Novelty foodstuffs can raise deep questions about meaning -- or the lack of it.
There is a unifying credo every American can agree upon, regardless of generational, racial or red-state/blue-state divide: Everything is better with bacon.
The bacon craze has seemingly affected even the most famously pig-averse of people, observant Jews — at least if measured by media coverage of the latest entry into the kosher bacon pantheon, bacon-flavored Ritz crackers. Of course Bac-O Bits, among other bacon-ish products, have long been kosher.
When I asked an observant relative why he might eat bacon-flavored products, the answer was straightforward to the point of deadpan: “To see what it tastes like.” Okay, why not; he can do so without breaking the rules. He can — but should he?
There’s the spirit of the law, and the letter of the law, the latter paid lip service by such ersatz items as the “Passover bagel” or kosher cheeseburger. What some might simply see as novelty foodstuffs raises deeper questions for me, a non-observant Jew still committed to finding meaning in the tradition and sharing it with other non-observant Jews. The more loopholes I see — for example, Shabbat elevators so you don’t have to push buttons, or eruvs that use barely-visible wire as a border to turn entire neighborhoods into theoretical private domains so carrying on Shabbat is allowed, or simply getting someone else to do it for you — the more I wonder how those rules still have meaning for people who utilize such elaborate workarounds to seemingly avoid them.
Most observant Jews probably can articulate the meaning for themselves, if asked. To me the bigger challenge is that, for those of us among the 80 percent of American Jewry who don’t keep kosher, we rarely hear the compelling arguments for “Why do it.” We only hear the “How to”— or in the case of bacon-flavored Ritz crackers, “How to work around it.”
There’s potential value in kashrut that is too rarely conveyed by the organized Jewish community, and that’s a missed opportunity — not because I hope more Jews will keep kosher necessarily, but because I believe it could be a source of meaning for folks like me who are seeking connections, even if we never intend to take on all the rituals.
That Jews may have been the first people to think consciously about what we put into our bodies, and to relate food to ethics, can be a real point of pride, particularly today when such concerns are gaining universal appeal. As Sue Fishkoff points out in her book, “Kosher Nation,” the industry is exploding not because of Jews but because Americans in general believe that the kosher stamp of approval means the food is higher quality, and healthier (though it’s hard to see how “health” relates to anything bacon-flavored).
I also appreciate the idea behind making the mundane holy, the intended function of so many Jewish rituals. Everyone has to eat, but by only eating certain things, and praying before and after, we sanctify a thrice-daily (or more) bodily function. Why I need to do it in the specific way Judaism dictates, however, is where I get hung up.
Then, too, there’s a discipline to keeping kosher, and observance in general, that many of us who are not observant can envy. I enjoy my freedom to eat whatever interests me — I could put actual bacon on a Ritz cracker if I so desired (which, for the record, I do not) — but with total freedom comes lack of structure. I feel this less with food than with other rituals, like powering down for Shabbat, the benefits of which more and more non-observant folks are recognizing.
For me and I presume others like me, the question is about the source of that discipline. If it comes from the belief that God is watching over you, cares what you eat and will punish you if you eat something treif, well, that kind of obligation is not going to be very meaningful to many of us.
Obligation for obligation’s sake is long gone from the minds of most non-observant Jews. I will take on obligation, but only after I understand the value in doing so. I don’t give to charity because I’m obligated to, I’ve taken on that obligation because I’ve been shown the value it brings to my life and the lives of others. It’s not just semantics; the difference between obligation and meaning is a major disconnect for large swaths of the organized Jewish community that can’t understand why the majority of Jews in their communities are disengaged.
The challenge of leading with meaning over obligation, however, is that you then have to define and defend your values. For example, I feel it’s more ethical to eat shrimp or lobster than a cow. When I look into a cow’s eyes, I feel there is some intelligence there. Can you even find the eyes on a lobster? Yet Judaism says I can’t eat a lobster under any circumstances, but a cow is fine so long as it’s slaughtered the right way, not eaten in its mother’s milk and so on.
I want to believe kashrut is about ethics but when I’ve asked for a defense of my lobster/cow debate, I’ve been told that kashrut is also about keeping Jews separate. That’s a pretty unsatisfying answer for a fully-integrated American who doesn’t see keeping apart from my non-Jewish neighbors as a positive value.
I believe these are the kinds of challenges Jews from across the denominational spectrum would be willing to and interested in grappling with — perhaps, given the upcoming holiday, over matzah BLTs.
Paul Golin is co-author of "How to Raise Jewish Children…Even When You’re Not Jewish Yourself" and the Associate Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute. Follow him on Twitter @paulgolin
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