The challenge of 'kosher' pork

Vegetarian Society labels should be considered as good as supervision agency stamps


It’s poetic that the product which finally made apparent the ideological agenda of many kashrut organisations — that is, to make kashrut impossible without themselves — was something named “Impossible Pork”. The Orthodox Union (OU), the world’s largest kosher-certifying agency, politely declined to give their stamp to it.

The reason wasn’t, as you might expect it to be from a kosher-certifying agency, because the food isn’t kosher. It is kosher — and the OU acknowledged that as well. The reason they denied an OU hechsher to Impossible Pork is because it didn’t feel right and because their ideological commitment to non-halachic principles has finally outweighed their stated task of certifying ingredients and manufacturing for the benefit of consumers.

What makes a given food kosher (or not) is largely about animals. A vast majority of the law around what food can and cannot be eaten is established through the elements of meat-eating: which animals can be eaten, how they must be slaughtered, when they can be eaten, with what other foods they can be eaten.

If we eliminate animal flesh from our diets, most of the work of keeping kosher is done. What remains is a series of rabbinic enactments meant to ensure cultural separation between Jews and non-Jews and laws borne from ancient anxieties around idolatrous religious practices.

Impossible Pork, of course, is not an animal product, nor is it used in the practice of an idolatrous cult. Thus assuming that the ingredients are all kosher and the manufacturing process is kosher, the food is kosher.

What the OU has done is simply to make clear to all that which has already been obvious to many: their interest is in a constructed notion of kashrut, in which they are the sole arbiters and in which they can continue to exercise authority over Jewish consumers’ behaviour.

The kosher establishment has continued to invent new ways to justify its existence — usually by inventing new stringencies (the inquisition against vegetables and bug-checking) or by adding new concepts to the halachic vocabulary to create ever-escalating and unattainable (perhaps impossible) levels of observance (mehadrin memehadrin, glatt etc). These are desperate ploys to prove the necessity of something which is completely unneeded.

In 2021, food labelling laws are the most comprehensive they have ever been. Food producers are required to list ingredients, allergens and to establish manufacturing processes and have them checked by local authorities, all of which go far above and beyond the requirements of kashrut.

People may think that only food bearing the stamp of a kosher certification agency is kosher. This is not true and belies the false equivalence between what is kosher and what kosher-certifying agencies say is kosher.

The problem isn’t with the OU, or with the London Beth Din, or with any other agency to which people turn for advice on what to buy. The problem is we have forgotten how to follow halachah and instead rely on bureaucratic organisations to tell us what we could easily tell ourselves.

My Masorti community in St Albans has recently altered its own policy around what food is considered kosher (and thus fit to be used in the kitchen). We acknowledge that for the average consumer, a simple shorthand is to look for foods which the London Beth Din and the Sephardi Kashrut Authority label as certified kosher.

But we’ve also added something new, something I’ve playfully called “vegshers”. At least here in Europe, there are several organisations which certify that food is vegetarian or vegan. Some do this to an extent similar to what a kosher-certifying agency would do – a thorough investigation of ingredients, sources, manufacturing, packaging.

As far as I am concerned, the stamp of the Vegetarian Society (a vegsher for lack of a better term) is as good as the stamp of a kashrut agency. With a few exceptions to honour those other, non-animal related ideas of kashrut (grape juice, cheese and milk and bread for some), a vegsher tells us as much as a hechsher.

This may seem unconventional, but I think it’s a step towards making keeping kosher possible. I have had countless encounters with Jews who will say something like “I don’t keep kosher, but I am a strict vegan.” This of course makes no sense, because a strict vegan does keep kosher.

A completely plant-based diet is a kosher diet, just as a vegsher is as good as a hechsher. Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s head of kashrut who explained why they refused to certify Impossible Pork said more or less the same: “It [Impossible Pork] may indeed be completely [kosher] in terms of its ingredients: If it’s completely plant-derived, it’s kosher.” So the reason, as the OU openly stated, that it wasn’t certified as such, is purely because it offended customers’ sensibilities.

This is probably not terribly different to when people have told me that no matter how many kosher stamps the BBQ bacon prawn crisps have, they still don’t “feel” kosher. Indeed, I can see why an Impossible Pork meal may be unsettling to a life-long shomer/et kashrut Jew. But, what is kosher is not determined by feeling, nor by customer opinion, nor by bureaucratic wrangling, nor by rabbinic supervision.

What is possible and impossible to eat for an observant Jew is determined by the halachah, and if we want to make it more possible for more people to observe the laws of kashrut, we should be willing to look simply and clearly at the ingredients and manufacture of all foods and make educated choices for ourselves.

The mission of making kashrut easier without compromising the halachah is possible, if only we choose to accept it.

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