One of my favorite restaurants in LA is just down the street: Hugo’s. I like it, Sarah likes it, and when we have guests from out of town, we always like to take them there. Hugo’s has something for everyone. Vegetarian? Lots of choices. Vegan? Done. Gluten free? They have you covered. And yet, they are not a vegetarian/vegan restaurant. You like meat? They have humanely raised and ethically treated meat. It’s one of the few restaurants where I have never had a bad meal.
And my favorite thing to get there? A bacon cheese burger: a tender, juicy patty topped with melted, gooey cheddar cheesy, crispity, crunchity bacon, and pickles, on a soft rustic bun, served with a side of freshly made chips. It’s delicious. And, to be honest, part of the joy of eating this burger is that it feels like I’m doing something a little wrong.
But, really, I’m not choosing anything outside of my Kosher observance. The bacon is turkey bacon, and the burger a turkey patty. Probably not the bacon cheese burger you thought I would describe.
But let’s unpack why the notion of a bacon cheese burger is so shocking. Of course! It’s not Kosher!
Let’s just set aside that the burger, humanely and ethically raised as it may be, was not Kosher meat, and let’s set aside that it was not cooked in a Kosher kitchen. There are two things that make that sandwich not Kosher:
For one, the bacon! Pork products are explicitly prohibited in Deuteronomy (14:8). That’s an easy one. Our people have a long history of not eating pork. Indeed, when archaeologists look for Israelite civilization, they often look for the absence of pork DNA in fossilized stool samples. In a more recent context, a friend of mine likes to say, “Shellfish isn’t Kosher, but pork is anti-Semitic.”
But let’s look at the second part of the sandwich that would, at first, appear to make a bacon cheese burger treif, not Kosher: it mixes meat and dairy. The source for this prohibition comes from three places in the Torah, once in Deuteronomy, and twice in Exodus. In all three places, we read, “lo t’vashel g’di bachaleiv imo – do not boil a kid (a baby goat) in its mother’s milk.”
“Lo t’vashel g’di bachaleiv imo – do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
In the Torah portion, Ki Tisa, we read this phrase following the establishment of Passover, Sukkot, Shavuot, and presenting first fruits. Not surprisingly, the Rabbis had a lot to say about this verse, however, for the benefit of getting us out of here at a reasonable hour, I want to focus on the halachah, Jewish law, that comes out of this verse: meat and dairy may not be eaten together.
The Rabbis teach that boiling a kid in its mother’s milk was an idolater’s ritual and, therefore, we do not eat milk and meat together, since we are more civilized. Additionally, we are not to mix dishes, so a dish used for meat can only be used for meat, and a dairy dish can only be used for dairy foods. There is also a waiting period between when you can eat meat and dairy, just in case. They also teach that poultry and cheese are allowed on the same table, but are not to be eaten together.
This may sound like things are getting complex, and they are, but I want to share a story that really illustrates the relationship between Torah and later rabbinic interpretations when it comes to instituting these additional laws:
God is speaking to Moses. God says, “Moses! Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk!” Moses responds, “Oh! I get it! I can’t have a cheeseburger, because it would have meat and dairy in the same meal!”
God says again, “Moses! Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk!” Moses responds, “Oh! Now I get it. I have to have two sets of dishes, one for meat and one for dairy.”
God says once again, “Moses! Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk!” Moses responds, “Oh! Now I get it. I need to wait a certain amount of time between eating meat and dairy.”
God says, “Fine, have it your way.”
What I love about this story is that it really demonstrates that we can make the Torah ours. After the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, it became our job to study it, interpret it, and act on it. So, what do we do with this verse — “Lo t’vashel g’di bachaleiv imo – do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” — in today’s Reform Judaism? Do we follow the simple meaning of the Torah law? Or do we follow the later Rabbinic interpretations? Or do we just, as Burger King tells us, “have it our way?”
Rabbi Mark Washofsky teaches: “For Reform Jews, the decision to choose kashrut as a mode of religious life is not an ‘all or nothing’ option…Reform Jews may decide to observe all of these practices, some of them, or even none of them. They may decide to observe them at all times or only when dining at home.” (Jewish Living, p. 239)
What I love about Reform Judaism is that we are able to make informed choices. We learn our Torah, our history and its contexts. And then we choose. Each of us decides the role kashrut plays in our lives. For some of us, keeping Kosher provides a powerful, spiritual connection to the Jewish people and its history. For others, Kashrut is an outdated and irrelevant system. For me, keeping Kosher is a spiritual practice that gives me an intention when I eat. At the same time, I recognize the gray area within those rules, which is why I do not eat pork or shellfish, but I will mix poultry and cheese without guilt.
As Student Rabbi Michael Shefrin taught last week, “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim — these ideas and these ideas are words of the living God.” In this Jewish place, both the black, white, and gray of Kashrut are okay. All three have merit. All three are holy. And all three are equally powerful and meaningful.
Our task is to think about the decisions we make. We should not accept nor reject something at face value – we think, we analyze, we examine, and then we choose – we make principled, informed choices. Each decision we make will have complexities, but the decisions we make about food are just one example of how we can live out our values, and not just talk about them in theory.
I want to share one more story that illustrates what this might mean for us as Reform Jews: During our year in Israel, two of our classmates went on vacation in Tel Aviv during Passover. They went to a restaurant and ordered an appetizer: a shrimp cocktail. When the waiter came back with their dish, he asked, “I’m sorry, did you want dinner rolls or Matzah?” The shrimp was not a problem, but bread on Passover?! That was a choice made with intention and thought. That was not a choice made because it was just easier. That was an informed choice.
Indeed, when I think about Hugo’s, it strikes me as a brilliant example of how we can live as Reform Jews. At Hugo’s, whatever your dietary practice — be it vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, omnivore, Atkins, South Beach, whatever it is — you can find something on the menu that satisfies your hunger. At Kol Ami, whatever your Jewish practice — be it Jew-ish, a regular pray-er, Kosher, not, whatever it is — you can find something in this community that satisfies and deepens your soul.
This Shabbat, may we be mindful about all of our choices. May we recognize when the choices we make can be intentional and add spiritual depth to our lives. And may we all meet up at Hugo’s for a delicious meal.
The above was delivered on Shabbat Ki Tisa at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA on February 25, 2016.