I have a diet-related issue. I’ve kept kosher all my life, but a temptation has been building within me that is becoming increasingly hard to ignore.
I really want to try bacon. Real bacon, not turkey or soy or whatever other products companies use to imitate bacon. I figure it must be good if they go to such great lengths to make bacon substitutes. Plus, it smells awesome, and every restaurant I walk into has some bacon-enhanced food product (Bacon burgers! Bacon pizza! Bacon fruit salad!) that must be exponentially better than the original because, guess what, it’s got bacon in it. I’ve made mistakes in keeping kosher before; I ate a chile verde burrito from the Dining Hall, and actually enjoyed it until I realized it was pork. I don’t think I’m betraying my Judaism, as these were honest mistakes, albeit delicious ones.
So, here’s my question. If scientists could create a bacon substitute in a lab that tastes exactly like pork-derived bacon, without having to use any part of a pig, could I eat it and still keep kosher? And if recreating bacon without using pork is truly impossible, how bad would it be to indulge in a piece (or two)?
It sounds like you’ve stumbled upon an issue much greater than the bacon question. As a person whose Judaism is defined by the history and traditions of our ancestors, how does one come to terms with the culture and temptations of the modern world? Unlike typical leftist philosophy, conservative Judaism does not view progress as inherently good. The model exemplified by conservatism is that wisdom is correlated with age and tradition, not with evolution. Our ancestors lived in simpler times and created a system to develop a relationship with God that survived for thousands of years in spite of slavery, pogroms, and the Holocaust. Many Jews see the act of keeping with tradition as the only way to maintain their identity. In the Tanakh, God presents physical rules in the form of mitzvot to define one’s Judaism, as opposed to an ideological or metaphysical relationship with a deified ruler. This allows non-religious Judaism to be a cultural practice inherited through one’s genealogy, and not a matter of faith or even of choice. The traditions we honor come from our family and our community, reinforced by generations of fervent believers. Our history becomes part of our identity and as a result the legacy we leave behind serves as an example for Judaism in the future. So, the question remains: in breaking with kosher tradition, are you turning your back on Judaism itself?
One way to answer this question is to deconstruct the nature of this ancient tradition. The cultural significance of kashrut, much like the Jewish customs of circumcision and tefillin, has changed dramatically over the course of history. Starting out as a means of enforcing the humane treatment of animals and the sanitation of food before consumption, kosher laws were once essential for the very survival of the Jewish people. For example, the law to wash one’s hands before eating was developed before the idea of germs. People wouldn’t think twice before working in the dirt all day, using their hands to wipe themselves in the bathroom, and then coming to the dinner table to eat chicken or bread without utensils. This emphasis on hygiene is one reason for the overwhelming survival of (and resultant anti-Semitism towards) Jews during the era of the Bubonic plague. People actually thought the Jews created the plague because they somehow remained immune through their seemingly superstitious rituals of cleanliness and a restricted diet.
The commandments of kashrut are not arbitrary. They are reflexive of the time period during which they were written, then perpetuated through study of the Hebrew Bible. The law against the consumption of pork is much like the biblically mandated washing of one’s hands. As a “filthy” creature that eats and sleeps in its own excrement, the risk of contaminating the meat from a pig while preparing or keeping it was extremely high before the introduction of modern standards for hygiene. Hence, no bacon for the ancient Israelites, and none for you either.
If one were to look to the Bible for an answer to the lab-produced “fakin’ bacon” question, one might find that Judaism would frown upon substituting real pork with pork-esque products. A motif within the Bible is abstention not only from what God condemns as unkosher, but anything even associated with the subject of God’s condemnation. For example, God explicitly commands Man to never eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, a demand that Eve interprets to mean she can’t eat or even touch the fruit (Genesis 3:3). Another example is kashrut’s ban on eating milk and meat together, which stems from God’s commandment to never, “boil a kid [baby goat] in his mother’s milk”
(Exodus 34:26). While the literal text seems to be a statement about the morality of cooking an animal in the milk of its own mother, thousands of years of tradition dictate that Jews should abstain from mixing meat and milk altogether. These human-enforced restrictions that expand on God’s laws serve as a statement about the perfection of God’s word and man’s infinite capacity to misinterpret and push the limits.
I can’t tell you whether or not eating bacon is a betrayal of Jewish history. That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself. I can tell you that the meaning of many Jewish customs and laws come not explicitly from the Bible, but from the weight we attribute to them as a people. Judaism is a perfect example of how identity and culture are personal ideas, not defined by rules but by subjective interpretation and the consensus of one’s community. The way we conceptualize ourselves as Jews has constantly changed throughout history. It’s up to you to decide which laws remain a testament to your people, and which are just a product of a civilization that thrived over 2000 years ago. Understand the weight of your decision: the only person who can determine whether or not a BLT is blasphemous is you, but in doing so you also set a precedent for the future of Judaism in your own community. What do you want it to look like? Man, all this talk about bacon is making me hungry. Time to hit up Joe’s.
Published on page 56 of the Winter 2012 issue of Leviathan.