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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776

You Are What You Eat

July 15, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

My wife and I have kept a kosher home since I was a student at HUC. The decision to so was based on a desire to open our home to all Jews, out of a sense of kashrut as a central element in Jewish identity, out of a feeling that the dietary laws constitute a form of sanctification of the bodily function of eating. We are not fanatic, but our kashrut is pretty solid mainstream, with separate dishes etc. And I have always been aware of the problematics of kashrut: which authority do you accept; how to you respond to those who will only accept a glass of water in what you thought was your kosher home, etc. But only now that I operate a restaurant in Israel (the dining room of our seminar center), do I begin to see kashrut as a daily dilemma, and not a romantic, “we are one” symbol. A few examples:

1. Originally, we were within the jurisdiction of the Acco rabbinate; we paid a yearly supervision fee and then had to hire a mashgiach (supervisor), as an employee. Sort of like the building inspector being an employee of the landlord. Every encounter with the kashrut supervision bureaucracy in Acco felt like a scene in Casablanca; I was always disappointed when Sidney Greenstreet didn’t show up. But then, with the establishment of a local county rabbinate with a progressive, energetic rabbi, the sleaziness disappeared and the whole operation was set on a professional footing, with supervision provided directly by the bureaucracy, with no entanglements. This does not eliminate the problem of turnover or substitution in mashgichim, each of whom has his own particular shtick - painting milk and meat utensils different colors, talking politics, surprise inspections of frozen food labels, etc. But on the whole, the system is honest and fair most of the time. After all, it is easy to make mistakes in a busy, small, institutional kitchen with many temporary and teenage workers; if we care about being honest about what we serve, a mashgiach is necessary.

2. I had always thought of kashrut as being concerned primarily with keeping out non-kosher meat products and avoiding mixing of milk and meat. But there is so much more! For example, leafy vegetables must be cleaned carefully to avoid tiny worms. This is normally part of the job of the mashgiach. But farmers in the Gaza settlements have developed an industry of growing worm-free vegetables hydroponically. These are generally, of course, more expensive and often of lower quality. But the chief rabbinate has issued a directive that during the summer, a kashrut certificate will only be issued to establishments using these vegetables exclusively. More time for the mashgiach to talk politics; and a guaranteed income for the settlers in Gaza...

3. And then of course, there is the question of the authority of the chief rabbinate: in the US, running a kosher institution was always a challenge as there was no uniform authority. Whenever I called a local rabbi to ask if we could use the cakes of a particular bakery in our communal day school, the answer would be “well, some people accept it, but some don’t...” A chief rabbinate was supposed to solve that. But sure enough, not infrequently, we get calls asking who supervises our kashrut, and when we answer “the chief rabbinate,” the callers ask if it would be possible to order them food with ultra-orthodox certification. And one group, for whom we did that, ended up eating tuna fish from a can, because we had ordered meat with the “wrong” ultra-orthodox certification for them.

4. But wait, there’s more (and I’m skipping the problem of untithed vegetables, or the need for the certification that tree fruit is not orlah [Leviticus 19:23-25], the produce of a tree during the first three years after planting - requiring supervision of the orchard and the whole picking and marketing chain to avoid cheating): this is a sabbatical year, when it is forbidden to work the land. However, the prohibition applies only to land within the biblical borders of Israel, owned by Jews. Since in modern times this observance would be disastrous economically, the chief rabbinate came up with a legal fiction, selling the whole land for a year to a non-Jew, so that the Jewish farmers are not working land owned by Jews. Thus, all produce may be eaten. But, of course, there are sectors of the public who don’t accept that solution, eating only imported or preserved produce, or that grown by non-Jews.

I can understand kashrut as a system for separating Jews from the non-Jewish environment (we can’t eat with them). I have trouble with it as a system that separates Jews from Jews.


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