Friday, May 26, 2017

Jews for Cheeses - The Milchig Manifesto of Shavous 5777

 (Me placing the rennet into an aqueous solution, and adding it according to the Shach)
(Me placing copious amounts of salt into curds of cheddar - yum!)

What's the deal with Kosher cheese? If you ask the average Kosher keeping Jew, as I've done with regularity over the last few years, you get many different sorts of responses, even from very learned Jews. "The Rav (referring to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) ate Kraft cheese, but didn't allow other people to." "Non-Kosher cheese is made with animal rennet; Kosher cheese is vegetarian." "Tablet K can't be trusted. I don't know why, but a Rabbi I trust said that it's a very bad situation. If you eat that cheese, you have to kasher your dishes." "They line the cheese with lard, which is why it has a rind." There's a lot of misinformation, both about the kashrut of cheese, and also about cheese itself.  Time to clarify.

But not just clarify. This piece is a "manifesto," not a cardboard description, meaning there's an argument to be made, and I'm here to make it. It's a fairly straightforward argument, but the road to persuasion has a steep incline. Most of my colleagues don't agree. Most Kosher-keeping consumers likely don't agree. Most of the precedent doesn't agree. Still, I feel strongly, so I'll spell out my thoughts.  Worst case scenario - you disagree, but exhaustively learn the laws and issues surrounding the kashrut of cheese.

The argument: In the year 2017, Kosher consumers ought to consider all cheese as Kosher. Now, before you go panicking, let me add some disclaimers. 1) You should follow your the rulings of your own Rabbi or Rabbis, Maharats, Rabbanits, etc. etc.  2) Communal and sociological norms are important. I don't follow my own logic fully to its logical conclusions, as I want people to eat in my home, etc. But these concerns won't prevent me from making the argument. In order to change minds, persuasion is in order. And in this case, I think the law, precedent, evidence, and public policy considerations mandate a communal re-evaluation. Buckle up for a Shavous dairy adventure like no other, a product of popular demand, a milchig manifesto.

1. Sources and Historical Development

Knowledge is pre-requisite.  Personally, it seems to me that misinformation and its evil cousin, partial information, render an honest and productive discussion impossible.  So I'll simply be citing and explaining the main sources on the subject to start. I'll try my best (and likely fail at times) not to use any artificial flavors or coloring, and let the sources speak their truth, as the kids like to say these days.

A) Mishna Avodah Zarah 2:5 

אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה, שָׁאַל רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל אֶת רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, כְּשֶׁהָיוּ מְהַלְּכִין בַּדֶּרֶךְ. אָמַר לוֹ, מִפְּנֵי מָה אָסְרוּ גְבִינוֹת הַגּוֹיִם. אָמַר לוֹ, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁמַּעֲמִידִין אוֹתָהּ בְּקֵבָה שֶׁל נְבֵלָה. אָמַר לוֹ, וַהֲלֹא קֵבַת עוֹלָה חֲמוּרָה מִקֵּבַת נְבֵלָה, וְאָמְרוּ, כֹּהֵן שֶׁדַּעְתּוֹ יָפָה, שׂוֹרְפָהּ חַיָּה. וְלֹא הוֹדוּ לוֹ, אֲבָל אָמְרוּ, אֵין נֶהֱנִין וְלֹא מוֹעֲלִין. חָזַר, אָמַר לוֹ, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁמַּעֲמִידִין אוֹתָהּ בְּקֵבַת עֶגְלֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה. אָמַר לוֹ, אִם כֵּן, לָמָּה לֹא אֲסָרוּהָ בַהֲנָאָה. הִשִּׂיאוֹ לְדָבָר אַחֵר, אָמַר לוֹ, יִשְׁמָעֵאל אָחִי, הֵיאַךְ אַתָּה קוֹרֵא (שיר השירים א), כִּי טוֹבִים דֹּדֶיךָ מִיָּיִן, אוֹ כִּי טוֹבִים דֹּדַיִךְ. אָמַר לוֹ, כִּי טוֹבִים דֹּדַיִךְ. אָמַר לוֹ, אֵין הַדָּבָר כֵּן, שֶׁהֲרֵי חֲבֵרוֹ מְלַמֵּד עָלָיו, לְרֵיחַ שְׁמָנֶיךָ טוֹבִים:

Rabbi Yehuda says: Rabbi Ishmael asked Rabbi Yehoshua [a question] as they were walking along the road. He said to him, "What is the cause for the prohibition against the cheese of non-Jews?" He said to him, "Because they curdle it inside the stomach of carrion." He said to him, "But is not [the law regarding] the stomach of a burnt offering more stringent than the stomach of carrion?! And they [the Sages] said: [It was proposed that] a priest with a good disposition may burn [a burnt offering after sucking out the fat from its stomach] while it it still raw [and has not yet been burnt with the offering, which would forbid one form deriving any benefit from it]. And they [the sages] did not agree with him [who proposed this opinion], but they said: One may not derive benefit [from the fats of the stomach], nor is one [who does so] liable for meilah [deriving prohibited benefit from from a sanctified object]." [Implying that one should therefore not be liable for the less stringent case of a stomach of carrion.] He [Rabbi Yehoshua] retracted, and [instead] said, "Because they curdle it in the stomachs of calves that were used for idolatry." And he [Rabbi Ishmael] said, "If so, why is there no prohibition to benefit from it?" He [Rabbi Yehoshua] redirected him to another topic. He said to him, "Ishmael, my brother, how do you read (Shir HaShirim 1): 'For dodechah [Heb. masc: "your love"] is better than wine,' or 'For dodayich [Heb. fem: "your love") is better than wine'? He said to him:, "'For dodayich is better than wine.'" He said to him, "The matter is not so. For its fellow [the following verse] teaches about it: 'For the fragrance of shemaneikha [Heb. masc: "your oils"] is good.'"

This Mishna and the Gemara on it are the starting point of all future discussion. A side point of interest - it appears that the Masoretic text was not yet settled, as their was still uncertainty about the pronunciation of words in the biblical book Song of Songs. A second side point - the idea of deflection, turning attention away from difficult questions by bringing up a seemingly irrelevant topic is not new.

Okay, now to the point of the Mishna. The hava amina, the supposition, is that the prohibition on non-Jewish cheese is because of the potential presence of rennet/enzymes from the stomach of an animal not properly slaughtered (neveilah). The Mishna responds by noting the opinion of the Sages, exempting the priest from liability for misappropriating consecrated sacrifices should he choose to eat the fats of the stomach. What's important is the reasoning behind the opinion of the sages.  As Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura explains (so too the Rambam) in his extremely helpful Mishna commentary, it's that the fat and enzymes are considered פירשא בעלמא, mere byproducts; therefore, they do not have the status of the animal itself, as they are too inconsequential. The Mishna explicitly rejects the notion that the rennet of an animal not slaughtered according to Jewish ritual law is problematic (one of the most common reasons people mistakenly think cheese must have a certification) on a biblical level - it is not problematic, as the case of the priest proves.

So what is the reason? The Mishna does not disclose. Why not? The Gemara explains.

B) Talmud Avodah Zarah 35A

אר"ש בן פזי ואיתימא ר"ש בר אמי מרישיה דקרא קא"ל
(שיר השירים א, ב) ישקני מנשיקות פיהו אמר ליה
ישמעאל אחי חשוק שפתותיך זו בזו ואל תבהל להשיב
אמר עולא ואיתימא רב שמואל בר אבא
גזרה חדשה היא ואין מפקפקין בה
מאי גזירתא
אר"ש בן פזי אמר ריב"ל
משום ניקור
ולימא ליה
משום ניקור
כדעולא דאמר עולא
כי גזרי גזירתא במערבא לא מגלו טעמא עד תריסר ירחי שתא דלמא איכא איניש דלא ס"ל ואתי לזלזולי בה

At the beginning of this passage (not quoted here), there is a homiletic discussion of the verse in Song of Songs. Then, a discussion about why this passage was quoted to distract. The opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is quoted first - nikur (that the cheese was poisoned by a snake). The Gemara questions why the Mishna didn't just state the reason, then. Ulla notes that it is a new decree, and the Rabbis maintained silence about the underlying reasons for new decrees during the first year so that cynics, critics, haters, etc. wouldn't attempt to sabotage the decree with criticism. In this way, the decree would become practice, and after having safely taken hold, the reasons could be released. I like to think of it as a notion of rabbinic privilege, similar to the executive privilege that protects behind the scenes rationales, discussions, etc. of the President from the public eye in order to facilitate a functional government. Even then, apparently, the notion of two Jews - three opinions was known and even merited strategic response.

The debate starts heating up:

מגדף בה ר' ירמיה
אלא מעתה יבשה תשתרי ישן תשתרי
דא"ר חנינא
יבש מותר אין מניחו ליבש ישן מותר אין מניחו לישן
א"ר חנינא
לפי שא"א לה בלא צחצוחי חלב
Rabbi Yirmiyah and Rabbi Chaninah team up to critique Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi's snake poison theory. Snake poison doesn't dry, and poisoned cheese doesn't permit cheese to age, so if the cheese is aged or dry, it should have been permitted, according to this theory, but the Mishna suggests no such thing.  Therefore, that can't be the reason for the decree.

Rabbi Chaninah then suggests his own theory, the non-Kosher milk theory. There's some debate among medieval authorities about the specifics, but here's Rashi's take. True, non-Kosher milk (say pig's milk) doesn't actually become cheese, so we're not worried about a pig's milk cheese. Nonetheless, there are droplets of milk/moisture that remain on the cheese, and maybe there was milk not seen by a Jew mixed in to a cow's milk cheese, and is now disguised by the milk/moisture that remains on cheese in any event. In short, a little bit of non-Kosher milk got mixed in, and since there was no supervision, we'd have no way of knowing.

ושמואל אמר
מפני שמעמידין אותה בעור קיבת נבילה
הא קיבה גופא שריא
ומי אמר שמואל הכי
קיבת העובד כוכבים ושל נבילה הרי זו אסורה
והוינן בה אטו דעובד כוכבים לאו נבלה היא
ואמר שמואל חדא קתני
קיבת שחיטת עובד כוכבים נבלה אסורה
כאן קודם חזרה כאן לאחר חזרה ומשנה לא זזה ממקומה

Shmuel takes his turn at the proverbial podium. It is because the cheese is curdled in the skin of the stomach (b'or keivat neveilah) of an improperly slaughtered animal. This implies that the rennet itself is not problematic (as seen earlier from our Mishna), but that curdling in the non-Kosher animal skin is the issue. The moderator objects, citing an earlier contradictory statement of Shmuel himself that the rennet itself is forbidden. The Gemara answers this by noting that Shmuel recanted the notion that rennet is problematic as recorded in the Mishna, and the Mishna remains the final ultimate ruling on the rennet itself.

A word about Shmuel's modified ruling. As Rambam explains, this is not an issue of milk and meat, as many mistakenly suggest, since milk and meat is only prohibited on a biblical level when there is a transferal of flavor, which does not happen in this process. Rather, the issue the cheese is like a non-Kosher animal, since it is produced in such a sac. And, we can't apply the normal 1/60 rules of nullification because the cheese is a davar hama'amid, transformed into a totally new substance (think what gelatin does to Jello).  Therefore, though it looks like cheese, from a Jewish legal perspective, it's a non-Kosher steak (כולה נבילה).

Three more candidates offer alternative explanations:

רב מלכיא משמיה דרב אדא בר אהבה אמר
מפני שמחליקין פניה בשומן חזיר
רב חסדא אמר
מפני שמעמידין אותה בחומץ
רב נחמן בר יצחק אמר
מפני שמעמידין אותה בשרף הערלה
Rav Malkiah in the name of Rav Ada says it's because they smear the edges of the cheese with pig fat (that popular notion is a real opinion in the Gemara! - and that's the one that seems to sound the most contrived).  Rav Chisda suggests it's because they curdle the cheese with non-Kosher vinegar. Rav Nachman concludes the debate by stating they use the sap of young trees to curdle the cheese in violation of the rules of orlah (that one must not use a sapling for the first three years).

To summarize, the Gemara's suggested reasons for the prohibition are, in order:
1) Snake Poison
2) Mixture of Pig's Milk
3) Curdling in a Non-Kosher Animal
4) Smearing with Pig Fat
5) Non-Kosher Vinegar
6) Prohibited Tree Sap

C) Medieval Authorities

So which opinion, if any, is accepted as the rationale for the decree? The specifics of how the issue is dealt with are likely to depend on the animating rationale. And as to this, there's a dispute.  On the one hand, there's the opinion quoted by Tosafos:

Rabbenu Tam said that now, since we no longer find a simple reason to prohibit since the reason for the prohibition is snake venom, as is said by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, for we uphold the halakhah in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, even when he disputes Rabbi Yochanan, and even the more so when he disputes Shemuel for when Shemuel disputes Rabbi Yochanan, the halakhah is in accordance with Rabbi Yochanan. And this was the ruling of Rabbenu Hannanel and so too Seder Tena'im ve'Amoraim declares that the halakhah is in accordance with Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi in all cases. And the words of Rav Ada bar Ahava ammount ot nothing since he is not the same Rav Ada bar Ahava who was a student of Rava, for he came later - for his words are mentioned earlier than those of Rav Hisda and Rav Nahman bar Yitzchak who were all earlier than Rava. And also the words of Rav Hisda and Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak stand in conflict. And there is no need to be concerned about a mixture of non-kosher milk since it will not become cheese as Rashi explains, for the gentiles are not so foolish as to mix non-kosher milk into their cheese mixtures since it will not form cheese. Rather, it is certain that the reason for the prohibition is for no other reason than the concern about snake venom and we, who do not live in a region with many snakes have no reason to be concerned about uncovered liquids. And do not say that a decree that has been enacted by a court requires another court to gather to overturn the decree for certainly it was never forbidden for any region other than those wherein snakes are found as I will explain concerning wine.  And in many places they eat these cheeses because they are are made using flowers. However, in those places where the cheeses are made with rennet, Rav Yitzchak ben Rabenu Hayim says there is a slight reason to forbid since the rennet is salted with its skin and there is a concern of dairy and meat together since salting is equivalent to roasting. And I have seen places where they make the cheese firm with some other salted thing.

Wow. So first, Tosafos quotes the Rabbeinu Tam asserting that Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi is the most superior of the sages listed, and then proceeds to explicitly reject the rationales of pig's milk, etc. Further, since snake venom is not a common problem, the decree does not apply in this sort of place. Now, most cheese is made with vegetarian rennet. And animal rennet, as we learned above in the Mishna and Gemara, is technically Kosher regardless of its source. Still, there might be a slight reason to prohibit cheese produced with animal rennet, according to Tosafos, because of the way the rennet itself is produced (salted with its skin in some places, but not always).

Moreover, one need not worry about the procedural issue of overturning the ruling of a prior superior court (something not normally allowed in Jewish jurisprudence) because their decree was geographically limited to locations where the concern of snake venom is relevant. But decrees are not extended irrationally to locations where there's no relevant concern.

The Rambam (and the other non-Ashkenazic authorities who follow his view), however, understands the Gemara to have rejected the view of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi for cause due to the successful critiques of Rabbi Yirmiyah and Rabbi Chaninah. It does not matter if RYBL is superior, his reasoning is refuted. The Rambam rules like Shmuel, that the problem is one of curdling in the skin of the stomach (the non-Kosher steak theory) in both his commentary to the Mishna and in his legal codex (Forbidden Foods 3:13-14):

Accordingly, logic would dictate that any milk found in the possession of a gentile is forbidden, lest the gentile have mixed the milk of a non-kosher animal with it. And the cheese of the gentiles should be permitted, for the milk of a non-kosher animal will not form cheese. Nevertheless, during the age of the Sages of the Mishnah, they issued a decree against gentile cheese and forbade it, lest they use the skin of the stomach of an animal they slaughtered - which is forbidden as a nevelah - to cause it to solidify.

If one would say: The stomach skin is a very small entity when compared to the milk that it is used to solidify. Why is it not nullified because of its insignificant size? Because it is used as the catalyst to cause the cheese to curdle. Since the catalyst which causes it to curdle is forbidden, everything is forbidden, as will be explained.

[The following laws apply when] cheese is left to solidify with herbs or fruit juice, e.g., fig syrup, and it is apparent [that these substances were used for] the cheese. There are some of the Geonim who have ruled that it is forbidden, for [our Sages] already decreed that all the cheeses of gentiles are forbidden, whether they caused them to solidify with a forbidden entity or with a permitted entity.This is a decree, [instituted] because they cause them to solidify using forbidden entities.
Notably, Rambam quotes the opinion of some of the Geonim (post Talmudic sages) that even cheese made from vegetarian rennet is still forbidden. A few things to note. The issue is not that animal rennet itself is problematic, as this was rejected by the Mishna and Gemara, but rather that cheese made with vegetarian rennet is not curdled in the skin of the stomach. Therefore, one might reasonably think the decree never applied to cheese like that.

Secondly, when quoting the view of some of the Geonim, is Rambam endorsing the view, or merely citing is as preferentially desirable? R' Yosef Karo suggests in his commentary, Kesef Mishne, that Rambam is endorsing this view, or else he would have cited the dissenting view as well. Others counter that by noting that since Rambam introduced it as the view of only a portion of the geonim (we're left to wonder whether some is a a few, a substantial minority, a majority), he must not be endorsing it without reservation. Either way, this is his ruling.

D) Legal Codes and Later Authorities

The Shulchan Aruch, is the presumptive starting point for the accepted ruling of Jewish law. Following Rambam, R' Yosef Karo Rules:

(2) Cheese made by non Jews was forbidden because that they are produced in the skin of the stomach of an animal that was not correctly slaughtered. And even when the cheese is produced using vegetarian rennet it is forbidden.

R' Moshe Isserles (Rema), the co-published Ashkenazic great and counterpart modifies the ruling slightly:

And thus is the custom, and it must not be changed, unless you are in a place that has permitted this since earlier times. And if a Jew oversees the production of the cheese and the milking, it is permitted. And thus is the custom that spread in all of our countries. And if a Jew oversaw the making of the cheese, but not the milking, it is permitted after the fact, because there is no concern that perhaps something non-kosher was mixed in after the cheese was made from the milk, because non-kosher milk will not allow the cheese to form, and of course the non-Jew did not mix anything in once he knew it was for making cheese. And in any case, it is forbidden to eat such milk.

Most of his position deals with the case of cheese made from milk that is not chalav yisrael, a tangential concern to our conversation, especially as most no longer observe the stringencies of chalav yisrael in the United States. He notes that the custom follows the ruling of Rambam, but gives de facto credence to those who are lenient to eat other cheese if they have the custom to do so from earlier times; if it was an entirely illegitimate custom, he would have prohibited it regardless. One could argue that, meikar hadin (fundamentally), Rema is actually ruling leniently, while noting a custom to be stringent. Alternatively, one could argue that Rema is merely acting as a halachic pluralist, not wanting to deny the legitimacy of customs where legitimate debate abounds.

Lastly, Rema rules that yisrael roehu, Jewish supervision, is sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the rabbinic decree. But what does this "supervision" entail? Maximally, it could be understood to mean that constant on-site Jewish visual confirmation is required to ensure the validity of the cheese. Alternatively, it could be understood to mean that spot checks are sufficient, supported by the legal principal that "one who comes and goes is considered to be constantly watching over someone's shoulder." One could suggest, as the OU occasionally permits, the notion that it's about visual confirmation, so video surveillance is sufficient. Finally, one could argue that reiyah, visual confirmation, is not the point of the decree, but rather confirmation, actual knowledge, however it should come about. Government inspection, labeling, etc. allows us to "see" that the cheese is Kosher in just the same way (perhaps even a more accurate one) than visual confirmation.

In addition to Shulchan Aruch, and Rema, it is important to present the view of Shach. He rejects the notion that supervision is sufficient, requiring gevinas yisrael (Israelite cheese) to be either a) owned by a Jew, or b) made by a Jew. If the factory is under Jewish ownership, this is sufficient to render the cheese Kosher. Otherwise, it must be made by a Jew, i.e. a Jewish person must add the rennet and participate in the making of the cheese, much like the requirement of bishul yisrael.

How do we rule? Like everything, it depends, but I'll cite and summarize the view of some recent major poskim, legal decisors, to give a flavor for the variety of opinions.

R' Moshe Feinstein - Fundamentally like Rema (and not Shach) that supervision is sufficient but is absolutely required. Also, soft cheeses (like cream cheese, etc.) where rennet may be added but is not essentially necessary to the food product should ideally follow the same rules; still, since some are lenient with soft cheeses so as not to require supervision even when rennet is added, no need to make a big fight about it.

R' Isaac Klein - "The rennet used today cannot be considered forbidden because, first of all, most of it is derived from dried up skins that have become like a piece of wood. In addition, the extraction is brought about by the use of strong chemicals and acids which removes the substance from the status of a food fit even for a dog. And third, the rennet goes through a number of chemical changes that transform it into a new substance. Finally, the rennet is not put into the milk in a pure form but is diluted with other substances so that it is annulled in sixty times its bulk." - All cheese is Kosher.

R' Soloveitchik - Cheese made from non-animal rennets and enzymes were never subject to the decree, and this is the law, but it is subject to the notion of halacha v'ein morin ken l'rabim - "this is the law, but it should not be publicized to the masses." The fear here was that of mockery, scorn, etc. among those with a lack of respect for Jewish law, and because this ruling goes against the ruling of Shulchan Aruch.

Chazon Ish - The Rambam, in citing the ruling of the Geonim, is saying one should not rule against them. Tosafos were fundamentally lenient though, and this is fundamentally the position of Rema. The issue has been decided in favor of the opinion of Tosafos, and that is the fundamental ruling. Moreover, there are extra reasons to be lenient since all cheeses are now made in vats, not animal skins, and since the government monitors this. If we decide to be stringent, though, we should be stringent with full force. Since the leniencies of production and oversight are not explicitly mentioned, and since the stringent views make more sense,  "I do not want to rule permissively." Still, it is difficult to rebuke those who want to act leniently like the Tosafos and Rema.

R' Abadi (No, he's not only lenient!) - All cheese requires visual supervision when the rennet is being added, be it hard cheese, soft cheese, cheddar cheese or cream cheese. Moreover, rabbinical supervisory agencies that suggest otherwise have misunderstood these laws.

2) Modern Day Policy Considerations/Pesikah

So here's the closing argument. As of a matter of halachic reality, the position of R' Isaac Klein is the most eminently factual. The Mishna already noted, as confirmed by Shmuel's recanting in the Gemara, that rennet itself, even animal rennet, is so far removed from the animal as to be considered like dry wood, a mere byproduct, etc. This isn't a chiddush, legal novelty, but the ruling of the Mishna and Gemara. Moreover, rennet is always added as a small part of a voluminous solution, rendering it well less than 1/60 and therefore nullified if there was a problem, which there isn't.

So we're left with two possible rationales for the rabbinic decree - snake venom or being produced in non-Kosher animal skins. Neither of these ever occur in modern commercial production, not in the United States, not in Europe, not anywhere. Sure, it's possible to imagine a small farm in the countryside of Europe somewhere where they still make cheese using the old methods. But it is not possible to imagine a government supervised commercial facility where they let cheese curdle for days, months, or years, in the skin of the stomach of a cow. It's always in a vat. Full stop.

There's already precedent (Rabeinu Tam, Rema, Chazon Ish, Rav Soloveitchik, etc.) to suggest that this isn't the overturning of a rabbinic decree, but rather the application of a decree more accurately, to the original intended circumstances but not more broadly than that. There is a meta-legal principal of rabbinic jurisprudence that states that "the Rabbis did not extend their decrees to uncommon circumstances" (דבר שלא שכיח לא גזרו ביה רבנן). This should not be viewed as an optional principal, but an important limiting principal. The Rabbis, in their wisdom, understood that far-fetched decrees would weaken and potentially tear down the entire system of safeguards. If people view rabbinic decrees as entirely divorced from physical reality, they may reject the reasoning and lose respect for the sages and their system. So they built in safeguards to preserve the internal morality of the law (see the writings of the great legal philosopher Lons Fuller if you're interested in that topic). I believe with all my heart that the Rabbis would not have wanted us to enforce rabbinic decrees where the original rationale (either of the possibilities, actually) does not conceivably exist.

Now, there are some legitimate concerns that must be dealt with.  First, there are cheeses that do incorporate non-Kosher ingredients (a bacon flavored cheese, for example). One would have to insure that a particular cheese did not contain non-Kosher ingredients, and that it was not cooked in non-Kosher vessels.  Additionally, there's the subjective notion of religious self-esteem. When people feel like they've done a good thing, they're motivated to continue doing more good things; when people feel as though they've failed, they may give up and fall into a pattern of declining observance. "A mitzvah causes mitzvah, a sin causes sin," as the Mishna teaches. This cuts two-ways. On the one hand, it's possible that someone who ate cheese they previously thought to be forbidden might develop a cavalier attitude toward rabbinic laws and Jewish law generally, eventually leading to violation of undisputed rabbinic and even Torah laws. On the other hand, it's also possible that a newfound respect for the nuance, texture, wisdom, and relevance of rabbinic law would cause inspiration and a fresh appreciation of the rabbinic system.

It is important to remember that most Jews don't keep Kosher, plain and simple. So given that reality, it seems to me incumbent to make keeping Kosher as plain and straightforward as it can be. Since this read of the law is more compelling in any event, we should consider readjusting communal standards. If virtually all cheese can now be eaten, Kosher is much much easier to imagine. Sure, not everyone will keep Kosher, but on the margins, many will view the goal as more attainable. It's supposed to be a religion that's broadly observable to regular people (hence the concept that a "decree that the community cannot abide by is not a decree"). This would have the additional benefits of permitting more affordable cheeses (an important source of protein) for families in economic distress (certified cheeses are usually significantly more expensive), better cheeses for those embracing the "foodie" trend (certified cheeses are often of relatively poor quality) towards quality, local cheeses for those concerned with environmental impact/footprint, and cheese generally for those who are travelling or who don't live in an area with readily available certified cheeses.

Personally, I'm compelled to be lenient based on the classical sources on the merits, because it's good law, but also because of the need to apply the rabbinic system (and Judaism generally) in a way that's broadly defensible, relevant (hence the title of this blog), and makes good sense. This is what my entire rabbinate is about, transmitting an authentic mesorah of accurate and full knowledge, educating the public as to the actual sources, fully, in ways that engage and enhance our service of the Ribono Shel Olam. I hope this post serves those ends. Viva la revolucion?!

*The translations and sources were copied from Sefaria, with minor edits for translation. Credit where it's due, and to the folks who helped to translate these sources, including R' David Wolkenfeld and others.
*This essay did not deal with the complicated issue of whether vessels and utensils become non-Kosher and when, according to the many different opinions.
*In the section on policy considerations, I'm well aware that I failed to comment on consistent community standards, whether people will stop eating in other's homes if they adopt lenient positions, etc., not because these concerns are unimportant (they're vital), but because they've represented the main way we've dealt with kashrut to this point. I'm writing specifically as a counterweight to give voice to the many other relevant legal and policy considerations.

Friday, March 3, 2017

On Crohn's Disease and Mindfulness Retreats

Like so many Ashkenazic Jews, including several in my immediate and extended family, I suffer from (a relatively mild form of) Crohn's Disease.  Explanations for the disease remain elusive, with explanations and research suggesting a variety of genetic and environmental factors resulting in this autoimmune disorder (an overactive immune system attacks the body it's supposed to serve).  But whatever the cause, the symptoms are quite real; chronic inflammation of the digestive tract (often but not always in the Terminal Ileum at the end of the Small Intestine) leads to abdominal pain, chronic diarrhea and frequent bowel movements, bleeding, weight loss, fatigue, and more. Pleasant.

Psychologically, it can be challenging.  Frequent trips to the bathroom and fear of the same transform simple activities into stressful ones.  Commuting to work - where are the bathrooms on the way? Speaking in public - perhaps I shouldn't eat all day so I don't have to suddenly use the bathroom? You get the drift.  Performing the simple tasks of life can become quite complex and emotionally draining, aside from the physical symptoms themselves.

In the summer of 2016, I signed up for a four (4) part mindfulness retreat series with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, heading into the retreat in the midst of a flare up.  The retreats, located at serene centers in coastal California and rural Maryland, respectively, were calm and isolated.  Surrounded by beautiful natural settings, wildlife, expansive skies, and relative quiet, I watched to see how my body would react, with both worry and curiosity.

As the days wore on, I noticed that Crohn's flares and inflammation died down, despite a steady diet of chickpeas and legumes, foods I normally find problematic.  While stress isn't the only factor, being on a mindfulness meditation retreat allowed me to really notice, in more than a passing way, the stress I had been carrying in my kishkes, as they say.  This same quality has repeated itself on each of the two subsequent retreats (I still have one to go), and I'd like to share the combination of factors that seems to have worked for me:

1)  Disconnecting
For these retreats, I lacked virtually all cell service (use of cellular phones was proscribed and discouraged in any event) and did not sign on to e-mail.  Without the possibility of communicating, I dropped awareness of pending/ought to be/should have already been communications from my mind. That fight I was having about a misinterpreted e-mail . . . no possibility of dealing with it now.  The form I forgot to send to the car people to correct the errant tax bill . . . next week.  What if someone needs to get in touch . . . they'll deal.  This served both to teach a powerful lesson of humility - if I drop off communication for a week, the world keeps spinning just fine - but also to remove a constant white noise of anxiety that permeates my life, and probably yours too.

2)  Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness can be described as a compassionate and full awareness of the present moment. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn't mean ignoring the past or turning a blind-eye to present problems.  It's about turning fully to those emotions, thoughts, memories, and moods, as they arise, and cultivating a full awareness of what they are and are not.  It's about learning that analytical thoughts and passing emotions don't have to become our identity, and that we can cultivate another way of being, an aware, awake state.  It's about becoming masters over our own lives, and recognizing, in our increasingly hectic world, that the literally millions of stimuli that enter our orbit each day don't have to control our emotions and moods; we're not puppets in someone else's show.  We can choose to turn toward our thoughts and emotions, with intention, and we can chose to be present fully elsewhere too.  It's about enjoying the taste of food, fully, when we're eating, and listening lovingly when we're with family.  In this way, our responses in each moment change to become more appropriate, and we learn to reclaim presence and enjoyment in our lives.  The formal meditation training on the retreats I went on included classic breathing meditation (becoming aware of the breath, and gently noticing when awareness drifted to other thoughts or sensations, noticing that moment, and returning to awareness of the breath, again and again, as a way of anchoring in the ever-dynamic present).  It consisted of walking meditation as well (noticing the sensation of, well, walking, while walking).  But the practice pervaded the whole retreat, whereby we were encouraged to maintain a general state of awareness and mindfulness.

3)  Silence
The quiet solitude, punctuated usually by sounds of chirping birds or raindrops (okay, sometimes food delivery trucks too), certainly helped. Silent meals, too, allowed me to stop worrying about engaging others around me.  The quiet simply allowed me to settle in to a calm place that brought about an ease of being and an ease of digestion.

4)  Yoga
Rather than merely engaging in fitness, a mindful body practice allowed for increased sensation in different parts of the body, and allowed me to work through the physical stress and tightness that comes from having a chronic autoimmune disorder.  Thoughts, emotions, memories, moods, and physical sensations exist in a dynamic loop.  We're prone to forget, in the west, that we're physical creatures living in bodies.  A Crohn's flare and the resulting worry/social anxiety, I learned empirically, can easily cause me to go down a memory-lane field trip of the most anxious moments of early childhood, or worse, middle school.  This can then lead to physical stress in other places. Before I knew it, I was a bona fide crab, and an insecure one too.  Oy.  Not necessary.  Breath into the pose, bring awareness to it, and let tension release.

5)  Nature
Urbanization is again a trend.  We see more concrete than trees on a daily basis.  But for whatever reasons, the science is showing that spending time in nature (see here, for example) reduces stress and inflammation, improves memory and energy, and is restorative to human vitality.

For me, then, an ongoing practice to help treat my Crohn's has included:
a) Finding times to leave technology off/at home
b) and be in nature
c) a regular formal and informal practice of mindfulness
d) more work with body awareness and the interplay between the body, spirit, and mind (not that they're so distinct)
e) and to welcome rather than fill voids of silence

Crohn's is just one example; so many of us are in need of all the above for so many different reasons. Since I've been benefiting so much personally, I'm therefore proud to share that Thrive-RI will be offering it's first full-day retreat (well, 9 - 4) on March 19, 2017.  The theme of the day is Simplify-RI, but for me, it takes on another dimension. Vitality is such an important part of living the kind of life I want to live.  And I'm only here now.  Going on retreats allows me the needed space to step back, however briefly, in a place with great nutritious food, unusually talented teachers, natural beauty, and the present moment, and to take back inspiration and techniques to become more like the kind of person I hope to be.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

A Hyuger Response - How to Win Bigly, Trust Me!

Rabbi Jordan Bendatt-Appell was recently captured in a you-know-as-soon-as-you-see-it-it's-absolutely-iconic photograph protesting on behalf of immigrants and refugees, son on his shoulders, alongside a Muslim father-son duo engaged in the same.  As it turns out, they went on to engage in conversation, leading to a Sabbath meal together.  Enough said.

As it so happens, I've had the privilege to learn and study with this sweet, insightful Rabbi as a member of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality Clergy Cohort.  On retreat, he offer valuable guidance for meditation practice, dispensing piercingly deep teachings with a light touch.  I offer two of them as an introduction to this piece:

1)  He introduced us to a Zen practice.  On the in-breath, one asks the question, "What is this?"; on the out-breath, "I don't know."  Designed to foster a lived awareness of habitualized narrative, it helps to reinforce the newness of each situation, freeing the practitioner to release habit and narrative-attachment, allowing for a greater freedom of response (my interpretation).  Given that, it was all the more stark and profound to see him holding a placard that read, "[w]e've seen this before. Never again."  We, of all people, know in our gut what it means to not be accepted as refugees due to suspicion; we, as spiritual practictioners, can make choices to look at each moment anew, but not naively.  There's a reason we're so deeply impacted by historic trauma and so aware of similar modern manifestation.

2)  Bilaam.  He famously praises the Israelite encampment, "How goodly are your tents, O jacob, your dwellings, O Israel," in a poetic flourish now recited by Jews everywhere as they enter the Synagogue.  Rabbi Bendatt-Apell noted, though, that if Bilaam were walking in the camp, he might have had a different view.  What would he have heard?  No doubt, a fair amount of argument, bickering, in other words, daily life.  What would he have seen?  Perhaps it wouldn't have been pure poetic goodness.  But from his perspective, perched on a mountain, unknown to the Israelites, at a physical and even narrative distance, he has a truly perspicacious view. This is the teaching I've been sitting with recently, and the consciousness that informs this essay.

Look.  For the last number of years, I've thought of myself as an idiosyncratic conservative voter, supported mainly Republican candidates, and have a fairly fierce libertarian tendency, for whatever that's worth.  I was a political science major at Upenn, with a concentration in U.S. politics, and wrote an honors thesis on the decline in civic engagement . . . I was upset by the federal overreach and creep of the last administration (in my opinion), and am absolutely alarmed and horrified by the incompetence, lack of knowledge, disrespect for norms of governance, government by fear, and trampling of civil rights (basically everything save the Supreme Court pick) about the current one.  I've watched citizens of many political persuasion engage in historic and inspiring protest, a large-scale re-engagement in democratic process, and have joined in said protests on several occasions. Still, I'm haunted by the fact that I don't feel as though I'm doing enough, and more haunted by the fact that I think we're all collectively playing the short-game.  Someone's got to think about now, make sure our government remains a representative democracy, protect civil liberties (I joined the ACLU).  But someone's go to think about the systemic problems that got us here in the first place.  In a certain sense, we're only addressing the immediate problems.  I'm going to try and play my best Bilaam (something I never thought I'd say!) and take a big step back.

Q: Why did we get here? How did we get here?  What caused this?
A:  First and foremost, because Donald Trump won the Republican primary. 

Everyone's focusing on how Trump beat Clinton (FBI, forgotten midwestern factory workers, Hilbilly Elegy, she's a woman, scandal-ridden, toxic, E-mails, pay for play, the kitchen sink), but that's absolutely the wrong issue to focus on; if Trump doesn't win the primary, he doesn't go on to beat Clinton.  And Trump didn't win over anywhere near the majority of individual Republican voters, just a plurality.  

Q:  How did Trump win the primary without support from a majority of voters?
A:  A mix of surprising support, a divided field, and playing the media for fools.

Let's look at two of the reasons that Trump won the primary, the media and the large, divided field of candidates.  The media kept covering trump because it was good for ratings and profit-margins.  He, using the any news is good news theory, said outrageous things about candidates and their families, and entire groups of people (women, Muslims, Mexicans, Jews (by innuendo), etc.), gaining more coverage and a bad-ass reputation that played well for him.  So many criticized the media and their role in this fiasco.  And some of them even apologized for an outrage that led to backlash that led to this. Oy!  Look, the media is driven by ratings and profits, so encouraging them to be more altruistic than that is doomed to fail (or at least unlikely to succeed).  Despite their collective confession and introspection, they will continue to "sin" so long as the system is still driven by ratings and profit.  

There was a desperate end of the game pull the goalie, half-court press, hail mary, pinch-hit the injured slugger attempt at encouraging Republicans to drop out, consolidate, play Risk and formal funky alliances. Ted Cruz and John Kasich met to consider what silly strategy might land them the top play on Sportscenter in the morning.  But encouraging Politicians not to be interested in their own election and to be more altruistic than that is doomed to fail (or at least unlikely to succeed).  As the famed Douglas Arnold noted, politicians behave based on their prospects for election; that's how the system works.  

We're going to keep going down this rabbit-hole until we come up with a long-term fix at the primary level.  Americans of both parties are patriotic and fundamentally good people.  We deserve a system that produces candidates (from any party) that represent the quality of the character of the people. And there's an easy answer (hat tip to Bennett Bergman, a local attorney, for advocating for it for years).

In 1871, William Robert Wares, an architect, trained in looking at fundamental underlying structure, suggested a system of voting when there are more than two candidates known as Instant Runoff Voting (hereinafter "IRV").   I've included flow-charts above for ease of understanding, but the idea is simple.  You rank your candidate preferences, in order (mandatory in some versions, optional in others).  For a Republican Example, Marco Rubio-1, John Kasich-2, Jed Bush-3.  If any single candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, great.  They're the winner, just as in our current system. But if not, as happened in most Republican states, you eliminate the last candidate, and credit their second place votes to the appropriate candidate.  You keep eliminating and crediting votes until someone has more than 50%.  

This system has several advantages to the current one (the main negative being its perceived complexity in a Twitter world, but hey, our elections are already convoluted, just in ways we're accustomed to accepting).  First and foremost, the candidate who wins is someone who's broadly appealing (at least as a top choice) to the majority, rather than winning a slight plurality (with the potential strong objection of the majority).  In that sense, it better represents the will of the people. The will of the people is just understood to be more nuanced.  Second, it better reflects reality.  Most people don't have just one preference in a crowded field, but in fact, they have a list of ordered preferences.  Third, it changes the entire incentive system.  In a crowded field, a candidate will need the second and potentially third place votes of other candidates to win.  So there's no incentive to trash talk, campaign negatively, etc.  For example, Donald Trump would have been less likely to insult Ted Cruz's wife and win in such a system, because he would've needed the second place votes of Cruz voters.  Etc.

At its best, it would change the tenor of the whole debate, refocusing politics on issues rather than ad hominem attacks.  At the very least, it gets around our current systemic problems. 

The Media - Donald Trump would have had a big disincentive to attack, and if we know anything about trump, it's that relying on his own sense of self-regulation is about the dumbest idea anyone could ever possibly propose.  Further, if a candidate did proceed to engage in wild activities that garnered media attention, it would be polarizing.  Some, no doubt, would love it, just like they love the WWE (fodder for a future post). Nastiness, rudeness, and boarishness are horrifying to many and appealing to many.  But the coverage would gain as many enemies as supporters, and enemies matter in an IRV world. Importantly, this solution does not rely on the media's altruism to ignore their own ratings.  It assumes it, actually.

The Large Divided Field - This solution doesn't rely on a variety of similar candidates to drop out or act against their own self-interest.  Rather, it assumes that many candidates will run, out of self-interest, and devises a system that balances that all out to insure a strong minority candidate hated by many others can't surprisingly come out of a crowded field.  

In a world where social media has dropped the floor in terms of what it takes (asset-wise) to run a campaign, primaries will grow to see a wider variety of candidates and larger fields.  We're just seeing the beginning of this trend.  Moreover, alternative media outlets will continue to pinch traditional media in the pocket, making ratings and profit ever more important (consciously or not) for self-preservation.  In other words, this wasn't a one-time thing.  I also like to think it's what the founders might have devised.  Like the regulation of faction through government diversification. The separation of powers.  This is a modern American argument that hearkens to our finest wisdom; don't rely on humans to be angels. Devise systems that regulate behavior assuming they're not, and that's actually how you realistically create heaven on Earth.  It's going to get worse, trust me. I'm writing now, with as much passion and candor as I can, as a patriotic act.  And I'm not going to stop. 

My goals are twofold:
1) Convince local politicians and activists to institute this at the local level.  Little Rhody, let's lead the way, not just short-term, but long term, in fixing the system.  

2)  Start a robust national movement.  Now's the time.  

As per Naomi Baine's suggestion, we're going to have a Run for Runoff Voting, and engage in a patriotic campaign to fix the system.  We're better than this.  We deserve better leaders. This is an important part of the solution. God bless America, please.