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Hebrew National and Me: Answering to a Higher Authority

When people ask about my dietary habits, I tell them that I’m more or less vegetarian. When pressed, I explain that I keep kosher and, because I don’t trust myself to prepare for consumption anything that used to be alive, that effectively means sticking to a meatless diet. And when pressed some more (which I almost never am,) I explain it the long way:

I don’t eat pig or shellfish or any other trayf foods; the meat I do eat must have a hechsher; I won’t mix meat and dairy but am not all that stringent about the amount of time I wait between consuming one or the other; I don’t care whether dairy or other nonmeat animal products are certified kosher; and when I eat out I assume the role of vegetarian, unless in a kosher restaurant. Given all this, it stands to reason that I would have been, if not upset, at least moved by the recent allegations against Hebrew National.

Last month, a number of news sources reported that 11 disgruntled eaters filed a suit against Hebrew National parent company ConAgra Foods, saying that the famously kosher hot dogs did not, as advertised, answer to a higher authority. According to the complaint, AER Services inc., which processes and inspects kosher meat for ConAgra and Triangle K and Associates, which certifies it, ignored employee concerns that the meat was not meeting kashrut standards.

When I first heard about this possible breach I was surprised by my own indifference to the outcome (for now, ConAgra denies all claims and maintains that the suit has no basis) and by the fact that, when I thought about whether or not I’d continue to eat their hot dogs, it took me a long time to decide that I wouldn’t.

It’s hard for me to justify this observance. Logically, the method doesn’t hold up. If, for example, I were truly determined to keep bacon out of my diet I would have to stop ordering eggs at diners. I can’t pretend not to know that they are, in all likelihood, fried in bacon grease. And still, I eat egg sandwiches, I use Jet-Puffed Marshmallows for s’mores, and I won’t turn down Starburst because, as far as I can see, they’re kosher-friendly. A little suspended disbelief goes a long way in rationalizing this system.

Nor am I especially convinced by the ethical efficacy of kashrut. I do believe that, in theory, kosher animals are killed in more humane ways. But I don’t believe that this is true in practice (and for the record, neither does Temple Grandin). If I had decided to stick to the spirit rather than to the letter of the law, I might have swapped the kosher K for a grass-fed, free-range organic certification. But I haven’t done that, and I probably won’t.

Growing up, I treated Judaism as an obligation. I went to synagogue if I had to and I didn’t hate it, but I spent much of my time there wishing I were somewhere else. Over some 12 years at Jewish day school I learned the prayers, knew blessings by heart, and had a working understanding of the tenets of my faith, but buried the knowledge so that it became an inactive, if undeniable, part of me. When I got to college, I shed religious observances and practices, pushing them out of my days in favor of lesser, more pressing mundanities. Time spent at services became time devoted to studying or, more often, sleeping in. Eventually I managed to make spirituality a footnote on my life, and there it has remained. But still, I keep kosher.

So I find myself abiding by a half-baked, personally concocted system that doesn’t make sense morally or ideologically. This version of kashrut is not a burden to me. It’s easy; the easiest way to hold on to a ritual that still connects me to a larger group of believers, and this ease often makes it feel fickle. Mine has become a Judaism of convenience, made up of cherry-picked beliefs and practices that don’t disrupt my lifestyle. It’s something I don’t think about often, but when I do it makes me feel a little sad and a lot wistful and still unwilling to figure out a more committed, more sensible religion.

But for now I’ll stick to it and hope that, in going through the motions of this kaleidoscoped faith, I’ll return to or rebuild a more meaningful one, and will happen again upon God.

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