my opinion, is the best option going forward to tether our Judaism to the core trunk of our Jewish legal tree, one whose life-sap was leniency and local variation, and not to one progressive branch focused on absolutist thinking.

Q:  The Essence of Taste:  Eating Out, Dishes, and Kashrut

After the birth of our second child, many congregants brought meals to our home to alleviate our pressures.  I was asked over and over again how it was that we could accept vegetarian meals from non-kosher restaurants and non-kosher homes.  Wasn't the rabbi kosher?

The first step to answering that question is to keep in mind that only food can take the adjective “kosher” or “non-kosher,” not restaurants or a rabbi.  (A “kosher” person means someone trustworthy or fit to give testimony in court, not someone observant of the dietary laws. It is a common mistake for people searching for "kosher" witnesses to a Ketubah to ask who keeps the dietary laws. That is a confusion.)  What renders the food potentially unkosher at a restaurant is that non-kosher food is getting into the food you're considering eating.  Jewish law basically codifies the violation as follows:  1) One cannot set out to intentionally mix a forbidden food with a permitted food (say, bacon and pinto beans, or cheese and a burger); but 2) when there is an accidental mixture, if the forbidden food accounts for less than one sixtieth of the volume of the total result, then the forbidden food takes on the legal status of non-existence as long as you can't taste its flavor.  That's right, the forbidden food has the legal status of having disappeared.  The Jewish legal codes despise wasting food, and reserve that unwanted result for egregious cases.  Besides sheer volume, egregiousness occurs when the flavor –in Hebrew, the ta'am-- of the forbidden food is still noticeable.

Understanding these two principles is crucial for understanding the laws related to dishes and utensils.  While Jewish law holds to the standard of having two sets of dishes and utensils (one for meat and one for milk, and avoiding others' dishes), it's not really the dish itself which is meat or milk, or kosher or unkosher, it's the food trapped in the dish.  According to Jewish law, when hot food is served on a dish, the heat causes the dish to release its trapped flavor.  If the dish has dairy flavor trapped in it, and you put a piece of hot beef on the plate, then a forbidden mixture results as the dairy ta'am is drawn out onto the beef.  If a clean dish has dairy flavor trapped in it, and you put a piece of cold salami on the plate, then no forbidden mixture results.  This is why for years, when Orthodoxy had not yet swung so far to the right, it was commonplace for Orthodox Jews to eat at “non-kosher” restaurants:  they would make sure to order cold foods like salads or the “tuna plate.”

In addition to the rule that heat creates the release of trapped flavor in a dish, the Rabbis declared that some dishes are incapable of trapping flavor at all, namely glassware.  Unlike ceramic, wood, and metal dishes, glass is impermeable to flavor.  One can take a glass dish used for eating bacon, give it a good cleaning, and then use it to eat a kosher meal on.  But why did the Rabbis reserve glass for this special distinction?  Do metal and ceramic really trap flavor?

There are basically two approaches to answering this question.  The first is to see the law through modern eyes:  a glass plate and any other plate I might buy at IKEA or Target really operate the same (both resisting trapped flavors) for all practical purposes, so the strange distinction the law is making between glass and the rest must be talking about something absorbed and released by the latter that is beyond human detection.  Now if you go to synagogue every Saturday, or engage in Torah study on a regular basis, you'll often be reading about a Torah distinction between things that are tamei (ritually impure) and tahor (pure).  A person who touches a dead body is suddenly tamei, but after a time-out and a sprinkle of holy water is then pure again.  Tamei, though really a status, reads like an invisible property beyond human detection, like the kooties we got in grade school.  “Unkosherness” suddenly gets read through the eyes of priestly impurity –even though they are entirely unrelated-- and then also seems to be a status representing an invisible property (like the kooties) visited upon and trapped in things, like the “impurity” the person got from touching a dead body.  A plate touched a piece of bacon, and it got the kooties/unkosherness.  But glass is somehow magically resistant:  the law says so.  So the word ta'am, in this view, becomes translated not as “flavor” but as “(invisible) essence.”  How one can taste an undetectable essence, which might be required to determine whether an accidental mixture must be thrown out, is not really addressed or thought about.

The second way to see the law about glass is to read it through ancient and medieval eyes, the time periods of the legal codes.  In such times, metal, wood, and many ceramic dishes really did trap and retain flavors of the food cooked and served on them, especially hot food!  Think of the traditional cast iron frying pans and woks we use today that season with the flavors of foods.  Wood dishes (very common in the ancient world) absorb flavors.  And with the imperfect glazing common in that time period, ceramic dishes absorbed and retained flavors. Using this second approach, the ta'am of unkosher food is actually the flavor of unkosher food, not some invisible “essence” like the kooties.  I can actually taste the flavor from a previous food.

Most Orthodox today adopt some form of the first approach, sticking to the set distinction between “glass” versus “ceramic,” and mostly thinking of unkosher ta'am as a mysterious “essence” that transfers between items.  Even many Conservative Jews and rabbis tend toward the same approach, with many understanding their willingness to eat vegetarian-dairy food at restaurants and congregants' homes as a breaking of the law but a concession to modernity.  Violating the law just because we're modern is, in my view, not what Conservative Judaism stands for, and it more strongly resembles the Reform movement's ideology.  I do not see my willingness to eat on others' dishes as breaking the dietary laws to adapt to modernity.  Rather, given modern glazing techniques, it seems clear to me that the kinds of ceramic plates commonly found in restaurants and homes today deserve the legal status of “equivalent to glass in their impermeability to flavor transfer” and I therefore rule them to be so halakhically.  (Just as a certain minimal percentage of unkosher food can have the legal status of nothingnessso too I consider most ceramic and metal utensils to have the legal status of glass.)   While I preserve the more stringent standard of two sets of dishes at home in the traditional way, I do not consider it “unkosher” to eat off of plates at homes and restaurants in most circumstances.  I think to read ta'am as something other than actual flavor is to take a practical, everyday distinction and turn it into something superstitious and magical.  And yet that is where most of the Jewish world is:  it is a sign of religion in our world swinging ever farther to black-and-white thinking, rather than seeing the gradations and practical distinctions of a religion meant to be lived by normal people in the everyday world.

Q:  Who Can Have Intention?  A Kashrut Standard and Eating Out

We have learned that a forbidden mixture is produced by mixing a kosher food with a prohibited food (like shrimp) or by mixing dairy and meat ingredients together, but that 1) if the mixing was accidental, and 2) the problematic ingredient makes up less than one-sixtieth the total volume, and 3) the flavor of the prohibited food cannot be tasted, then the forbidden mixture is kosher, the prohibited part “nullified” or considered non-existent.

I argue that a kosher standard may include that the dishes of a non-kosher home or restaurant do not make food unkosher, since, among other things, many contemporary dishes and utensils might be considered to have the halakhic status of glass.  Still, that does not address the first condition above, namely that non-kosher restaurants do not actively avoid creating prohibited mixtures in the first place.  Aren't kosher restaurants supervised by rabbis to make sure no one is bringing a ham sandwich into the kitchen or putting butter on the turkey?  By implication, aren't non-kosher restaurants full of such offenses?

The answer may surprise you.  Most kosher restaurants are not actively supervised.  Rabbis are not kept on staff to monitor things – rather they do periodic trainings and inspections.  And cooks and kitchen staff need not be Jewish.  The issue in Jewish law is one of the da'at,the state of mind, of the person who does the accident.  Was the state of mind of the person to intentionally put butter on the turkey, or not?  For most Jewish legal decisors, a person would have to know what the laws of kashrut  are in order to be capable of having the state of mind of intentionally following them.  That is why a rabbinic supervisor of a restaurant focuses on staff training rather than ongoing monitoring.  Once the staff knows the rules, if they make a mistake then it is an unintentional accident, and by Jewish law then the prohibited mixture is then kosher.  If someone does not know the laws of kashrut, then they are incapable of doing something accidentally.

The question for a non-kosher restaurant then becomes:  if a staff member does not know the laws of kashrut, are they really incapable of the state of mind of unintentionally making a forbidden mixture?  This is where I adopt an admittedly lenient standard of kashrut.  When I go to a restaurant, I tell them I am STRICT vegetarian (and I sometimes throw in a white lie about allergies), and I ask them to confirm with the kitchen staff that every dish I order has no trace of meat or shellfish in any sauce, stock, etc.  Once I do that, I consider the staff to have the state of mind of intentionally trying to make me a completely vegetarian (and therefore kosher) dish.  I do not think they need to know the laws of kashrut to have the required state of mind.  Once they are all trying to provide me with a strictly vegetarian dish, then should an accident arise (like a cutting board with a trace of meat on it), it would fall under an unintentional mixture, and the rules of nullification by volume subject to flavor contamination apply.  (In the extremely rare case that I taste something suspicious in my food, I stop eating it and send it back.)  My ruling on intention and accident is a lenient standard of kashrut, but by no means outside the law, once one understands the specific legal issues. 

It is my belief that we give ourselves permission to violate Jewish law willy-nilly when we consider it something so strict that only the Orthodox can do it.  At that point, why not eat the ham at the restaurant since it's not a “kosher” restaurant anyway?  Our Talmudic Sages were well aware of this aspect of human nature and therefore provided many customs and standards within Jewish Law so that it could be lived by everyday people in ordinary life, and not just by stringent Jews.  It is my hope that Conservative Judaism might be a proud beacon of the “Middle Way” of halakhic, everyday Judaism – but we must commit ourselves to taking ownership of halakhah and not conveniently outsourcing religious practice to others.

Q:  What did you say is in Red Dye #4?  Hekshers and Reading Ingredients

We learned that there are many kosher standards one can keep and still follow the laws of kashrut which require that one must avoid forbidden foods.  We also learned that standards often revolve around the interpretation of “unintentional mistakes that don't affect flavor or gross volume” since such mistakes are acceptable and don't render food unkosher.  A strict Orthodox standard certainly creates the required conditions, and I have argued that also meeting those conditions is the more lenient standard that understands contemporary dishes as glass-like, and restaurant workers intending to make vegetarian-dairy food as meeting the intentionality requirement.

Now we move on to what qualifies as kosher food in the supermarket.  Three years ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a lunch with the CEO of the second largest (after O-U) heksher corporation in the United States.  He explained to me in detail how his company operates.  Rather than provide ongoing supervision to food factories, a heksher company primarily does two things.  First, it ensures that overall equipment procedures are in place, especially that of running a hot-water cleaning (and therefore kashering) cycle on equipment between runs of, say, a dark chocolate product and a milk-chocolate product (so that, in this example, the former product is truly pareve).  Second, it sends an inspector periodically (often only once a year) to a food production facility.  Once there, he told me, “they spend most of their time on the loading dock checking the ingredients which will be used in the food.”  Notice that there is no ongoing supervision, nor does kashrut have anything to do with a rabbi blessing the food or being present during its production.

Protecting the integrity of the production line (so equipment is not shared between two foods that make a prohibited mixture) and inspecting ingredients ensure that the food meets the requirements of kashrut.  But this does not mean that a more lenient standard does not also meet those requirements.  One might consider the routine separation of equipment in factories to keep shellfish, dairy, meat, and other products from each other, especially with recent concerns for those who have allergies to traces of these products, to constitute an intention to prevent forbidden mixtures.  Second, we live in a time when ingredients are carefully listed on packaging, and conformity is monitored by the F.D.A.  We can meet a lenient ingredients standard, without a heksher, by reading the ingredients carefully on a package, but you need to know what you're looking for.  Many websites provide a list of the tricky ones.  The two at the top of most lists are any form of “caseinate” --since this refers to a milk powder and therefore renders a food dairy and not pareve-- and “carmine” (or “cochineal extract” or “Red Dye #4”) which is a common food coloring used in yogurt and other foods.  Carmine is made from the crushed carcasses of certain insects!  Those insects are not kosher and so any food made with carmine is unkosher.  Remember that the principle of ignoring ingredients of less than one sixtieth of total volume only applies to unintentional mistakes, not purposefully putting an unkosher ingredient in a food.

At the synagogue, I insist upon a heksher standard for most foods, so that those who subscribe to that standard can eat with us and we don't have to worry about lack of ingredients-reading training.  At home, I use a careful ingredients-reading standard.  One of the reasons I choose not to use a heksher standard at home –except for any meat products since there it is absolutely required-  is that there are several unnecessary stringencies (like forbidding many dairy products) the heksher companies adhere to, and I am uncomfortable with the opacity with which the heksher companies (all privately held) operate.

It would be my dream to have a non-profit Conservative heksher, but so few Conservative Jews keep kosher that it is not a financially viable option.  That is to our shame.  Every Jew should keep a kashrut standard.  It is my hope that by making people aware that there are many lenient standards of kashrut that satisfy the Laws of Kashrut, we will see that it is a simple thing to embrace the halakhah of the Jewish dietary laws rather than seeing those laws as for others instead of for ourselves.

Q:  What do soap, medicine, and jello all have in common? Or:  Why didn't you mention 'gelatin' when checking for unkosher ingredients?

The main point of this series of essays is to inform everyone that there are many acceptable standards of Kashrut.  The frequent misconception that there is a clear dividing line between kosher and nonkosher –certified by a heksher-- is often mistaken.  Gelatin is a great example.  Gelatin is a binding agent made from animal bones, and often from pig bones.  Thus is it obvious, is it not, that gelatin used in kosher foods must be made from the bones of kosher animals ritually slaughtered according to Jewish law?   It's actually not obvious at all.  Think about it:  is it kosher to put whipped cream on top of jello?  Of course it is.  But if kosher animal gelatin was used to make the jello, wouldn't this be a violation of the law to keep dairy and meat separate? 

To answer this question, we return to a principle established in the first essay:  Only food can be called kosher or not kosher (not people or restaurants).  Is every part of the animal considered meat?  Actually, not all parts of an animal are considered food!  The Torah states, in unequivocal language, that only the flesh, fats, and organs of an animal can be considered “food.”  Jewish Law therefore states that bones are not a food item, and therefore bones are neither kosher nor unkosher.  This is the reason that animal gelatin is not fleishig, and so can be eaten with whipped cream.  The gelatin (bones) is not food at all.

Over the centuries, there have been multiple accepted standards of kashrut regarding gelatin.  Lenient standards embraced the law as I have put it, considering the matter resolved.  Some rabbis and communities were uncomfortable with the idea that this standard could be correct.  It just didn't sit right.  So they embraced a stricter standard, arguing that “there might be shreds of meat still on the bones used for making gelatin” and therefore required that the bones come from properly slaughtered kosher animals.  (Still, the use of such bones doesn't render the foods fleishig, so the strictness created some questions.)  Multiple standards for an aspect of kashrut is a norm, so gelatin is yet another example where different standards prevail, some following the law that gelatin cannot have the status of kosher or nonkosher, and so can be used in foods regardless of how it's derived, and some requiring kosher animals to be used.

This issue of what counts as food extends to anything you might end up swallowing, such as medicine and detergents (like toothpaste). According to most Jewish law, most medicines, soaps, and detergents cannot be considered food.  So if, say, your toothpaste is made with pig fat, and you end up swallowing some, you didn't actually eat something unkosher, because you didn't swallow food.  For some of the Rabbis, such as legal code author Moses Maimonides, you don't even need two sinks to do dishes, because a sink is a place where you put “garbage” and detergent, and neither have the status of “food.” (I personally do not consider vitamins to be food, but I do consider nutritional supplements --like Omega-3 pills or protein powders-- food, so I will not use supplements that have unkosher ingredients like shellfish.)  Today, many (if not most) observant Jews are ignorant of these accepted standards in Jewish law, and would consider such talk as simply crazy:  they take it for granted that one must have hekshers on their toothpaste, two sinks in the kitchen, and kosher gelatin.  Similarly, the heksher companies conform to very strict, recent standards, which is why I do not hold to a heksher-only standard, since this reinforces the erasure of accepted lenient standards from Jewish common knowledge and acceptability.

Remember:  holding to a stricter standard does not make one more holy or more correct:  it's just a different standard that is more comfortable to those who hold by it.  Pick your standard and hold to it, but don't make the assumption that a stricter standard is a higher standard just because it is yours.  The Mishnah declares, after all, that more often than not Jewish law should follow the lenient Hillel, not the strict Shammai, even though the standards of both “are the words of the living God.”  As the codes of Jewish Law state:  for those who adopt a stricter standard, may an (extra) blessing be upon them, but that's as far as it goes.

Q:  Why do some cheeses have a heksher (kosher symbol)?  What does “cholev yisrael” mean?  And why don't you require a heksher on most cheeses?

Up until very recently, virtually all cheeses were made using something called “animal rennet,” which refers to the stomach enzymes of certain animals.  Cheese production predates recorded history, when it was likely noticed that storing milk in animal stomachs produced curds and whey (and hence cheese).  In fact, cheese production hasn't changed much in 10,000 years.  Jewish immigrants to the United States were known to bring dried strips of cow stomach in their luggage.  Putting the “stick” of cow stomach into a vat of milk was the main way of making cheese.  One stick could be repeatedly reused.

The Rabbis were perplexed by the kashrut of cheese.  On the one hand, it was tradition that milk and meat could not be mixed together, and cow stomach counts as meat (since it is part of an organ), so how could it be mixed with milk and then its product eaten?  On the other hand, it was tradition that cheese was an acceptable kosher product!  A minority Rabbinical position exists that all cheese should be avoided as a mix of milk and meat.  At the same time, the majority position, that it is kosher, needed a justification.  The gelatin allowance (that bones are not food) does not apply, since stomach is an organ and therefore considered food.  Even another useful halakhic category, that of “new product,” or “chemical derivative,” that can be used to justify the kashrut of a highly refined derivative (like an enzyme) of an otherwise forbidden food, does not apply, since strips of cow stomach are not highly refined.  (This category could be used, however, to justify chemically derived animal enzymes today.) Consequently, Jewish law invented a special category called “dried wood” that considers a food product that appears to be “dried wood” --and serves as a catalyst rather than a food itself-- to be a non-food substance.  Sticks of stomach are virtually the only member of this special class.  Since the cow stomach strips are not food --but wood equivalents-- they are not meat at all, and hence whether they come from a kosher slaughtered cow or not, it doesn't matter.  I don't need to have a kosher leather handbag, and I don't need the "dried wood" to be kosher either:  it's halakhically nonsensical to apply the term "kosher" to things that aren't food.  

Does cheese really require a heksher?   According to Jewish law, one must be careful not to buy cheese made from the milk of a non-kosher animal like the camel, since such cheese is not kosher.  “Cholev Yisrael” is a designation that assures the buyer that an Orthodox Jew made the cheese and made sure that no camel (or other forbidden species of) milk made it into your cheese.  Where such concern is not realistic, or one has a list of ingredients, I do not believe such a designation is necessary.  Also, as with gelatin, some authorities add a stringency that rennet should come from a kosher slaughtered animal.  If the cheese has a heksher, but does not say “Cholev Yisrael,” they are adhering to this stringency.  And some authorities, like myself, take the lenient approach that cheese without a heksher can normally be assumed to be kosher, as long as one can read ingredients to eliminate potential problems with flavorings and additives.

Perspectives on the "Why" of Keeping Kosher

Weren't the kashrut laws really for health reasons?

Saying that the kashrut laws were really for health reasons is like saying the purpose of the car is to keep you safe.  It would be a pretty strange thing if a car weren't safe, since it involves getting you from place to place at high speeds.  Similarly, it would be a pretty strange thing if our kosher dietary laws made you sick, since it involves the foods you eat.  So it's not surprising to me that some of the laws incorporate standards of cleanliness and avoid certain foods prone to conveying illness, just as cars incorporate safety features.  But to say that these are the purpose of the laws?  No:  that is a false reductio ad absurdum, a logical mistake where one aspect of something is judged as the whole of it.  So why did this become such a common explanation of kashrut?  It became the predominant explanation of kashrut by the Reform Movement, whose charter for most of its existence has condemned kashrut as an archaic practice that does not speak to modern times, so the “health explanation” became a convenient way to dismiss the rules while making the tradition sound wise.  Recently, Reform has opened up to kashrut as a potentially relevant form of Jewish spirituality.  One of the more exciting developments in American culture – as I argued from the bimah on Yom Kippur 2012-- is the newfound awareness of the deep spiritual connections between what we eat and our nefashot, our souls that manage how we feel, how we think, our energy and our health.  There is also a newfound awareness of the corporate system our food stuffs emerge from, often to the detriment of animals (who also have nefashot), to the environment, and to our health.  These are more promising avenues for thinking about kashrut –which is highly attuned to respecting the souls of animals and humans, to the way food is produced and not just to the moment of eating, and to the spirituality of diet--  than the 19thcentury “health” excuse for dismissing Torah while pretending to compliment it.

Sat, August 19 2017 27 Av 5777