The Impossible Dream

In Billy Crystal’s 1992 movie, Mr. Saturday Night, the up-and-coming comic Buddy Young is trying to entice a young woman, who will one day become his wife, to get dinner with him. “These sandwiches are amazing,” he tells her. “Roast pork, yet they’re kosher. I don’t know how they do it!” Buddy may have been baffled, but today we know exactly how they can do it: use Impossible Pork, made by the same company the created the popular Impossible Burgers.

The only problem is, you won’t find a kosher certifying agency’s heksher, or seal of approval, on this new plant-based pork product. It’s not that Impossible Pork cannot be kosher. By definition, something that contains only vegetable matter must be allowed under Jewish law. However, the Orthodox Union, which certifies Impossible products, won’t put their symbol on Impossible Pork for psychological reasons. Unlike the fictional Buddy Young, the OU is not interested in the transgressive allure of kosher pork.

Menachem Genack, the CEO of the OU’s kosher division, explains that their decision stems from the fact that their customer base cannot stomach (pun intended) the idea of a hekshered pig product, particularly one that has the word “pork” in the name. Whenever they do certify products that simulate bacon or crab sticks, they are inundated with letters and complaints from people who “feel” like they are violating kashrut, even when they know intellectually that they aren’t.

I understand the concern. I used to go to a kosher Chinese food restaurant in New York’s Chinatown that only serves plant-based dishes, but the menu makes no mention of that fact. The dishes are listed as “pork fried rice” or “Kung Pao shrimp”, which would make me nervous. I remember asking the waiter, “Are you sure there is no pork or shrimp in this?” We all understand that there is a psychological component to eating. The context is important to our enjoyment.

Not everyone is understanding of the OU’s decision. A Conservative rabbi in Britain, Adam Zagoria-Moffet, uses the case of Impossible Pork to challenge the very notion of kosher certifying agencies, and he has a point. For most of Jewish history, kashrut was a matter of trust and personal responsibility. Much of our food was prepared from scratch by ourselves, or if you were very wealthy, by your servants. We either grew our own food or bought raw ingredients from vendors. There was no outside agency attesting to the kashrut of the store, which meant we had to rely on the honesty of the shopkeeper to let us know what was kosher and what was not.

Today, the kashrut-observant world has outsourced its trust to mostly large bureaucratic certifying agencies who tell us what is OK and what is not, but this has limited the very definition of kosher, as the case of Impossible Pork illustrates. Rabbi Zagoria-Moffet argues that the community should expand the agencies it relies on to include vegan and vegetarian groups that also supervise European products. After all, he points out, someone who is vegan is already keeping kosher.

I do think Rabbi Zagoria-Moffet is a little too harsh in his criticism of the OU for its decision on Impossible Pork. While pig products are no more unkosher than shellfish or regular beef that was not slaughtered properly, there is clearly something visceral and deep-seated in the Jewish aversion to pork. We have always associated the animal with the very idea of treyf (unkosher). That’s the essence of Buddy Young’s joke. So, forgive the OU if they find it impossible to give us those amazing roast pork sandwiches.

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