No. 74: Who’s Afraid of Impossible Pork?

The following is a transcript of Episode 74 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda Kurtzer: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity/Crisis. The show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, president of Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and we’re recording on Friday, October 22nd, 2021. Our kitchen at home has been out of commission for a few weeks. So this morning feeling a little bit rushed I stopped with the kids at the local kosher Dunkin donuts to grab some breakfast.

I picked up a veggie sausage, egg, and cheese on a bagel for Jessie. And I picked up a veggie bacon, egg, and cheese on an English muffin for Sally. Wasn’t a great moment in the history of parenting and/or nutrition, but sometimes parenting has to be measured as pass/fail, and everybody was happy and no one was hungry.

In our house, these days, these kinds of fake meats come into play a lot during the pandemic with an eye especially towards taking small mindful steps to change our consciousness about the climate crisis. We basically moved over from ground beef, actual beef, to Impossible Meat or Beyond Meat, which are two newer products that replicate the look and mouthfeel of beef most realistically. If you’ve ever used Impossible Beef or Beyond Beef, the thing about it, it doesn’t really taste like meat, but the thing that replicates it is that it kind of bleeds. It starts off red and bloody. And then when you cook it, it actually kind of looks and feels like meat. It gave us a chance when, we changed over, to eat ludicrous things like bacon double cheeseburgers, fake bacon, fake meat, real cheese that our kosher-keeping family would never otherwise eat.

And I have these two growing teenage boys. So people were happy with the options and well-fed. A couple of weeks ago, there came in an announcement reported in a JTA story that Impossible, the company behind this meat was releasing a new product, Impossible Pork, but that the Orthodox Union, the largest certifying agency of kosher food, wasn’t going to allow it to be marked as kosher not because it was actually legally not kosher – we’ll get into that a little bit later on – but because they didn’t want to certify a product called “pork.”

There was a small but passionate corner of the internet that cares about this nexus of issues involved. It went ballistic. Many of us kosher customers, some of us like myself, skeptics about the overreaches of the kosher industry, mostly rolled our eyes. But there’s one opinion piece endorsing the decision saying it was the right thing to do for the OU to declare Impossible Pork “not kosher.” And that was written by my colleague at Hartman. Dr. David Zvi Kalman, an expert in technology and ethics and Jewish law, also the producer of the show.

And so I asked him to move from behind the microphone, to in front of it, to talk through that decision.

So David Zvi, first of all, it’s a little bit funny to say, but welcome to Identity/Crisis. Thanks for being on the show.

And, I want you to start us off by, we’ll link to it in the show notes, but walk us through your argument.

You believe that Impossible Pork, even though it is kosher, shouldn’t be marked as kosher. So tell us why?

David Zvi Kalman: Well, so, first of all, I feel like I’m making a bigger deal of this than the OU itself.

And I want to acknowledge that, from the OU perspective, I think this was more of a pragmatic decision that they were making, basically, because they recognize that making a product that was described explicitly as a pork replacement, as opposed to a pork substitute, which I’ll get to a little bit later, was going to create headaches for them and for kosher consumers.

But I think that this matters as more than just a practical decision. I think it matters because it suggests a way of thinking about technology in the 21st century that is actually very healthy and necessary. If rabbinic Judaism is going to remain continually useful and important. And here’s what I mean by that:

Law. Not just Jewish law, but legal systems generally, are often very well intertwined with the realities in which they live. Like if you’ve ever looked at the Mishnah or the Gemara, they are very specific. They talk about like, if you look at the laws, for example, about finding lost objects, it’s not just about, you know, general rules about finding lost objects, but about like, if you find like this kind of cake on the sidewalk, this is what you do with it. Because if you make laws that are too general, they end up not being useful.

The downside, however, is that if you make laws very specific, they need to be maintained. And if the reality changes so that those kinds of cakes no longer exist, then those laws are basically meaningless. And it happens over and over again within Jewish law. Within many, many legal systems you have, these very well-constructed regimes basically become irrelevant because technology has made something else useful.

Now sometimes there’s a clear link between the old technology and the new technology. You know, I think the link, for example, between regular mail and email is not that hard of a leap to make. But sometimes it’s more difficult. So a contemporary example within the context of the American legal system right now is: how to think about cryptocurrency?

Right? Cryptocurrency has been a wild west since Bitcoin was launched in 2009, 2010. Basically, people don’t pay taxes on Bitcoin. There’s like billions and billions of dollars that are being invested. And this is happening because the financial legal system expects people to be keeping their money in bank accounts and expect money to be issued by states. That’s not how cryptocurrency works. So, all of that is basically falling apart. I think Impossible Pork is a good example of this because these kinds of products are not intended to supplement actual meat for your relative who wants to come to the barbecue and you need to feed them something. So, you’re going to feed them whatever it happens to be, which I think has been what meat substitute products have been in the past.

Morningstar has been that forever. These products are aimed to do something different. They’re aiming to actually replace meat on people’s menus basically for environmental reasons, also often for ethical reasons. And because of the cultural meaning of these products, because they are designed really trying as much as possible to replicate, not just the taste of meat, but like, as you said, like the look of meat, the bleeding of meat, that means they are trying to be a meat.

And given that they are trying to be meat, it matters that Jewish law extends the existing ban on pork and on pig products to these based on the fact that there is an existing Jewish value to not eat pig products and also a Muslim value. And I think the Muslim community has also been upset by this.

And so that should be extended here, too. That’s the argument in a nutshell.

Yehuda Kurtzer: Okay. I don’t want to reduce it, but in some ways, it feels like the oldest argument that exists about Jewish law. Paul had a lot to say about this. The rabbis had a lot to say in response, which is somewhere between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law.

And what you’re basically saying is that Kashrut prohibited the pig, right? There’s an enormous history of Jewish, I don’t want to say superstition, because that’s like a mockery, but Jewish distancing from the pig. The pig was a symbol of non-kosher food. There’s plenty of non-kosher animals, but there’s very little taboo around rabbit.

There’s a lot of taboo around pig. And you’re basically saying by licensing a product that looks like a pig, doesn’t walk like a pig, but maybe smells a little bit like it kashered something that’s not meant to be kashered. The problem though, David Zvi, is what is the spirit of the law? Is the spirit of the law in this case about “pigness”: anything that resembles pig or looks like pig, or sounds like pig? Or is the spirit of the law trying to inform the way Jews eat?

Because if it’s about informing the way Jews eat, then maybe eating vegetarian versions of meat constitutes a much more significant religious ideal that Kashrut is meant to bring about. So how do you determine that the spirit of the law is around “piggishness” as opposed to the spirit of the law is about food practices?

David Zvi Kalman: So one thing that the pushback against this article has revealed – and I literally do not think I’ve ever said something that people have disliked more than this article – and it’s also gotten the most attention to probably anything I’ve written. So I don’t know what that says about our culture. But one thing that I’ve learned is that, people have very, very different ideas about exactly what this ban on eating pig is about.

For some people, it’s a ban on eating literally pigs, the animals, the, you know, that kind of meat. For some people, it has no significance whatsoever. And any excuse they have to get out of it, they’ll get out of it. And so, you know, Impossible Pork is good enough for them. For some people, and I think this is particularly true in Orthodox communities in ways that it’s not for other communities, there is actually something dirty about pigs.

There’s a sense of pigs as being a dirty product. And so something that is called pig, you know, it’d be like calling it “Impossible Poop.” Like it’s still poop. Why would you eat that? So I think there’s something similar. But I think the other thing that your question brings up is that there has been a really big debate within the 20th and 21st century about exactly how much ethics is supposed to inform the laws of Kashrut in the first place.

And this shows up a lot around meatpacking facilities, around the treatment of workers in meatpacking facilities, around the way the animals are treated in those facilities. It shows up in say, whether it makes sense to put a hechsher on cigarettes. There are cigarettes that have sometimes been labeled as being kosher for Passover, even though cigarettes can literally kill you.

It shows up in say some kosher organization’s decision to remove certification from Ben and Jerry’s following their decision not to sell products in the West Bank. So, it shows up in a lot of places and I think there is actually no agreement right now about whether kosher in general is supposed to be basically an arbitrary way that Jews defined their communities or is supposed to be an ethical boundary.

And I think that it’s exactly these kinds of cases that bring that to the forum. And technology does that a lot. Technology brings about all these kinds of edge cases. But the other thing that I want to say about this is that you’re connecting this to the letter versus the spirit. And I see a different connection here that I think maybe, I don’t know, you can tell me if this is a little bit too highfalutin, but, if I think about like, what is like the core text about Judaism and technology, it’s actually a text which has been very, very popular at Hartman for basically Hartman’s entire existence, which is the story of the oven of Akhnai.

And that story, which I’m not going to go through the details is about the rabbis and Rabbi Eliezer having a disagreement about whether a specific kind of oven should or should not be susceptible to ritual impurity. The rabbis saying that it is problematic and Rabbi Eliezer saying that it’s fine.

And the oven is usually skipped over in that story. I think it’s actually very relevant here and it’s actually quite similar to the Impossible Pork in that the issue with the oven is that someone came up with a genius idea of saying like, well, normal ovens are susceptible to ritual impurity. I’m going to take a normal oven. I’m going to literally slice it into pieces so that each individual piece is not an oven. But if you stack them together like Lego, they function as an oven. And so I’m not technically using an oven, but I’m actually using an oven. So Rabbi Eliezer/the people who think Impossible Pork is fine to say, “okay, that’s totally fine with me. This is not an oven.” That’s all there is to say about it.

And the rabbis say like, “no, this is just your attempt to do a run around the law.” And they say, it’s fine. And in fact, they are so clear that it’s fine, that they’re willing to basically tell God off and say, “you know, God, you are wrong about this.”

So I don’t know if that’s like too much of a claim to make, but I think there’s a connection here.

Yehuda Kurtzer: I don’t know if it’s too big of a claim to make, but it does feel like it winds up making a much bigger question around effectively the marketing department. Because if Impossible had decided, instead of calling it Impossible pork. Until 20 years ago, right? You have the same type of food innovations taking place and you had products that were called very memorably, textured, vegetable, protein, right? TVP.

So, vegans and vegetarians who are always looking for a protein substitute to meat, they knew to look for things like TVP or seitan, which is a word that no one else knows what it means, but they know that it’s vegan or tofu. They’re words that have their own lexicon for vegan and vegetarian food. And of course the food industry for a long time has transformed the condition of bad sounding foods to a good sounding food. Like the best example, being the incredibly unappetizing Patagonian toothfish, which went through the marketing department to become Chilean sea bass. And then suddenly it could go from being a bottom feeder in the ocean to being the most highly valued fish. Because like it’s not just sea bass. It’s Chilean sea bass. Right? Impossible Pork is the same thing. There’s no difference between Impossible Pork and textured vegetable protein. It’s not like the oven of akhnai where you’ve taken a pork dismantled it, re-established it and said, haha, it’s not a pig.

It’s actually a totally different food. So why does the question of marketing have to inform why we think something is or isn’t kosher?

David Zvi Kalman: So I think the shorter answer is that it’s not actually possible to separate the way we think about foods from our society. They are they’re one and the same. And I think like a good example of this is that tomato, right? Tomatoes are botanically, not vegetables. They are from a culinary perspective, vegetables.

In fact, the Supreme court, I think in the late 19th century ruled on this, they said like, from a taxation perspective, tomato is a vegetable. Because the context actually matters. I think the same thing is happening now. I think what is confusing and is making some people skeptical of the OU’s opinion is they say like, literally five minutes ago, you said fake crab was fine.

And now you’re coming along and saying fake pork is not. So I think that is more a reflection of the speed at which our concern about the effects of meat on the environment is changing our attitudes towards their substitutes than about anything else. And I think that, you know, that change doesn’t happen uniformly. It happens at different paces, different parts of society. But I think for something like pork, there is something that is both arbitrary, but still important about these bans, right? So it is to a degree – I am not an expert in, you know, the ancient near east. There probably was some reason why the ancient Israelites did not consume pork products.

I don’t know what that reason is. I don’t think that most people know what the reason is. I know, I don’t think it matters very much, but it still was then and continues to be now an important separator of Jewish communities from the general society. The same thing, I think, for Muslims.

And that in itself matters. So I don’t think it’s actually important to look at it.

Yehuda Kurtzer: Hmm. I remember when I was a kid, when there were two great foods that were not kosher that became kosher when I was a kid. One was M&Ms and the other was Oreos. That’s a more famous one. The kashering of Oreos was like an event. And I do  –

David Zvi Kalman: There’s an article about it in the New York Times

Yehuda Kurtzer: Yeah, I do remember that with, with the M&M’s it wasn’t a situation of like, everybody’s saying, well, obviously M&Ms are kosher, but they didn’t make them kosher. There was all of this undercurrent of myth about why they weren’t kosher – which I have no idea whether it was true or not –  but the big one was M&Ms are made from insects.

I don’t know if you heard that one, when you were as a kid, there was a food dye that was connected to the M&Ms that was obviously derived from an insect. Who knows? Maybe it’s true. There’s all sorts of complicated stuff going on in the food dye and derivative industry. And then like the OU swept in, and not only removed that, but then licensed it. And it did have the effect, which I think you’re signaling of, like, it breaks down the social barrier.

Now the world doesn’t really divide between those who eat M&Ms and those who don’t eat M&Ms, but it kind of does divide a little bit between those who eat pork and those who don’t eat pork. And I think that’s more of your argument. Because I don’t think you’re going as far as to say, like you’re not a kashrut extremist that anything that touches on bad Jewish values shouldn’t be kosher.

Like I don’t think you’re, making the leap from Impossible Pork to bad factory conditions in Postville, Iowa shouldn’t make meat not kosher. I think you’re making what sounds like more of a sociological argument of preserving the boundary in the world between the pork-eaters and the non pork-eaters.

David Zvi Kalman: That’s right. And I think what you’re seeing with your example is that this kind of goes in two directions, right? If a food has a status of being outside of bounds, then that can then breed values out of it for exactly why it’s outside of bounds and it gains  significance because of that.

Like a good example of it’s not connected to kashrut at all, is the reason that bells became important in church context, right? Bells were not originally a church symbol. Bells become important basically in opposition to the Muslim call to prayer in places where Muslims and Christians are living side by side.

And in those places, you will have Muslims who will curse when they hear a bell sounding. And when Muslims come and conquer Christian lands, they will literally remove the bells from the churches and use them for other purposes. So it gains that significance not because it originally had a meaning, but because what it stands in relation to.

Yehuda Kurtzer: So, let me take us to a little bit of a different direction, which is a different concern that I have with the question of drawing a boundary of brown Impossible Pork, which is to acknowledge that, as you said, one of the things that are motivating the rise of this whole industry is the recognition of the climate crisis and the need for alternative proteins.

And since like, again, TVP, isn’t going to win the day. If people can basically feel that they’re getting their hamburgers and eventually their steaks and it kind of tastes like and smells like and resembles the experience, then we could achieve significant measurable change. And so what I’m concerned about is: halakha should serve that objective.

It’s basically the pressing moral challenge of our time. It’s like human survival. If halakha doesn’t kind of get in line, if Jewish law doesn’t get in line to figure out how it can aid and abet the responses to this crisis, what I really fear happens is that you wind up creating two worlds: Jews who are holding back against the sense of moral urgency, because it’s not kosher versus Jews who feel that that moral urgency requires us to participate in doing whatever we need to do to mobilize the kashrut industry in service of it.

So how do you wrestle with that? Because I know this keeps you up at night as well.

David Zvi Kalman: Yeah, it’s really, it’s really tough. And it’s only going to get tougher. And I think like within that there’s the question of, to what degree should Jewish law itself be mobilized as opposed to the other kinds of, let’s say softer power that rabbis and Jewish leaders have to motivate change? Because Jewish law or the people who take Jewish law seriously take it very seriously.

And if you say Impossible Pork is not kosher, then that can affect the way that people decide whose houses to eat at. That itself can create new barriers within community. And I think because a lot of rabbis have a kind of fear around making new prohibitions as opposed to kind of adjudicating around existing prohibitions because it’s very scary.

So on the one hand, like that’s a real concern. And I think there’s no clean way to make new law. It is always a messy process. On the other hand, it’s kind of necessary because I think what happens if you don’t end up making new law is that you end up in situations, and I think this may very well happen, where you have an increasing percentage of Jewish law that is basically irrelevant. What I call a kind of ethical obsolescence. I think you can see this happening around virtual spaces. If there’s a lot of rabbinic law around physical spaces, not virtual spaces, then you basically end up with a kind of no man’s land as far as rabbinic law is concerned.

I think you see this happening around artificial intelligence, where if you don’t have expectations around the agency of robots, then you can have problems there too. So I think it’s both a difficult problem, but it’s also a problem that you can’t really hold off on answering it.

What makes it more complicated is that these problems are confronting us at exactly the moment that I think a lot of rabbis feel like their ability to shape the behaviors of their congregations is at an all-time low.

So you, on the one hand have like a kind of need to create these new norms. And the other hand, outside of certain ultra-Orthodox communities, you have very little ability to actually enforce them.

So I think it requires a lot of creative thinking about who is actually leading this change? What kinds of structures need to be put in place to make that change?

Yehuda Kurtzer: Right and reminds me, you quoted one Talmudic text and reminded of one of my all-time favorite rabbinic texts which comes the Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud, about the painting of mosaics in ancient synagogues, which is referenced by Talmud. The timetable lines up archeologically with when people started painting the walls of synagogues, decorative art, which would ostensibly have run against Jewish biases about figurative art based on the 10 commandments.

And it says in the time of Rabbi Yochanan, they began drawing on the walls and he permitted it. And you don’t know whether it means he permitted it because it was actually okay or because if he doesn’t permit it, they’re going to do it anyway and they’ll stop asking? In other words, you’re looking out for two things here.

You’re looking out for halakha as being able to shape the moral discourse of how Jews live and also some advocacy for listening and obeying to Halakhah.

But that’s an argument for making Impossible Pork kosher. Because if the world of protein is heading in that direction, shouldn’t the kashrut industry basically be really passionate about finding ways for people to continue to eat kosher doesn’t rely on the meat industry.

So let me give you two examples to this effect, which I think are coming. When I heard the Impossible Pork story, I thought about insects. Insects is the much bigger question about the transformation of protein. We are all going to have to eat insects at some point. They are the largest, most sustainable, most reproducible protein source available.

If you traveled to like weird snack food stores already, you can find a tremendous amount of products on the market of edible insects. You can grind them into flour so they basically don’t taste like insects and look like insects. All a tremendous amount of food innovation is taking place around insect protein.

Halakha is going to come along at some point and have said, “No” to the majority of that work.

I looked at this Impossible Pork ruling and I was like, wait, you’re drawing the line here? Let people eat their Impossible Bon Meat sandwiches. Their sausage and meatballs, whatever it is. Because you’re going to have to fight a much bigger fight down the line.

So how would you counsel the kashrut industry to not simply respond to, is this pork or is it not pork? But like a much larger question about human protein consumption.

David Zvi Kalman: I don’t know. This question doesn’t bother me at all. This to me feels like the kinds of question that people ask, what will happen if Jews end up in space and have to put on fill-in every 90 minutes because they’re circling the earth so fast? Or like, how do you keep Shabbat if you’re on a planet that revolves around the sun, much more slowly?

They’re interesting questions. They are questions that feel like they will make Judaism impossible because we’re so far out of them that they don’t feel real, but the truth of the matter is Jewish law is malleable. It has always been malleable. And if we are in a situation where these things become necessary for life to exist, then there will be adjustments that are made. I think rabbis will make adjustments. And I think part of the reason why the OU has the liberty to say actually we are not going to allow Impossible Pork is because the stakes here are relatively low. It doesn’t actually change the trajectory of Orthodox Jewish consumption of meat or meat substitutes. It is just one out of a number of possibilities. Jews weren’t going to eat at Burger King, anyways. It doesn’t really matter if there’s impossible –

Yehuda Kurtzer: Kosher-keeping Jews. I’m not exactly asking that, Mostly because I’m perfectly content to allow Jews and space to remain in the realm of Mel Brooks for now. Like it’s not a question of what are we going to do when it’s more a question of the theory of Halakhic adaptation that you’re advancing. You’re interrogating what is halakhic imagination? How does it work in the world? How does it relate to technology?

The reason to ask about the question of insects is because I am interested in the Halakhic system n merely looking at what’s sitting in front of me and I decide is it kosher or not kosher. I like you, I’m interested in the halakha industry, looking at the world around us and saying, how do we advance the theory of kashrut that’s going to enable people to keep maintaining that standard. And I’m nervous that erecting the boundary here, winds up missing what is ultimately going to be the much bigger fight down the line.

David Zvi Kalman: Yeah. And it may be the case that when that fight comes about that we will revisit this decision. I think that’s fine. Look, I think this is happening now around electricity. Look, you know, the ban on electricity comes in when the number of uses for electricity is pretty small. Like it’s basically lights, maybe some buzzers, but that’s about it.

It has, I think somewhat accidentally become important for the development of Shabbat as a cultural practice in American society. But we’re also now at that point were actually saying, we really mean you can’t use any electricity on Shabbat affects people’s lives in difficult ways, right? It certainly affects people with mobility issues.

It affects anybody who is tried to visit a hotel recently on Shabbat. And so we are now revisiting that and saying like, well, how can we adjust this practice? I think even with bans that seem so large, like not eating bugs, I think it’s possible to revisit those. I am not concerned about our ability to read things in ways that we want to.

Yehuda Kurtzer: So last question and it relates to electricity because you alluded to this in your article. You used electricity as one of your examples. And I think admiringly that when the halakhic system encounters electricity and says, well, that’s fire, you’re basically saying technologically, that’s not really true, but it was a good decision to make because it enabled effectively the preservation of Shabbat. That Shabbat would have been irredeemably transformed.

So I think the other big kind of story on halakha which also toggles on the question of like what’s realistic is basically streaming and technology during a pandemic. And I’ll tell you my own personal sense of this. I remember, you know, maybe six, seven years ago the committee of law of standards of concern movement was debating the legitimacy of using an iPad on Shabbat.

And I was very frustrated as a stakeholder because I said you have no pressing moral need to allow people to use their iPads on Shabbat. All you’re doing is essentially capitulating to, we want halakhah to be something that doesn’t scare people and doesn’t make demands on people.

And I have to say, like in a pandemic of when there’s an epidemic of loneliness. When the preponderance of shul goers in the Conservative movement are older, immunocompromised, not going to come into shuls, there becomes a pressing moral question around you make people feel that when they show up to shul on Zoom, they are not violating Shabbat.

Can you enable rabbis to do it? But that feels to me kind of a thrilling conversation. What is “mah meakev al yadecha,” what’s guiding your hands and when it’s actually about deep human needs, the need for authenticity, the need for a sense of a moral urgency, maybe that should kind of guide the kashrut process.

And I don’t know how you feel about that divide. How do you think it maps out into Kashrut in particular.

David Zvi Kalman: Yeah, I think again, for any kind of moral guidance for kashrut, there is always going to be the question of, is it supposed to be a moral system in the first place? And I don’t know if there’s any consistency within Kashrut organizations around that at the moment. I think mostly it’s not. Around the question of virtual services, I mean, it seems increasingly clear that this becomes a new dividing line between Conservative and Orthodox shuls to allow for virtual presence. You know, like every time that I get the weekly email from my synagogue around what time different services are and now includes links to all the services. That’s new and that’s probably never going away.

I suspect it will have an impact on Conservative shuls on the order of magnitude of the decision for Conservative Jews to drive to shul on Shabbat. In the way that it affects community. And I think like Impossible Pork in the moment, it doesn’t feel like such a big deal. It feels like it’s a small concession that ends up becoming a major defining factor of communities.

So I think, with any legal decision around technology, it’s always important to be imagining where the conversation sits 5, 10, 20 years down the line because small decisions today have massive ramifications in the future. So I think both of those are in that category.

Yehuda Kurtzer: What I’m mostly excited about. I guess I would see is that the new category is going to be, do you, or do you not eat hot, Impossible Pork out? Anyway, thanks for listening to our show

David Zvi Kalman: No!

Yehuda Kurtzer: And a special thanks to my guest and the producer of Identity/Crisis, David Zvi Kalman. Identity/Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute produced this week by David Zvi and edited by Joelle Fredman and Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by so-called.

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