A Vegan’s Response to ‘Do You Keep Kosher?’

I never give a one-word response if someone asks whether I keep kosher. After saying “yes,” I usually add qualifiers, such as “I’m vegan, so I keep kosher by default.” Although I do keep kosher in my own way, the extent of my kashrut might not meet the expectations of the person asking the question. I grew up eating meatball pizza, shrimp cocktail, and pork fried rice, so keeping kosher was never a claim I could make early in life. In recent years as I’ve seriously explored the connections between Judaism and veganism, it has been a claim I like to make.

As I’ve noted before, being vegetarian makes it easier to keep kosher:

You don’t have to worry about whether you’re eating meat that’s certified kosher (and whether that certification meets Jewish ideals) if you’re not eating meat. You don’t have to worry about mixing meat and dairy products if you’re avoiding one or both of those categories altogether. As one vegetarian rabbi explained in a 2005 Jewish Ledger article, “We have one set of dishes (plus Passover dishes) and never have to worry about the status of leftovers in the fridge or whether a guest will mix the utensils or food items. … By not eating meat, I am much more certain to never violate, even accidentally, the Biblical and rabbinic prohibitions concerning non-kosher meat.”

As a vegan, I do inherently keep kosher in the most important ways. I avoid pork, shellfish, and other forbidden foods. I do not buy non-kosher (or any) meat. I do not mix (or consume separately) meat and dairy products. Kashrut is not just about what winds up in your mouth; it’s also about following G-d’s laws. I believe that my dietary habits are consistent with the letter of the law for kashrut and that the reasoning that guides them is consistent with the spirit of kashrut and other Jewish concepts, such as not causing animals unnecessary suffering (tsa’ar ba’alei chayim). If anything, I’d argue that being vegetarian is more consistent with Jewish ideals than supporting industrialized animal agriculture is.

Still, I do not keep kosher in the strictest sense. In my apartment, I cook with pots and pans and eat with silverware and dishes that belonged to various relatives and have not been kashered since touching non-kosher meat (and possibly meat mixed with dairy). I eat at non-kosher restaurants, and despite my efforts to the contrary, there have probably been times when I’ve inadvertently consumed lard or other non-vegan trayf ingredients. I do not look for a hechsher on packaged and processed food products, because if everything is of vegan origin, that’s good enough for me; it’s possible that this food contains natural or artificial flavors of animal origin or was manufactured on equipment that also processed animal byproducts.

The degree of my kashrut generally doesn’t pose any problems, although it does occasionally have interesting implications. This past Shabbat, I attended a dinner in a kosher and non-vegetarian home. (The meal, including a delicious seitan entrée, was very vegan-friendly.) I couldn’t contribute any food made in my officially non-kosher kitchen, so I brought wine. I took home a Tupperware container with leftovers, which I later returned to the host; I did not touch it with my silverware, and I washed it with a paper towel instead of a sponge from my kitchen.

The devil’s advocate position I’m up against is that I am vegan by choice but keep kosher only as a side effect. Perhaps the reason why I don’t consume shrimp is the best argument for saying that I genuinely do keep kosher. Although I recognize that lobsters and crabs (and possibly other invertebrate animals) feel pain and suffer, I do not conclusively think that shrimp do. For years I have avoided shrimp because I err on the side of caution with animals’ suffering and it’s nice to adhere to the label “vegetarian” consistently. (Certainly, the environmental devastation of shrimp farming and fishing is a significant ethical reason to avoid shrimp too.) In recent years, I’ve thought about going back to eating shrimp and considered that animal suffering might not be enough of a reason to avoid eating the most commonly consumed sea animal in the U.S. Yet I still refuse to eat shrimp, and the number-one reason why is because they are trayf. According to rules that matter to me, eating shrimp is forbidden. This proves that I do follow the laws of kashrut on their own, not just because they happen to be consistent with my other dietary habits.

I know quite a few Jews who keep kosher and will eat vegetarian food in non-kosher restaurants. There’s nothing at all unusual about this. In the same vein, I think it’s time once and for all to affirm that I do indeed keep kosher with a one-word, loud-and-proud “Yes!”

Of course, I probably will keep talking and use the opportunity to promote veganism anyway.

This post originally appeared on heebnvegan. Click here to read “Are You Religious?” from April 2008.

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6 Responses to “A Vegan’s Response to ‘Do You Keep Kosher?’”

  1. Hannah Lee Says:

    Thank you for this post, Michael! There was an article in the New York Times (yesterday? but I’m always late in finishing the daily papers) about the growing market for kosher foods amongst non-kosher consumers. The reasons for kashrut are strictly religious. They are very important reasons, but don’t expect the kosher laws to produce healthy or sustainable choices (you can find totally kosher junk food too!). Decades ago, kosher Jews read labels and decided for themselves if an item was kosher based on the list of ingredients. The food industry (and the world in general) has gotten a lot more complicated, opaque, and nuanced.

    I would count you as a kosher Jew, Michael, but I’m not sure what my Orthodox rabbi would say.

  2. Julie Steinberg Says:

    Michael, thank you for your post. I also struggle with my own definition and motivations for being kosher. My Rabbi (conservative), a kind man, recently said to me, “Don’t focus on what you aren’t doing to be kosher. Focus on what oyu are doing.” Words to live by.

  3. Uriel Says:

    Interestingly, from a kashrus perspective, bugs and insects are as non-kosher, if not more so, than pork and shellfish, although this fact is not widely known. Generally people are less vigilant about checking their vegetables for bugs and insects than they are about making sure other prohibited foods enter their mouths. What is especially interesting for me is that the two most robustly healthy vegans I remember meeting in my life ate bug-infested greens regularly from their garden, and I’m sure got much nutrition from doing so.

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