Dancing with Desire

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, October 15, 2021 / 9 Cheshvan 5782

Summary: Should plant-based pork be considered kosher? Even if it is technically permitted, does it pose a risk to Jewish tradition? Can this topic teach us something about navigating human desire?

Reading Time: Six minutes

There’s a classic joke about a rabbi on vacation in France. Far away from congregants, the rabbi orders a roast suckling pig with all the garnishes—potatoes, vegetables, the apple in the mouth, all on a bed of kale—the full works. Just as the loaded-down platter arrives, the president of the synagogue appears as though from nowhere and is completely shocked. “Rabbi, what are you doing!?” Thinking quickly, the rabbi exclaims, “Oy, what a crazy country, I ordered a baked apple, and this is how they serve it!”

As old as this joke is, it still brings a chuckle. From Oedipus to the Garden of Eden, forbidden pleasures have exerted an outsized influence on our imagination and desires. “It” must be particularly sweet precisely because “it” is off-limits.

Kashrut has often required observant and non-observant Jews alike to navigate these sorts of boundaries and desires. There are countless Jews who don’t keep kosher yet refrain from eating “high treif” items like pork and shellfish. As much as the “transgressive” calls to us, most of us also draw lines in the sand. People need clearly delineated boundaries, or they tend to suffer.

When Rich’s Non-Dairy Creamer first came to market, many Orthodox families would place the cardboard carton on their Shabbat tables. The incongruity of bone china, white tablecloths, and a garish gable-topped pint of Rich’s was a startling image of how one part of the Jewish community navigated something that was legally permitted (non-dairy creamer at the end of a meat meal), but that didn’t quite sit right. Everyone knew that the Katz family wouldn’t serve cream after brisket, but they needed a visual to make the permissible acceptable.

These thoughts have been occupying me, because last week, Lisa Marie, who is the first voice most people hear when calling the synagogue, shared an interesting social media conversation about a new Impossible Foods product, plant-based pork. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are the two leading plant-based protein companies that got closer than previous attempts to make vegetarian meat that provides much of the mouth feel, texture, and pleasure of animal proteins. Both have numerous products on the market that have kosher supervision and approval from the OU. The OU, or Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, is the world’s largest kosher supervising agency. At least one meal a week at our house features one of these items. Last week, the boys enjoyed a kosher sausage lasagna. There are many kosher restaurants (not in Portland) where one can enjoy a kosher cheeseburger, either because the meat is plant-based, or the cheese is.

Yet when the OU recently met, they voted against providing a heksher, or kosher certificate, to Impossible Pork. Like those Jews who refrain from eating high treif, the OU couldn’t wrap their heads around approving something called “pork,” even though they certify many forms of kosher “bacon.” Why is this? Is one of the most well-known Jewish prohibitions, eating pork, jeopardized by this? In an age where few Jews keep kosher, would this further erode our culture? Or does this make a mockery of Jewish law and turn off more Jews from observance? A part of me just wants to say yes to this last concern and be done with it because the OU missed the mark on this one.

Simultaneously, there is an interesting concept in the laws of Shabbat called “patur aval assur.” Basically, some activities may be permissible according to the Torah, but are forbidden by rabbinic decree. While this is a technical phrase about whether one needed to bring a sacrifice to the Temple to expiate for transgressions, it highlights that some actions just don’t feel right, even if there is no outright ban. Additionally, perhaps there is something to the notion of “gateway drugs.” Perhaps certain actions, foods, or substances are fine on their own, but their cost endangers too many other values that matter to us. For reasons such as these, Jewish law sometimes resorts to “building fences around the Torah.” We refrain from what is permitted so that we don’t end up doing what is forbidden.

This carries us to a consideration of the spirit of the law. In Hebrew, the term is lifnim m’shurat hadin, or going above and beyond the letter of the law. Are there any people alive who, on the one hand, haven’t stumbled with their desires and who, on the other hand, don’t do more than is required in other areas of their lives? During the pandemic, this has been made clear repeatedly. We have all seen solo drivers who keep their masks on while driving alone. Sometimes this is done out of inertia (they can’t be bothered to take the darned thing off) and other times from an abundance of concerns. Regardless of the person’s reasons, the action itself goes far beyond any mask mandate or scientific understanding. But it feels right somehow. These drivers have built a “fence around the pandemic.”

We make rules for ourselves that go above and beyond any cogent reason, just as we rationalize actions we shouldn’t engage in because we desire to do something. In the famous midrash about this week’s parshah, Abraham’s father sells idols even though he doesn’t believe they are gods. He just likes the money it earns him. That desire is stronger than his own values or commitments.

People are never wholly consistent, just as the Orthodox Union has been inconsistent in rejecting Impossible Pork while permitting the tempeh “bacon” that I enjoy a couple of times a month. Their rationale was that it would upset or confuse consumers, from whom they have received many complaints about kosher foods that use the name bacon.

That brings us to one final reflection on Jewish law—marit ayin—or how certain permissible actions might confuse or lead others astray. Such actions are thus forbidden. To come full circle, it is why the OU rejected Impossible Pork, and why Rich’s Non-Dairy Creamer first needed to appear in its cardboard container. Now that we are all used to soy, rice, and almond milks, that concern disappeared. At some point, the OU’s ban on Impossible Pork may also disappear. In the meantime, this Conservative Movement rabbi is left in a quandary, as I straddle my desire to try Impossible Pork with a long-standing commitment to only cook hekshered items in our home.

I guess this is a reminder to give people the benefit of the doubt. We don’t always know people’s reasons and we sometimes misinterpret what they have actually done. Besides, every one of us is engaged in a complicated dance in which our dance partners are desire, impulsivity, and those boundaries we establish to defend our values.

May we dance well,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. When have you created rules for yourself that are more stringent than necessary? How did you eventually come to realize this? Was it easy or difficult to relinquish such a rule?
  2. Do you demand that religions be more consistent than individual people or organizations are? If so, why do you think that is? To make this less abstract, when you first heard that the OU wasn’t going to certify Impossible Pork, did you feel angry or dismissive at their decision?
  3. How has social pressure (marit ayin) dictated some of your choices? When have you behaved differently because you thought no one was watching?

Disclaimer: In our retirement portfolio, we have a small financial stake in Impossible Food’s competitor, Beyond Meat.

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