Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Kosher "Cheese"burgers

Yeshiva World points out that Talia's in Manhattan is now offering a kosher cheeseburger on their menu. The cheese is made from soy.

Interestingly, there are comments both in favor and in protest of this offering at a kosher restaurant. Among some of the anti-cheeseburger comments are:

  • do we have to be like goyim in e/t we do!!! we copy the way they dress do we also have to eat what they eat?
  • I think the idea of it is attrocious! as they say “azoi vee s’goisht zich, yidisht zich”

  • You could find a way to kosherize everything. But if it wasnt created
    kosher, leave it alone. You managed without it for the past 5,768 years.
  • This is horrible. Why do we have to copy everything from the goyim, as
    if there isn’t enough food and taavah going on already? Next thing
    they’ll be serving is kosher pig. Uch!
  • classic case of “naval birshus hatorah”

Among the pro-cheeseburger comments we have:

  • if it’s kosher, what’s the problem? There are many baalei teshuvah and
    gerim, I would imagine, who remember what they used to eat before that
    would appreciate it. No one is forcing you to eat it, and anyone who
    has no taste for it will avoid it.
  • Listen, if it’s mutor and will give a yid some parnosso - I’m all for
    it. When you look through the marketing hype - all it is is just
    business. Nu, so what the sandwich has an extra something on it - it
    shouldn’t prevent us from buying it.

Personally, I'm of two minds about this sort of development.

On the one hand, there is little question that such a food is permitted. Assuming the meat and "cheese" are kosher in and of themselves, and there is no dairy in the "cheese," then there is no issue of basar b'cholov (meat in milk) at all. You might have an issue with Maris Ayin (appearing to do something that is forbidden, even if no forbidden act is taking place) but as this becomes more popular, that issue will disappear as well.

I can certainly understand the point that someone who grew up with the idea of a cheeseburger being treif would have difficulty eating it now that it's kosher. I had a similar problem a few years back when Eeees and I went to Eretz Yisrael and a friend of ours took us to the KFC in Jerusalem. I had difficulty eating there (although I eventually did) because, in my mind and upbringing, "KFC" was synonymous with "treif." So, for those who would have difficulty eating a kosher cheeseburger, I would understand a bias on their part against having this product. I, myself, would probably have the same difficulty. Even though my early childhood was in a non-Orthodox home, my parents always kept kosher in the home and while we might have gone out to eat non-kosher food, I don't recall ever seeing them eat a cheeseburger -- and I know that I myself never ate one. As such, I can't see myself eating a kosher "cheese"burger.

That being said, however, I do have to admit that there are some kosher substitutes that I don't have trouble with. For me, my little vice is the kosher "Baco Bits" that you find in the supermarket. I don't know how close it is to actual bacon, but I like the flavor that it gives salads and sometimes, I even eat them by themselves. Shhh! It's my little secret.

But the fact remains that the Baco Bits are just as much a kosher substitute as the faux cheeseburger. I can't explain why I have an aversion to eating a kosher cheeseburger but not to eating Baco Bits. And I suppose that brings us to the other side of the equation.

As we all know, God commanded us not to engage in certain actions. We can theorize the reasons behind these commandments, but in the end, only God knows. One of the things He commanded us not to do is not to eat from the flesh of the pig. Another thing that He commanded us to not do is to eat meat and dairy products together. The question could legitimately be asked: Did He mean for us to not engage in the very action, or did He mean that we shouldn't even learn the behavior that is associated with the action. In other words, does He just not want us to eat cheeseburgers, or does He not want us to learn behaviors that one associates with eating cheeseburgers, even if one does not actually engage in the act. It's this point that (I think) the protesters I quoted above are trying to bring out. Just because we can eat something necessarily mean that we should, and perhaps He had more in mind than simply saying "don't eat this." I suppose this is similar to the old conflict regarding the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law.

In Judaism, it seems that we have both the letter and spirit of the law to contend with. On the one hand, halacha is a highly legalistic system where the difference between the permitted and the prohibited can be very, very small indeed. I think we can all agree that when the letter of the law is being violated, it is within someone's right to protest. In our example, if Talia's were serving actual cheeseburgers, one would be well within their rights to inform the OU of this, and publicize the fact that there is actual meat/milk mixtures being served at the restaurant. We can quibble over whether or not certain sheitel hair comes from an idolatrous practice, but I think we can all agree that if we've established that the hair is actual avoda zarah (idol worship), then it would be forbidden to use it.

And yet, when it comes to the spirit of the law, Judaism is far more nuanced. There are elements within Judaism that maintain that one can still live within the letter of the law and yet be considered a "disgusting person." This concept is summed up by one of the above-mentioned protesters as a naval b'rshus haTorah (a disgusting person within the Torah's permission). Certainly we should try to strive to a higher standard. However, that is something that is up to each individual person to try to accomplish. Every person has to *want* to change for the better -- you can't legislate it and say to a person "you *must* act better." But the bottom line is that the person is still b'rshus haTorah -- he is still within the bounds of what the Torah (and God) wants him to do.

That's not to say that I think that someone who eats a kosher "cheeseburger" is a disgusting person. One *could* argue that he is violating the spirit of the law, but that is an argument that I would reject in this case. The reason, very simply, is that we don't know the spirit of the law in this case. For whatever reason, God decided not to tell us why we can't eat milk and meat together -- so we don't. But because He didn't, we can't extrapolate from milk/meat to cases where we are dealing with imitations. If God had said "I don't want you to have that taste in your mouth..." then you might be able to argue that imitations are just as bad as the original. However, that's not the case here. Here a specific commandment was being given -- and as long as the person follows it, then nothing more can be demanded of him. If you want to think that he should avoid it because there may be some mystical reasons yada yada yada, you are well within your rights, but you can't enforce that on someone else. There are better things that you can do rather than force your standards on someone else. As one YW commentator put it:

There are a million and one ways that you should improve YOURSELF before dumping your “chumros” on others. If you don’t want to eat it… don’t. for those who want it, labriut, eat it. Simple.

The Wolf


PsychoToddler said...

I think the whole issue is stupid. If it's not treif, you can eat it.

Maybe the argument is that it shows there's something wrong with us for developing a taivah for non-kosher food. Whatever.

Who hasn't walked past an Arby's in the parking lot of a mall and smelled that glorious smell and thought "man, I wish I could eat that." I have actually felt guilty about smelling it because the act of smelling involves ingesting small amounts of the material that float through the air.

But the whole issue is narishkeit. If we're not supposed to eat food that is similar looking to treif food, then close all the kosher pizza places because REAL pizza is not of Jewish origin and is TREIF!

Close the chinese places too. While you're at it, stop buying hot dogs and hamburgers, because those were invented by goyim too.

And if you're not going to close those places, just make sure you never order eggplant parmesan, because it's pretty clear that's a substitute for veal parmesan, which I can tell you from experience, is REALLY treif.

Enjoy your baco bits.

Larry Lennhoff said...

The Gemara quotes an insight of Yalta, the wife of Rav Nachman: "whatever the Merciful One forbade us, He permitted us something corresponding. He forbade us blood, but permitted us liver He forbade eating the chelev of a domestic animal, but permitted chelev of an undomesticated animal, He forbade pork but permitted the brains of a shibuta (a type of fish) " (Chullin 109b). Hashem does not wish to deprive us of any worldly pleasures. All pleasures may be obtained by forbidden or permitted means.

Source: Rav Avigdor Nebezahl

Lion of Zion said...

as i read the post i was thinking that these people are just plain [. . .]. i wasn't going to actually leave that comment. but since PT already did, i must be in good company and i can can do so as well. i think the whole issue is stupid.

according to this logic, most restaraunts should shut down and most packaged foods should lose their hechsher.

i would also like know then how it is that differnt types of jews have such different culinary habits.

anyway, this is not a new issue. i remember when dunkin donoughts first became kosher they served "kosher" bacon, ham and sausage. other restaurants have done the same over the years.

as far as KFC in israel (which i think has since closed down), we get a kick out of going to these places when we are there. esp. since in israel the american franchses are actually decent (except dominoes), as opposed to the few attempts to open them here in america (the nathans and subway in brookln were/are horrible).

all this having been said, i do personally find the idea of mixing milk and meat gross. even i were to become non-religious, i don't think i could ever bring myself to try a cheesburger.

Zach Kessin said...

Personally I find most fake cheese gross, but some of the fake meat burgers can be quite good. When I was first keeping kosher I used to eat veggie burgers with cheese a lot.

Anonymous said...

Of course, they'll argue back that their mystic stuff _clearly explains_ the spirit of the Law. After all, Hashem would not leave us unable to see how the mitzvah is supposed to be applied in general? And if you can't use the mystic stuff then there's a problem with you. This is why you have to listen to someone who says their mystic stuff works.

At this point I mention the ayin marit regarding divination arising from their behaviour and walk away in serious vexation. And this is one of my profound sorrows is the sort of person who sincerely believes that is becoming more and more representitive of Torah bound Judaism. I can accept a mystical Jew; a mystical Jew often cannot accept me.

Pesky Settler said...

I wonder if any of the people who have a problem with it use the Kosher for Pesach 'pasta'...

PsychoToddler said...

I also think fake cheese is gross...however real cheese on a veggie burger is really *good*!

BTW, when I was a kid my folks used to take us to an Italian restaurant (on Union Turnpike--I think it's still there) for veal parmesan all the time. One day a neighbor told us that a kosher pizza place on Main Street started to serve Eggplant Parmesan. We never went back to the Italian place again.

RaggedyMom said...

I was following your points for the most part, Wolf, until you got to the part of talking about the behavior that is associated with the action of eating a cheeseburger.

Is it that you mean that people who eat non-kosher foods like cheeseburgers eat them in a way that's inappropriate? Prust? Piggish?

Sounds to me like a description of just about every shul kiddush, wedding smorgasbord, and (I imagine) those 24-hour tearoom fress-fests that they have at things like Pesach hotels.

Before we got married, my husband would work as a mashgiach's assistant at those hotels as he had no other place to be for Pesach. He later told me stories from those jobs about grown men ransacking the children's early 4 p.m. dinner, after just getting up from lunch, tearoom, snack, and about 2 hours before the next meal would begin. Fighting, shoving, pushing people aside, and acting like, well, pigs.

When it comes to negative behavior associated with food, I think it's safe to say that many frum Jews have a monopoly on that. I know that there's an issue of treif food having a negative effect on a person's neshama, but as for "the behavior associated with a person who eats a cheeseburger," I can't agree.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

when i was in maryland a few years ago, i was amazed at how every kosher dairy place (pizza, etc.) had some kind of parva fake "meat" -- veggieroni pizza, tofu-based "beef" burritos, etc.

unfortunately, there are way too many uptight people here in NYC to be able to have such things (exhibit 1: the kosher subway in Brooklyn which is proud of the fact that unlike other ones, they have no parva "cheese") so i have to make my "chicken" quesadillas and cheesy-"meaty"-pasta all at home.

the first time i walked into a kosher pizza place in Manhattan that had fake "pepperoni" (which, unfortunately wasn't nearly as good as theseguys' vegeroni), i personally called up the rav hamakhshir and left a message on his voicemail thanking him for being sensible

Jacob Da Jew said...

Great break down of the issue.

Anonymous said...

Just to be picky- isn't the original Biblical prohibition to COOK with meat and milk? I thought the prohibition of eating them together was just a rabbinic fence.

Larry Lennhoff said...


No. Eating, cooking, or deriving benefit from a mixture of the meat of domesticated kosher animals and the milk of kosher animals is biblically forbidden by all sources.

Rabbinic extensions include adding the flesh of kosher wild animals and kosher poultry to the list. Rabbi Akiva holds that those are also biblical, but we don't hold like him.

I have no idea whether the rabbis extended the prohibition to the milk of wild kosher animals. I suspect so, just for completeness. :>)

Anonymous said...

I thought wild animals might as well not be kosher because you can't do the proper ritual slaughtering on them? So doesn't that point supercede the milk/meat issue, or it's one of those "who knows _how_ you'd do it, but if you did, this is the principle" things?

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


kosher venison is available on the market.

Anonymous said...

I knew a rabbi who banned Oreos after they became kosher, claiming that they were the ultimate symbol of assimilation. I asked him if he was planning to ban the shul kosher pizza fund-raisers as well. We don't speak anymore ;-)

PsychoToddler said...

I agree with your rabbi, anonymous; kosher Oreos are just WRONG!

BrooklynWolf said...

I knew a rabbi who banned Oreos after they became kosher, claiming that they were the ultimate symbol of assimilation.

Oreos are a greater symbol of assimilation than, say, a Hannukah bush??

Sorry, but someone needs to set your rabbi straight.

The Wolf

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

oreos were really disappointing. even those hydrox knockoffs were better.

Anonymous said...

A symbol of assimilation? What does that mean? Until we know what it means, we can't tell what's wrong with it.

On the other hand, if it was Twinkies, then I could see it. That has a whole different ambiance.

Ichabod Chrain

Orthonomics said...

I can't believe how worked up people can get over "kosherizing" everything. These same commentors who get worked up over a glatt kosher burger with fake cheese, will bend themselves into a pretzel to defend other unsavory behaviors.

Anonymous said...

These "kosherized" foods do not really appeal to the baalei teshuva out there - we know how the stuff is supposed to taste and "soy cheese" and "Bacos" are not it! After becoming frum 25 years ago I would occasionally miss these types of foods, and I would try the "new" versions once, but I gave up on them quickly.

-suitepotato- said...

I am lactose challenged as it might be more polite to say so real cheese and milk aren't for me. Meat is but I live nowhere near any kosher meat sources so I am still working on that. Soy products taste... eh... not great.

I read it said somewhere that while kashrut doesn't explicitly embrace vegetarianism, it certainly nudges that way. Maybe there's some veggie yet to be found that will taste more like meat, but I am slowly learning to do without it.

In the mean time, I do like rice, noodles, etc. Fish... no real need for cheeseburgers kosher or otherwise. As far as bacon bits go... I am shuddering to think of what might be in them

Michael Koplow said...

Nothing to add, except that Ichabod Chrain is still the best Judeo-pseudonym around (with all due respect to the rest of you), and I still chortle unbecomingly whenever I see it.