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Kosher Bacon? Passover Bagel?

Novelty foodstuffs can raise deep questions about meaning -- or the lack of it.

Mon, 03/31/2014 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
"OU:" Just the letters of the law? JTA
"OU:" Just the letters of the law? JTA

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.

Bacon-infused alcohol. Bacon ice-cream sundaes. Even bacon toothpaste. I’m pretty sure the last one is a gag. But how are they not all gags?

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

Bac-Os, kosher bacon, Kosher Cheeseburger, kosher Ritz, Passover bagel, Paul Golin

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I am confused. I have not read any comments here about the spiritual connections to kashrut. My understanding is that kashrut is not a chok, but we know that certain animals do not qualify as kosher due to the physical parts they have or do not have and the ramifications of this on their so called behavior. Any other comments along this line of thinking?

Passover “rolls”, “cake”, “spagetti” also bring up the problem of “Marat Ayin”. It “doesn’t look right”. If someone saw you eating it and did not know that it was not hametz, they might think you were eating hametz. Another example of Maarat Ayin would be if a person wearing a kippah (not hiding it under a cap) walked into MacDonalds to use the restroom. Someone on the street might think that the MacDonalds was kosher because a Jew with a kippah walked into the restaurant.

I'd like to elaborate on the first comment by Eleazar. I'm celiac and I keep kosher, so my kitchen & home is always 100% free from wheat products. My current struggle is that in order to hold the family Seder in my house, I personally have no desire to introduce kitniot into kitchen, therefore I plan to serve a dairy free, gluten free fare. So, here's the conundrum, I could indeed serve gluten free bagels, or any other of a myriad of products now available to satisfy the gluten free community. Definitely not similar to the foods I remember being served at Seders as a child. Isn't this similar to pseudo bacon flavoured kosher hechshered products? The products I'm thinking of, whether kosher especially for Pesach, regular kosher, or derived from raw ingredients, thanks to the popularity of the gluten free diet mean that I can serve dishes that are in no way different than I would serve the rest of the year. Even the matzah I'll be serving will be made from oats (Yehuda brand, ok for Passover use). Will my Seder meal raise questions? Will the meaning of Pesach be lost? Or, is this just an inevitable evolution of customs that have ever been evolving?

Bacon flavored Ritz is a man-made item to sell more products and weaken the theme of Pesach. I feel that following the rules of Pesach is teaching one self discipline.
If I choose to ignore these rules, I will not be punished.

I do not understand the title of article. It seems that this causes *DEEP* questions, yet when I try reading the actual article, all I see is evidence of shallowness.

I also find it ironic that the same paper can ask questions about the kashrut of artificially flavored crackers that happen to have a non kosher sounding name while at the same time selecting Non Kosher Hamentaschen as the best in NYC and standing by that decision because not all readers keep kosher. (Yes, there were a number of readers who looked askance at that decision)

And I would not call that irony deep.

In Sh'moneh P'rakim, the Introduction of the Rambam to Pirkei Avot, Maimonides differentiates between:

1. The general idea of philosophers that it is preferable to not even want to sin; and

2. Chazal saying in a well-known Midrash that one should not say about non-kosher food that it is disgusting, but he should say, "I'd love to eat that, but what can I do? Hashem said it's prohibited."

The Rambam says that Chazal would agree with #1 with respect to mitzvot sichliot, i.e., mitzvot that even if the Torah had not been given, we would know that they are wrong, such as murder or theft. But with respect to mitzvot that we would not do but for Hashem commanding them, #2 applies.

The issue here is not "bacon flavored" (beef fry has been around for over a century) but the essence of what Kashrut stands for. Kashrut is not about discipline for its own sake nor is about God caring nor about God punishing and certainly not about health. The fact is the Torah tells us to keep kosher and does not give us any reason at all. We just are expected to live with whatever God tells us to do. Does that make non-observant Jews happy? I am not sure it makes observant Jews happy. But that is what we have.

So Rabbis try to figure out what reasons the can decipher that will make everyone happy, those who observe and those who are thinking about observing; and they come up with reasons that are interesting but do not "please" everyone. Kashrut is an interesting place to try and "please" everyone because not everyone is "pleased" with how others observe Kashrut. I do not exaggerate when I say that there are those who don't eat bacon flavored anything because it "looks or sounds" trayfe. ( I am unsure if this includes Mr. Golin or not)

For me, I love my wife and do a lot of things she asks me to do without any good reason, and I do them only because I love her. I do a lot of things that God asks me to do, not because there is a reason, but because I love God too. If someone does not love God then I can't expect them to understand the love that I have. If they do love God than we share that love and observance. If that doesn't work for someone, than that someone is not ready to keep kosher. There are other mitzvot that can be their gateway to God.

The problem is not Kashrut, it is when we are trying to make Kashrut what we want it to be. Kosher is what it is. It is "take it or leave it" for many people, they leave it without asking questions. But if you stop to consider the many good things it can bring to a life, there are lots of reasons to keep kosher.

Kashrut is not about ethics. Ethical treatment of animals (also required by and expounded upon in Jewish law) is about ethics. Neither the Bible nor rabbinic literature (until the last 100 or so years) claims that kashrut is about ethics. It is a legal requirement, not an ethical requirement. Ethical obligations about the treatment of animals are articulated elsewhere. (Also, per the laws of kashrut, cows cannot be eaten with ANY milk -- including the milk of other animals, such as goats -- not only the milk of their mothers.) Since it is not an ethical requirement, the intelligence that can or cannot be seen in the animal's eyes is not especially relevant.

There are many observant Jews who do not adhere to the obligations of Jewish law because they find personal meaning in doing so. Many DO find personal meaning in doing so, and many don't, but the presence or absence of personal meaning is, to many observant Jews, beside the point. Rather, they adhere to the obligations because they believe that the Jewish people have been commanded to do so by God. Not all observant Jews are motivated by fear of punishment, either. To many, upholding the word of God is motivation in itself. Hope of reward or fear of punishment is ancillary.

If one's faith is such that one believes God articulated these requirements, and that the requirements are binding on all Jews for all time, then "loopholes" or workarounds do not weaken the meaning or the perceived "spirit" that accompanies observance of the law. The spirit of the law, to such individuals, is to be found in simply upholding the law. If a person upholds the law and also uses loopholes or workarounds, that person is still upholding the law -- so the spirit, for that person, is intact.

You are correct, of course, that people who are not motivated by binding faith need another motivation to remain engaged with Jewish life. Misunderstanding and misinterpreting the nature of observance, or misunderstanding and misinterpreting the principles that lie behind religious requirements, is not likely to result in such motivation.

I know this may not sway you, but this has been addressed in traditional sources for a long time:

1.) In the Bible we see Samuel is told by God to strip Saul of his monarchy because he chose to spare animals in the conquest of Amalek. Samuel tells Saul that it is better to listen to God than to offer a sacrifice.

2.) In the Talmud (Chullin 109b) it says:
Yaltha once said to R. Nahman: ‘Observe, for everything that the Divine Law has forbidden us it has permitted us an equivalent: it has forbidden us blood but it has permitted us liver; it has forbidden us intercourse during menstruation but it has permitted us the blood of purification; it has forbidden us the fat of cattle but it has permitted us the fat of wild beasts; it has forbidden us swine's flesh but it has permitted us the brain of the shibbuta fish; it has forbidden us the girutha but it has permitted us the tongue of fish; it has forbidden us the married woman but it has permitted us the divorcee during the lifetime of her former husband; it has forbidden us the brother's wife but it has permitted us the levirate marriage; it has forbidden us the non-Jewess but it has permitted us the beautiful woman [taken in war]. I wish to eat flesh in milk, [where is its equivalent?]’ Thereupon R. Nahman said to the butchers, ‘Give her roasted Udders’.

3.) There is another statement, I believe was from Nachmanides but I am having trouble finding it, that says one should not say he doesn't eat pork because he doesn't like it, but only because God said so.

The point is to listen to God's Word, not to make up our own Torah. If something is permitted, there is no reason to avoid it, unless there is an established custom as such. It is well known that the Talmud says one will have to answer to any permitted pleasure one avoided in this world, as an opportunity to thank God for this pleasure.

For at least some of those who are observant and also embrace the workarounds, there is no contradiction or problem, because they (we) are working from an entirely different premise. You seem to begin from the premise that the mitzvot must have meaning *which is accessible to you*, or even perhaps which is *obvious* to you. But many other Jews do not hold this premise. Maybe, just maybe, the Torah isn't simplistic enough that we can see "the real meaning" of the mitzvah from the outside looking in, or even, in some cases, from the inside. Maybe the real meanings of mitzvot are so profound that a limited human mind can *never* delve as deeply as they go. Maybe observing the Torah, even through workarounds, has profound meanings that are not literal/obvious/narrative -- meanings which befit the most sophisticated and subtle Author of the world, rather than simplistic literalistic "meanings" of the kind a book club would find in this month's pulp novel.

Don't knock the workarounds. Being observant is a very taxing discipline, and for many of us it's well worth all that effort, but we can also use a break when we can get it. And there is no reason for us to be apologetic about that. The "letter vs. spirit" dichotomy to which you refer is not native to Torah, it belongs to the Christian St. Paul. The Christian source doesn't make the idea wrong in itself, but from a traditional Jewish perspective, the dichotomy is indeed false. The Jews who eat "kosher cheeseburgers" (in which either the meat or the cheese is fake) aren't arrogantly neglecting the spirit of the law, they may be humbly following a law about whose spirit they do not claim any certain understanding. To claim that any given workaround violates the "spirit of the law" is to claim a kind of knowledge about that law's true meaning that is not befitting a humble Jew.

Such, at least, is my perspective, as one such eruv-carrying, kosher-bacon-salt-eating Jew who tries his best to keep the mitzvot as best he can. Disagree with me if you wish, by all means, but please don't pretend that the only two possibilities are (1) your perspective and (2) a very simplistic pursuit of Divine reward and punishment. There are actually more possibilities than that. Give your fellow Jews a little more credit than that.

Great that you are questioning and searching for meaning! I'm in the same boat but why worry about the dictates? I don't think god will strike you down for making any choice and what I'm grateful for, the more I search and listen to people, is that Judaism allows me to be myself, do what I can, and grow at my own pace without judgement. And because Judaism is generous with me in that way, that's where I find my obligation to Judaism. Judaism is, in fact, a documented history of questioning, searching, and working around dictates as contemporary life requires. In that we find humor and receive countless opportunities to celebrate in community - all in an attempt to acknowledge the juxtaposition of history against modern life. Aren't we lucky to own all that simply because you were born or chose Jewish? And again, if Judaism gives me all that, what do I give back? I stick with it, I support it, I offer my friendship and support to others by joining a synagogue. It's a small price to pay for the opportunity to call myself Jewish and live it freely.

How superficial that he can get so hung up on the name. Call it "artificial smoked meat flavor" and he wouldn't have a problem. BTW does he lecture his friends like this, or just Orthodox Jews?

while i agree on the need to keep Kosher, why can't the frum community create turkey bacon, and turkey scrapple. there was once a time when you would never have found Pesach noodles, pasta, and spaghetti, much less kids cereal that taste good yet follow kosher principles. but now you do along with countless dozens of food items not seen 20-30 years ago.