As a dinner guest, I can admit it: I’m every host’s worst nightmare. I’m a kosher vegan. My food choices are guided by my conscience and my religion. Inspired by the Torah and its more than 3,000-year-old doctrine, I’ve never enjoyed a cheeseburger or bacon. Ever.
In the age of the Impossible Whopper and the boom of lab-grown meat alternatives, here’s a contrarian notion: consider going kosher. Why? There’s more 21st-century wisdom than you might expect in dietary rules penned thousands of years before the invention of refrigeration.
By way of background, I’m admittedly biased. I own a vegan, certified-kosher fresh soup company. What is kosher? It’s a set of rules dictating how observant Jews eat and handle food. The more complicated answer is that Jewish dietary laws, called Kashrut, are revolutionary. They command that we connect deeply with our food before consuming it. And, in a modern age, it becomes difficult to adhere to the deeply radical ideas associated with keeping kosher.
The kosher rituals can drive a person mad. There are websites and Facebook groups dedicated to answering what designates a kosher food, and whether certain kosher certifications (there are hundreds) on various brand-name food products are acceptable. Certain rabbis accept some and not others. While I certainly respect a desire by some to strictly adhere to the principles of keeping kosher, shouldn’t these good folks be asking what a kosher stamp stands for? How can the act of keeping kosher retain its meaning if it becomes rote and ceases to be an act of the soul?
Retaining this meaning should come naturally. In Judaism, a respect for food is baked into our religion. When we make a prayer over vegetables — “Boreh pri ha-adama” — we are grateful for “fruit that comes from the ground.” With wine, we say “hagafen,” or “from the vine.” Jews are instructed to connect deeply with their food. But in an industrialized food world, this can be a struggle.
Take meat, as another example. Observant Jews can only eat certain animals that have cloven hooves and chew their cud, and only if slaughtered a certain way, without pain. Only certain cuts are acceptable. If we choose to eat meat, we cannot mix it with dairy. We have to wait; some wait an hour, some three, some 12, after eating dairy. Oy. The rules go on and on.
I would argue that the kosher laws are set up to make it very difficult for us to eat meat. In fact, before the flood, in the garden of Eden, we were commanded to be vegan. Only after the flood, when it became evident that humans have self-control issues, were we, very restrictively, allowed to consume meat. Can you imagine, wandering around in the desert for 40 years and then being told: Yes, you can have meat, but here are a few dozen rules. But have you seen the all-you-can-eat manna buffet?
Core to our kosher restrictions regarding meat is respect for the animal. It’s an acknowledgement that one is taking the life of a living soul. It must be slaughtered a certain way as to avoid any pain. Without going deep into the practices in our modern factory farms, I can tell you that animals today are not enjoying hoof massages and facials. They’re called factory farms for a reason, and there are plenty of factory farms that are under strict kosher certification. They follow the letter of the law. But the spirit? I bet not.
With more food options at our fingertips than ever before, we have outsourced the act of keeping kosher. We allow a stamp on a Whole Foods or Safeway box to do the thinking for us. We can mumble a prayer and eat a kosher chicken nugget without giving it a second thought.
Amidst unprecedented levels of instant gratification, what to do? First, get to know your food again. While your individual food choices aren’t going to make a huge difference, small conversations might impact change. Perhaps at your next dinner party you’ll start chatting about the sources of food. Maybe you’ll visit your local farmers’ market. Maybe you’ll consider eating a little less meat.
Thanks to little conversations like that, we now have a vegan burger on the menu at Burger King. We have an eat-local food movement. We are paying attention to food waste. We are paying attention to the impact that our food choices have on us, the animals, our water, our air. Anyone can have this conversation, and you certainly don’t need to be Jewish or follow kosher rules to help improve our food sources.
Going back to our roots, how can we redefine “kosher” in 2020? Like most things in Judaism, it’s complicated. But its spirit is revolutionary. And the rules set thousands of years ago have the potential to guide us back to a true connection with our food today.
Sara Polon is the Co-Founder and CEO of Soupergirl, a Washington, D.C.,-based soup company with a mission to change the world, one bowl of soup at a time. This op-ed has been excerpted from a sermon Sara delivered recently at the Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Md.