Not Kosher, Not Welcome

Allen: When we first moved in together, Aron, you placed in the kitchen a large wooden sign from your childhood: “Kosher Only.” This was obviously an ironic statement; even so, I took it down whenever I hosted non-observant guests. I didn’t want to seem intolerant.

But one could make the case that the whole edifice of kashrut rests upon an attitude of religious intolerance — put crudely, separating the Jews from the goyim. Take the prohibition of pas akum, literally, “bread of idol worshippers”, which assumes that Jews and non-Jews who break bread ultimately run the risk of reverting to idolatry; or tevilat keilim, the requirement to ritually immerse newly bought utensils to rid them of their “gentile impurity” (YT Avodah Zarah 5:16) or the stringent restrictions on wine, grounded in the fear that non-Jews will purposefully offer it up as a sacrifice to their gods. Not coincidentally, all of these laws first appear in the tractate of the Mishnah that memorably begins, “Cattle must not be left in the inns of idol worshippers, because they [idol worshippers] are suspected of bestiality” (Avodah Zarah 2:1). And let’s not forget the horrifying passage in ArtScroll’s popular volume Kosher Kitchen that explains how secular Jews helped cause the Shoah by assimilating in their eating habits.

You might object that my examples are mainly observed by Orthodox Jews. That’s partly true, though the kosher wine debate continues to this day in the Conservative CJLS. Even in nominally more liberal communities, though, the basic issues remain the same. Most Jews with kosher kitchens wouldn’t allow a non-observant friend to bring a prepared dish to a meal. Dinner hosts have asked me whether I keep Shabbat in order to ensure that no food purchased on the holy day enters their households. It’s certainly understandable for non-observant Jews and non-Jews to view the entire system as rigid dogmatism.

So: is kashrut ethically defensible? To what extent?

Aron: We shouldn’t throw out the baby with the ritual bathwater. Much could be done to improve the inner workings of kashrut, reduce the overtly tribalist elements, and ensure that it creates, rather than impedes, Jewish community. Many of the issues you raised, though, revolve around the question of separatism. It seems like the question you’re ultimately asking is: Is it morally and spiritually adhere to a system that, regardless of the changes we might make, relies on and endorses a degree of separateness?

I’d argue yes.

Implicit in the critique of kashrut’s separatism is the notion that assimilation is good. There is no reason, according to this view, to intentionally separate ourselves, even if only partially, from society. Doing so is ignorant at best and prejudiced at worst.

When confronted with such a position, we must ask ourselves: is the society in which we live so enlightened — so advanced and moral — that we should offer it our full allegiance? As Rabbi Irving Greenberg asserts, “A system associated with creating a framework for mass murder must be very persuasive before gaining intellectual assent.”

We live in a city, country, and world in which rampant inequality, unnecessary suffering, and senseless hatred are considered the norm. To fully assimilate into such a society is to accept those standards as our own. This is nothing less than false consciousness.

Judaism stands between apathy and asceticism. It teaches us to hold the world as it is at arm’s length so that we might reach out and with our other arm grasp the world as it might be. As Rabbi Leo Baeck wrote nearly 100 years ago in The Essence of Judaism, “Contempt for success, rejection of worldly arrogance, pessimism about ‘the world’ — these are the essential ingredients of Judaism’s optimism.” Each time we eat, Kashrut reminds us of this core Jewish concern.

Allen: That’s all well and good, but you haven’t really answered my question. An argument against assimilation isn’t the same as an argument for traditional kashrut. I know many proudly Jewish families (my own among them) who “take a step outside of our secular routine” without following the Shulkhan Arukh to the jot and tittle. Is it not possible to live and eat among non-Jews (perhaps as a vegetarian) while “hold[ing] the world as it is at arm’s length?”

Furthermore, most of the issues I raised aren’t inter-religious but intra-religious. Suppose Renewal Jew Mr. Cohen cooks a dish for Conservadox Jew Mr. Levy’s Shabbat dinner. Mr. Levy has no choice but to regretfully inform Mr. Cohen that his religious choices are essentially not kosher enough. What does any of this have to do with assimilation?

On a personal note, I spent six months living with an evangelical Christian pastor and his family. I ate no meat at their house, but I broke bread with them and shared their plates. From across the table, I watched their unwavering sense of justice, compassion and faith, and I believe I’m a better Jew for it. True, I still loyally search for heckshers in the supermarket aisles; but I’m troubled by the contradictions, and your theory leaves me unconvinced.

Aron: To the contrary, I’ve answered the original question, but you’ve moved the goalposts. Is the idea of kashrut defensible? Yes. Does it follow then that all aspects of kashrut are defensible? No.

Before we delve into how to reconcile Mr. Levy and Mr. Cohen, we have to explain why it’s worth having the conversation in the first place. If, as some argue, kashrut is inherently worthless, we don’t need to bother addressing specific issues; we could just do away with the whole thing.

Kashrut is, as I’ve said above, a system that prevents us from fully assimilating into a spiritually moribund society. It also has other values that we didn’t touch on (at least, not in this post). It’s forces us to conceptualize, in concrete terms, the boundaries between holy and mundane. It also posits the value of all life, human and beast.

These three values, among others, lay the grounds (a favorite term of yours) for kashrut being a worthwhile endeavor. Only once we’ve established those grounds does it make sense to tackle the specifics of kashrut.

Now, rather than analyze kashrut as it is, let’s lay out some heuristics we’d want an ideal kashrut to follow that don’t require compromising on its core premises.

Ideally, kashrut won’t create a sense of superiority vis–à–vis non-Jews. Equally importantly, it won’t create a sense of superiority vis–à–vis other Jews. To this end, we should look for ways to bridge the gaps between different kashrut practices; this doesn’t mean collapsing them all into a least-common-denominator, but rather finding creative ways to ensure that kashrut remains a unifying, rather than a dividing, force. We also want to make sure that kashrut takes its commitment to animal life seriously; abiding by the letter of the law but abusing animals is unholy and unhalakhic.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but I think you get the picture. Once we’ve sketched the ideal qualities in a system of kashrut (all of which have some halakhic basis: see the Tosefta on Sanhedrin 13; Bava Metzia 58b; and Bava Metzia 30b, respectively), we should see how our actual rituals and observances match up, and then systematically work to rectify them and plug the gaps.

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