Re'eh--Kashrut in the 21st century

I saw this BBQ at HomeGoods one day.  It looks a little treyf for my taste.
Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
August 31, 2019
Re’eh Shabbat morning

Parshat Re’eh includes the famous line not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. Rabbinic interpretation teaches that it is included three times in the Torah to teach us that we should not cook, benefit or eat such a combination.  There is a classic Jewish joke about this week's parsha. 

Moses, the joke goes, while copying down these words from God's mouth on Mount Sinai, looks up and says: “Lord, you obviously wouldn't be bothering us with a law that's just about baby goats. You must mean that we shouldn't eat any kosher animal at all that's boiled in its mother's milk.”

“Well,” God says, “all I told you was: ‘Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother's milk.’ ”

“But how often do we eat animals boiled in their mother's milk?” Moses continues to muse aloud. “There must be more to it than that. . . . I've got it! We're not supposed to eat meat with milk in general.”

“Moses,” God says, “just write down what I said: ‘Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother's milk.’ ”

“But what's the difference between milk and milk products, like butter or cheese?” Moses goes on reasoning. “And if we're not supposed to eat meat with butter, surely we shouldn't be cutting it with a knife that's been used for butter, either.”

“Look, Moses,” God says, “we have only 40 days on this mountain. Do whatever you want and let's move on to the next law.”

[Aside: Some variations of the joke include debates about dishwashers.  On a practical level, most Orthodox Jews today either use multiple dishwashers or minimally separate runs for milk and meat. Interestingly, perpsectives on the use of a dishwasher differ between economic and social contexts.  Orthodox Sephardim who follow Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (not known as a particularly liberal posek or Jewish halachic decider)  may actually use a dishwasher for meat and milk simultaneously!  Since the detergent would prevent us from eating any food that came out the other side of the dishwasher, the particles that remain are not considered food and thus cannot treyf the dishes of opposite kosher polarity.]

The joke is funny because it sounds true. While this parsha also includes a list of kosher and non-kosher animals, so much of kashrut is ensuring that we separate milk and dairy. The details can appear complicated, noting a difference between eating meat before milk vs milk before meat. The prohibitions eventually included poultry--although I have yet to meet a lactating chicken. Fish and eggs are both pareve--yet could seem like they could fit in either category. Ignoring the recent craze of vegan burgers and chicken or non-dairy cheese--the Talmud does actually teach about fleischig milk--that which is in the udder at the time of slaughter! Since it is part of the cow at slaughter, it remains fleischig--but I am not sure I would WANT to eat it.

Rabbi David Kraemer, the JOSEPH J. AND DORA ABBELL LIBRARIAN AND PROFESSOR OF TALMUD AND RABBINICS, has written extensively on kashrut, including a 2007 book on Jewish eating and identity. One of his most powerful teachings is that kashrut has sometimes kept Jews apart from other Jews more than it did from non-Jews. He spoke to the New Jersey Jewish News on the subject--although I've had very similar conversations in class with him!  In that article he notes a debate from:

16th-century Poland, over how long one must wait between meat and milk meals. While the popular practice seems to have been one hour, Rabbi Solomon Luria insisted on six hours. Those who refused to wait that long, declared Luria, lack even a “whiff of Torah.”

[They] were separating themselves not just from gentiles, but from their fellow Jews.

“Jews living in every age had to live with their neighbors. They were always negotiating over eating,” Kraemer said in a recent phone interview from his home in Manhattan. “What surprised me most was when I realized that Jewish eating practices also separated groups of Jews from other groups of Jews.”

Kraemer described contemporary kashrut practices among observant Jews as “the strictest restrictions ever.” Some Orthodox authorities are “prohibiting all kinds of vegetables no one ever had any hesitation to eat,” he said, including vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, due to the possible presence of microscopic bugs.

“This can’t just be about separating from gentiles,” he said, especially in relatively affluent, heavily Orthodox neighborhoods, where contact with gentiles is scant.

In fact, he argues, like Tobit and Luria, observant Jews are separating themselves from other Jews whom they deem not pious enough. Kraemer, firmly in the camp that eats broccoli and cauliflower, is critical of the increased stringency. “Our dream of Jewish unity is that — a dream,” he lamented. “On some things we can all cooperate; on some things, we’ll stay separate.”

To me, it is essential for us to realize that keeping kosher, observing Jewish tradition is countercultural. It is marking ourselves as different from those around us--and connecting us to our group and to God. As we follow the traditions of our ancestors, we must also recognize the stringencies that have come into our practices. 

[Ad-libbed addition: My personal practice with kashrut is never to compromise my commitment to kashrut.  Yet, I believe that my practices should not separate me from my community.  I have a firm commitment to hospitality.  I will have a cup of coffee in anyone's house, a glass of coke, a kosher cookie or even a tuna salad (with some conversation).  With more conversation, I will eat more.  Kashrut is a spiritual practice that requires a significant level of trust.  I know that you will not think to offer me bacon--unless it is kosher "facon" in your kosher home!]

A number of years ago, the USCJ magazine had an article from Rabbi Paul Plotkin on “kosher enough”. While I couldn’t find a reprint of the article, Rabbi Plotkin argued that we have created a world with more and more stringencies. That article inspired Ben’s Deli to give him a call. They had been using an “Orthodox” supervision. When Rabbi Plotkin got involved, they actually had to re-kasher certain things and increase their standards. My colleagues in Boca, NYC and Long Island now make regular visits to confirm that Ben’s is doing what they need to be doing to ensure that all can eat there.

Just as Prof. Kraemer wrote, kashrut sometimes keeps us separate from one another. That is one reason I have the kashrut policy that I do. I have said again and again, I will have a cup of coffee in your house. I will have a cookie or a salad. If you don’t keep kosher, it is unlikely that I will eat meat there, but if we have a conversation, first, we can trust one another that you know and I know I will not eat anything treyf!

This reminds me of another classic story. A student is studying with rebbe. After studying Tractate Hullin, he thinks he knows almost everything, but asks his Rebbe a question. The Rebbe thinks for a moment and says he needs to ask his wife. The student is shocked. Shouldn’t the Rebbe know the answer? The Rebbe explains that a few weeks earlier, his wife had been out of town and he accidentally used a pareve bowl for fleischigs! He admitted that she was the real expert in kashrut.

If step away from the sexism of the joke that says a man can’t know his way around a kitchen, there is an important lesson here. It tells us that kashrut is not only in the books, it is also in the kitchen! It is the real, practical scenarios that have changed in times of disposable and cheap dishes from times when people have very few kitchen or eating utensils.

Ultimately, as we observe kashrut, we are forced to regularly consider what goes into our mouths. We are forced to regularly consider every step of our food processes. From shopping to prep to cooking to clean up--we may be thinking not only of feeding our bellies--but also feeding our souls. Being aware of these additional aspects truly changes how we eat. It raises eating from a merely physical activity to a spiritual one.

Last night I spoke about the power of choices. Let us make holy choices together! Shabbat shalom.