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Rabbi's Update 5/31/2023


Dear Friends:


Earlier this month the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS or “Law Committee”) overwhelmingly passed a responsum by Rabbi Avram Reisner which holds that it is permissible to eat in a strictly vegetarian or vegan food service establishment that does not have hashgacha, kashrut supervision.


It may surprise you to learn that heretofore the official position of the Conservative movement was that one should not eat in a vegetarian or vegan restaurant that doesn’t have kosher supervision. When I was called by a Washington Jewish Week reporter for my reaction to the responsum, I told her that the responsum simply codified what everyone does anyway. “Everyone” may be something of an overstatement but in my career I have only met one Conservative rabbi who would not eat in a vegetarian restaurant that did not have kosher supervision. In fact, it is fairly common practice among more liberal Orthodox Jews to eat in vegan restaurants that don’t have kosher supervision -- if you don’t believe me, visit Yuan Fu on Rockville Pike and you are likely to encounter patrons eating there wearing kippot.


What could be the problem from a kosher perspective in a strictly vegetarian restaurant (Rabbi Reisner’s responsum does not address eating vegetarian food in a restaurant that also serves meat or seafood)? There are two main issues that Rabbi Reisner had to tackle.


The first is bishulei goyim, food cooked by a Gentile. This is something we don’t talk about very much because most of us find it frankly embarrassing and anachronistic, but there is a general rabbinic prohibition -- with some specific exceptions -- on eating food prepared by a Gentile. The reasoning of this prohibition is to prevent social fraternization between Jews and Gentiles which could lead to intermarriage. (I hesitate to even discuss this but if you look at the original sources in Hebrew that is what they say.) As Conservative Jews, we believe that we should fully integrate into general society and eating together with our non-Jewish friends, co-workers, and relatives is not something we try to avoid -- provided, of course, that we can be sure that what we are eating does not contain any prohibited foods.


The second concern is whether or not we can rely on a vegetarian or vegan restaurant actually being meatless in the absence of certification. There are extensive discussions of the question of ne’emanut, reliability, in the halachic literature. For example, most kosher supervision agencies in the United States require a mashgiach temidi, a full-time kosher supervisor, for meat restaurants. The reasoning is that non-kosher meat is much cheaper than kosher and tastes the same -- you would not know by the taste that the burger or chicken nuggets you were served was actually made of non-kosher meat. Because of this, a proprietor might be tempted to pad his or her profits by purchasing non-kosher meat if they thought they could get away with it.


This concern doesn’t apply in vegetarian places. As tasty as Beyond Burgers and Impossible Chick’n may be, they don’t taste exactly like their meat equivalents. Most proprietors of vegetarian and vegan restaurants have an ideological or religious commitment to their vegan or vegetarian practice -- and their customers certainly do. Consumer protection laws require truth in labeling -- for all these reasons, we can be reasonably certain that the food produced in an establishment that claims to be vegan or vegetarian actually is what it claims to be. Is there 100 percent certainty? No, but neither is there 100 percent certainty with kosher supervision. (Some of you may remember the case of the non-kosher ducks at Moshe Dragon in Rockville.) The question that Rabbi Reisner deals with is what level of risk is acceptable -- and he concludes that in a vegetarian establishment the risk is acceptably low.


As a reminder, I am having drop-in hours on Thursday afternoons from 2 to 4 at the shul. You do not need to make an appointment -- that would negate the whole point of drop-in hours -- but I’d urge you to check and make sure I am there regardless as sometimes there are unavoidable pastoral or other emergencies which might take me away from the building.


As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at rabbi@kehilatshalom.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment. I have been spending more time in the synagogue recently but if you want to speak with me it’s best to make an appointment rather than assuming I will be there when you stop by.


L’shalom,


Rabbi Charles L. Arian


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