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When is kosher kosher?

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It is often said that a person is what he eats. Then I guess a person’s attitude to matters of food must say a lot about his religion.

It is one of the great features of Judaism as a religion that it creates a framework for daily living that involves thinking and acting rather than just affirming vague ethical ideas in theory. The presence of God is in mundane daily actions as much as in grand gestures and noble phrases.

Nowhere is our preoccupation with detail, conformity, and religious gamesmanship more evident than in matters of what is kosher. It used to be a simple matter. Certain animals, birds, and fish were, and others were not. Ritual slaughter had to be done correctly and blood removed, according to tradition. Meat and milk had to be kept separate, and one always had to watch out for suspect ingredients. There were also some social limitations on too much fraternization with pagans.

The only serous medieval variations were between the Sefardim and the Ashkenazim about what animal meat was acceptable to be eaten. The Ashkenazim, who mainly inhabited damp areas where animals fed in water meadows and swamps, often had to deal with damp-affected animal lungs which were stuck together in places, a sort of tuberculosis which would make the animal unfit to eat. But if these sticky places, these lesions, could be easily rubbed apart, the Ashkenazim allowed them on the grounds that they were not seriously affected. Sefardi rabbis said that any lesion was a health hazard and refused to accept what they saw as a fiddle.

Somewhere in the last century the tern “glatt” (Yiddish for “smooth” or “straightforward”) was applied to meat where no question arose (similar to what was known in the Sefardi world as Beit Yosef kosher, after the compiler of the Shulchan Aruch, Yosef Karo).

Another important fault line was that Sefardim ate kitniyot (rice, legumes, and pulses) on Pesach, whereas Ashkenazi rabbis, ever restrictive, thought they were problematic, so banned it all. Then the pious Ashkenazim added “gebroks” to the list of no-no’s. (Gebroks is matzah mixed with water, for instance to make matza balls or matza brie.) So nowadays even the least religious hotel insists that for Pesach it is glatt kosher and no gebroks and its lettuces are all vetted by the F.B.I., M.I.T., and the fraud squad before a rabbi even gets a look in!!

In the modern preoccupation with religious one-upmanship, and as people grew wealthier and could afford two sinks (for meat and dairy), then two cookers, then two fridges, and finally three kitchens (not to mention a luxury cruise), the current trend of kashrut getting stricter and tougher and more expensive came into vogue. Naturally, this was all helped by increasing kosher businesses that required supervisors and rabbis and experts, all of whom had to be paid. A massive industry in providing for unemployed rabbis came into being that made a lot of rabbis rich, and also incidentally funded religious life. As always, Jewish Law was purloined to reinforce commercial gain, just as the rabbis in Israel two thousand years ago declared non-Jewish earth contaminated so as to protect the local Jewish ceramic industry.

Sadly, the kosher industry is too open to abuse. It is possible to circumvent the strictest of supervision in the dead of night. Indeed, recently in Monsey, New York, the strictest store with the most pious of owners was found to have been recycling non-kosher meat as glatt kosher for years. My late father gained notoriety in the 1940’s when he barged down the door of a kosher butcher in Glasgow to reveal that he, too, was bringing treifa (non-kosher) meat in to resell as kosher. Fiddling is almost endemic. I remember in yeshiva helping out in the supervision department of the Eidah Charedis, the strictest of supervisory boards at the time, and I can tell you monkey business was rife. Recently, the Israeli Government watchdog (and that’s virtually a contradiction in terms) has accused rabbinical supervisors of being too easily manipulated by aggressive proprietors who pay their salaries, and the whole system is suspect.

There are now endless supervisory bodies and signs and symbols and terms to indicate higher and better and safer and holier degrees of supervision, and frankly one really cannot know what standard to adopt with safety and consistency. Even so-called super Chassidish slaughter has been shown on film in one notorious case to be far from holy. Twenty years ago a close friend of mine who became a shochet and kashrut supervisor in the USA wrote to tell me how corrupt the Chassidish slaughtering was and that he was going to expose it. Weeks later he was found dead in a hotel in Chicago. I sent the letter to the Chicago police but nothing happened.

It seems to me there are only two consistent options. If one really wants to be certain, one will never eat cooked food outside of one’s home or supervision. This way one is not reliant on poor supervisors, corrupt rabbis, dishonest proprietors or well-meaning but ignorant or incompetent hostesses. There is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with someone who opts for this. It’s a matter of lifestyle choices.

However, I would regret the inevitable social limitation. And I particularly disapprove of creating enmity between members of one’s own family or one’s in-laws on matters of nuance and degree rather than essentials. I am uncomfortable with a religious attitude that is divisive where it isn’t really necessary. I am not offended if someone refuses to eat in my house if I know he consistently will not eat in others as a matter of principle. On the other hand, when I was a congregational rabbi, for the sake of establishing contacts with my congregants, I was always happy to eat fruit and salads on cold plates (yes, check for bugs) wherever I was invited. It’s much easier if you’re not a raving carnivore.

The other position, which is halachically totally correct, is to say that one will always rely on an avowedly halachic rabbinic supervision unless one has accurate information to the contrary (and not the sort of commercially motivated mudslinging one comes across in most communities nowadays).

Halachically, you may regard others as trustworthy unless proved otherwise, rather than suspect it until reassured. And if something then does go wrong you are faultless. It is the case that the law is absolutely clear that one only needs to bother about bugs the eye can see, but we have now entered an era of obligatory microscopic inspection. Indeed, if one is certain of the ingredients, in many cases one doesn’t even need supervision, although you would never know it, particularly at Passover time (supervised water–I ask you!).

Not everything in life has to be logical. I agree. But neither is it a mitzvah to be illogical, nor is it praiseworthy to go over the top. As the Talmud says, “Are you not satisfied with what He has forbidden that you must be stricter than the Almighty?”

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