Near the beginning of my conversion journey in 2010, I decided to try out some elements of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. Included in and derived from the Hebrew Bible, the laws govern the types of foods Jews may and may not eat. I explored avoiding treyf (non-permitted foods) like pork and shellfish, as well as avoiding the mixing of milk and meat. The milk and meat thing fell by the wayside pretty quickly (the home cook in me rebelled almost instantly), but not eating treyf stuck around for well over a year.
The dietary laws are commandments, but they also had the effect of keeping Jews from eating at the tables of ancient Greek and Roman conquerors, as well as at the tables of hostile peoples throughout two millennia. But I connected with them primarily from a cultural standpoint. As a Reform Jew, I don’t slavishly follow commandments for their own sake, but the act of being mindful about the foods I ate gave me a deep sense of connection to Jewish history and identity.
As time wore on and I completed my conversion, I had the opportunity to explore and discover many elements of Jewish ritual and tradition that spoke to me, and that I adopted into my daily Jewish observance (laying tefillin, praying daily, saying food blessings whenever I eat, wearing a full-time yarmulke, among others.) But I kept coming back to question kashrut.
It isn’t as if I kept a kosher kitchen with separate sets of dishes for milk and meat, or even ever bought (expensive) kosher meat. But I was seeing the exclusionary point of the dietary laws in action in my interpersonal life. After a year of many thoughtful friends and coworkers worrying whether I could eat the foods they made at dinners, parties, and potlucks, I increasingly questioned whether my feeling of Jewish connection through treyf-avoidance was worth the stress induced on my non-Jewish, non-ancient Greek and Roman friends.
As 2012 approached, I started to question what cultural elements of Judaism the dietary laws made me feel connected to. When you get right down to it, the point of the dietary laws are to keep Jews in and non-Jews out–out of your inner circle, out of your love life, out of reach of influencing your Jewish practice. I can see the worth of that when the society in which you’re living is hostile to your continued existence. But why should I be using food to separate myself from non-Jews in 21st-century America?
The answer for most Reform Jews is not to use food that way. Many of us simply decline to follow kashrut. I would bet the answer is similar for some Conservative Jews. However, the Orthodox Jewish answer might be to follow kashrut exactly for those very reasons of cultural exclusivity. As a Reform Jew, I don’t carry around the same fear of cultural and religious pollution as might an Orthodox Jew. I respect their belief of being duty bound to the commandments. But to my mind, you can’t live in a hermetically sealed bubble of Judaism, nor should you. (After all, how could tikkun olam–God’s commandment to Jews to help fix the world–ever get accomplished that way?)
I came to see that avoiding treyf made me feel connected to Judaism in two ways: I felt Jewish pride in honoring laws that helped Judaism survive in ancient and medieval times; yet I also felt uncomfortable that modern Jews to whom I felt connected through kashrut themselves were observing the dietary laws for the exclusionary reasons that I reject. And in fact, many of those same Jews would likely exclude me–a fellow Jew–from their tables, for not being “Jewish enough” (i.e. for not being Orthodox.)
The haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, might not see me as Jewish at all. The most extreme among them might see me and all non-haredim as being substandard in spiritual ways to their specific brand of Jew. Too often, more traditional Jews tend to denigrate less traditional Jews. If you don’t pray and observe the mitzvot exactly as they do–well you should, so get lost for now and come back when you do. it’s bad enough when the modern Orthodox in this country do it. But it’s brutal when the haredim do it in Israel.
During the final months of 2011, international media finally began to cover a long-standing and growing wave of ultra-Orthodox extremism in Israel, centered in and around Jerusalem. Women being forced to the back of buses that serve haredi neighborhoods? Little girls walking to school with “improperly” short sleeves being spat upon by adult men? Women ordered to walk on the opposite side of the street from men? Vandalism and harassment campaigns designed to scare non-haredi residents and business owners into compliance? Attacks on police and soldiers? Images of women banned from public advertising? Calls for Israeli democracy to be dismantled and replaced with Torah law?
Just Google it. It’s happening right now and it’s the greatest threat to Israeli democracy bar none. Hostile states won’t have to destroy Israel. If the government and overwhelming majority of non-haredi Israelis who have finally woken up to the issue (thanks to national TV coverage of the spat-upon little girls) don’t get their act together, haredi mischief will get there first.
It’s mischief in the name of blind adherence to faulty interpretation of ancient law aimed at excluding any other perspectives. It’s also the logical extreme of practices like kashrut. When the enemies that exclusionary commandments were originally aimed at no longer exist, it’s all too easy to turn those exclusionary laws back on fellow Jews. If your entire life is dictated by the commandments, then the commandments regarding exclusivity have to find an outlet somewhere.
No thanks. This far into my Jewish life, compared to kashrut, there are many other, far less exclusionary things that connect me to Jewish culture and history throughout my day. Kashrut need no longer be one of them. I really don’t like the example set by religious exclusion.
So I’m back on the pig.
Categories: JEWISH FOOD JEWISH OBSERVANCE
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.
My Bio | My Conversion | My Family Reunion
We do not eat pork or shellfish or mix milk and dairy. We do not have 2 sets of dishes or pans. But I just feel that a lot of people died because they would not change and give up these laws so I will honor that by this small price. However, I don’t care what others do but G-d said not to eat them and just because a society now does it doesn’t mean it is ok. We don’t eat cats and dogs but if a restaurant opened up cooking them a few generations down the line people would forget that anyone ever didn’t want to eat them. I feel they were never meant to eaten just like bugs, monkeys, horses, or butterflies so it isn’t hard for me to say ok then there is enough things open for me to eat. We go by a rule of if we have to ask to know the ingredients at a party or restaurant then we are better off not knowing and eat it but if we can see it is ham we just skip it.
Another thing I think…..I was vegetarian for years, and still lean towards it…but I do like a ham and mushroom pizza….sorry, I digress: what I wanted to say was that if I was having chicken I would much prefer a free range over a kosher….ideally, I’d like to go back to being veggie, for my own reasons, but am a depressive who some days doesn’t feel like eating anything, and if it is something that I know I’ll find I will eat, quick, that I like(eg ham and mushroom pizza)etc, then I reckon Im better having something that appeals than not eating at all. Don’t know if I explained that very well…..
Interesting. Not Jewish myself, but have two DEAR friends (as in would give them an organ if they needed it) who are from birth. Neither keeps kosher at all, for the same reasons you describe; the enemies are gone and they see no need to distance themselves from their neighbors.
I read your post, mostly agree with it, we as Liberal/Reform/Progressive Jews need to make informed decisions. And I believe you and you partner did.
My personal view point is, that I cannot eat pork, not willingly, since my conversion, circa 2009. My personal reason, treif is treif, like ostrich is treif, but pork is anti-semitic. Yes it does complicate things, my partner is Italian, pork is a staple, yet her whole family acknowledge and accomodate me.
No pork or shellfish in our semi-kosher kitchen (yeah, I know it is like being partially pregnant, but slowly growing towards a fully kosher kitchen at home), no mixing meat and milk at home. But otherwise, outside the house, my lovely dear partner eats a lot of beacon. Kol kavod to her! I do not feel that I am compromising my familial and friendship connections by not eating pork, I am just a little more aware of the choices that I have to make went I decide to eat outside our home.
We make our own decisions and choices, some just falls outside what is generally considered to be Jewish. In a cultural, normative sort of way.
On the contrary, I don’t think “partially pregnant” applies to mitzvot. The ones you do you get credit for. The ones you don’t just mean you aren’t there–maybe not yet, maybe not ever. But I think God would rather know you care in your own way than not at all. Observance isn’t all or nothing. It can’t be, since we weren’t made to be perfect beings.
However, I will say calling pork antisemitic reminded me of an old comedy of Brett Butler’s where she called poultry hateful. Then again, last year you should have seen the half hour I spend agonizing over a quickly cooling plate of fried calamari after accidentally ordering it (and yearning for it) in an Italian restaurant with Ryan…
I choose to keep kosher and I cannot eat gluten. Therefore, I am very limited to what I will eat in public. Even at my shul, I generally won’t touch much. It doesn’t seem to bother anyone and hasn’t kept me from socializing. People just know that I eat at home and that’s fine. There are a couple people who go out of there way to make me gluten free, kosher food too which I appreciate. My mother in law is really great about it. She’ll even make everyone else eat kosher chicken 🙂
With your article you prove that being Jewish means making choices. It was interesting to read. However, one question came up: do you think it is appropriate to eat pork while wearing a kippah? The yarmulke is a very visible form for Jews to exclude themselves from non-Jews. Our rabbi considers it as bringing shame to the Jewish people if you violate a mitswa while wearing a kippah. I can onlyI agree with him.
Have a good day!
Greets from Belgium
Good question. So good, I’ll respond in a blog post.
Here’s my blog post response. If you get a chance to read it, let me know your thoughts.
First, mazel tov on the pig. I don’t mean that sarcastically. I truly mean it. I grew up in a pseudo-Conservative Jewish family. We were twice-a-year Jews…maybe three times if it was a good year. My father’s family was Polish and, in terms of diet, we adopted a number of the Polish foods, most notably kielbasi and a love of ham. I don’t think doing this made us less Jewish but, that’s a longer discussion.
Second, you raise an interesting point about kashrut and exclusion. However, I’m not sure if you saw the following piece in the NY Times. It’s relevant, not just about the eight year old girl but also about what is happening in much of the Middle East in terms of men/women. Here’s the punchline: the problem is with the men who are hyper-sexualizing women. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/20/opinion/ultra-orthodox-jews-and-the-modesty-fight.html
P.S. Love your little description: “I was born an observant Reform Jewish Chicagoan to unobservant Roman Catholic New Yorkers.” And in case I hadn’t said it before…welcome to the tribe.
I was a vegetarian for 6 years before I converted, so kashrut was never an issue, but what has been is the amount of people who have told me that I am purposely dodging “proper” kashrut by being a vegetarian. I’m not about to switch back to eating meat, even if it is kosher, because it’s just not what I want to do.
Being vegetarian also goes back to my own ethical beliefs and as you say, it’s a way of saying that we Jews think about what we’re eating.
Our rabbi and his wife are vegetarian for the same reasons. Ryan and I have discussed it. He shares similar sentiments regarding kashrut, and actually our decision to let it go developed out of a discussion about whether to go deeper into it and keep a kosher kitchen–and why or why not to do so.
I will say, I haven’t missed pork or shellfish products all that much–and I never dropped eating occasionally the smoked chorizo that I grew up with in my mom’s Spanish rice. Making that dish is a link to her for me, and it alwayw will be, regardless of kashrut. But the few times I (mostly unwittingly) ate bacon or shrimp in the past year, I didn’t like it like I used to. We’ll see if that changes.
I faced what I think was a similar set of questions. What to do as a liberal Jew who wants to honor kashrut but not spend the rest of his life eating out at one of two kosher restaurants in our town, both a long shlep away from home?
What worked for me, and for my husband, was to go vegetarian, which we’d been for a number of years back in the nineties. For me, it’s just a natural extension of the less exclusionary, less isolationist vision behind kashrut: we’re the people who don’t eat just anything.