Kosher sort-of shrimp and cheeseburgers: Do plant-based foods violate spirit of biblical law?

Back in my Rocky Mountain days, in the 1980s, I heard an Orthodox rabbi give a fascinating talk with a title that went something like this: “The quest for the kosher cheeseburger.”

His thesis: If the result of this quest is a cheeseburger — mixing meat with a milk product — then it’s not kosher. If you end up with something that is kosher, then it isn’t a real cheeseburger. So what’s the point?

The Orthodox rabbi was using the “kosher cheeseburger” as a symbol of the efforts that many Jews make to blur the line between assimilating into what can, at times, be a hostile culture and following the traditions of their ancient faith. Can modern Jewish believers create a golden cheeseburger and eat it, too?

This is an essentially spiritual question, but it’s a question that takes on a whole new meaning with the explosion of attention now being given to plant-based meat substitutes (note the blitz of ads for Burger King’s new Impossible Whooper).

The Washington Post business team recently covered this trend and did a fine job of digging into these religious questions, starting with the headline: “Shalt thou eat an Impossible Burger? Religious doctrine scrambles to catch up to new food technology.” It’s rare to see scripture in a business lede, but this one was right on point — focusing on on a symbolic food that is totally out of bounds in Jewish tradition.

You think a kosher cheeseburger is a wild idea? How about kosher shrimp?

Leviticus 11 contains a zoo’s worth of animals. The hyrax and the monitor lizard. The katydid is there, as is the gecko. And it ends: “You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten.”

Dietary restrictions are woven into religious texts, the Old Testament and the New, the Koran, the Vedas and the Upanishads. Some are mercifully practical, as in the law of necessity in Islamic jurisprudence: “That which is necessary makes the forbidden permissible.”

Now, Tyson executives are seeking certification from various agencies declaring their plant-based shrimp both kosher and halal.

The team at the Post business desk identified the religion ghost in that equation and produced this solid thesis statement:

In this era of plenitude and choice and disruptive technology, what is permissible, what is forbidden and what is flouting the letter of religious law? The food system is in flux, the rise of plant-based meats and the promise of cell-cultured meats bending categories such that legislation, ideology and theology are scrambling to keep up.

If God says no pork, how does He feel about a very persuasive forgery? And if only beef from the forequarter is permitted, how will observant Jews parse meat grown in a lab, no bones and no quarters at all? How do you bleed an animal with no blood or slaughter an animal humanely if there’s no slaughter? And if you give up meat for Lent, what constitutes a cheat?

Oh, right. There is a business story here as well — a potentially big one, when several different religious groups are combined into one dietary fasting demographic.

Do the math.

About 10 percent of the United States’ 5.5 million Jews consider themselves Orthodox — that number is higher for younger Jews, so the percentage is growing. They and other Jews who observe religious dietary laws eschew pork and shellfish and only eat meat that is ritually slaughtered. With a global population of 1.8 billion, the Muslim community has now reached 3.45 million in America, and is likely to become the second-largest religious group in the United States by 2040. Hinduism, with more than a billion adherents globally, is practiced by 1 percent of the U.S. population. These are large demographics to be courted, potentially the difference between solvency and failure in the ever more crowded alt-meat arena.

There may not be that many of us in the United States, but Eastern Orthodox Christians are in the mix there, as well — since those who practice our faith strive to go vegan for large parts of the liturgical year (most notably during Great Lent). Is it now fair game to chow down on your basic Impossible Whoopers on Wednesdays and Fridays?

By the way: Seventh-day Adventists would be interested in this story, as well.

I really was impressed at the depth in the reporting here. For example, an Orthodox Jew preparing a plant-based burger at home? That’s highly likely to be kosher. But what about believers on road trips who stop at ordinary Burger King establishments?

Details, details, details. This long passage is really interesting:

In May 2018, Impossible Foods received its official kosher certification from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the largest organization of Orthodox synagogues in the United States, responsible for certifying more than 400,000 industrial and consumer products. A rabbinic field representative had toured the 67,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Oakland, Calif., confirming that all ingredients, processes and equipment used to make the Impossible Burger were compliant with kosher law. And after a halal auditor visited the plant to determine ingredients and practices were halal-compliant and adherent to Islamic dietary laws, Impossible Foods received its halal certification from the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America in December.

Packages, which debut in grocery stores on Sept. 19 (Impossible has been a restaurant product to date), will get an “OU” symbol that means the product is certified kosher. The designation signals it is made from inherently kosher or kosher-certified ingredients that are neither meat nor dairy. It will get a symbol with an M to indicate it is halal.

Rabbi Moshe Elefant, the chief operating officer of Orthodox Union Kosher, said, nonetheless, an observant Jew is not popping into Burger King to eat an Impossible Whopper anytime soon.

“Let’s for the sake of argument say everything they use is kosher; still their equipment isn’t kosher. An observant Jew will never even walk in.”

I asked that question about the grilling process just the other day, here in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Yes, the Impossible Whoppers are cooked on the same heating surface as the ordinary burgers. A customer can request that a meatless burger be popped into a microwave, skipping the grilling process and the juices of real meat. But, hey, what’s the point? How far is far enough, in this quest?

The Post lets Rabbi Elefant take that on:

“Is it a violation of the spirit of the law? That becomes a realm that you can never end. The best example that I always give is there are companies that are certified to make pizza for Passover. There’s not one issue about the kosher status of those products, but you may feel that it’s inappropriate to eat pizza for Passover," Elefant said.

He adds that it’s a constant challenge to interpret dietary law in light of modern technology, and that while “there clearly is a biblical statement that the purpose of the dietary laws is to separate us, it’s not up to us to draw the line.”

Meanwhile, another rabbi working with the OK Kosher organization was more positive or, as the Post team put it (wink, wink), he was “more bullish” on this trend.

Rabbi Eli Lando added:

The prohibitions … are about the actual creatures (pigs, shellfish, rabbits and reptiles), not a plant-based facsimile, however uncanny the likeness. Strictly kosher Jews, he notes, are frequently big fans of fake crab made of finely pulverized white fish. Lando sees plant-based meat as a revolution of sorts.

“A person today knows that being kosher does not mean you have to go to the back of the store and look for something like a second-class citizen. Having those products commonly available is achieving a great milestone," he said.

Believe it or not, there are more issues to address — scientific and theological — in this long and appropriately serious report.

Dig in.

FIRST IMAGE: Promotional photo from New Wave Foods.

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