(JTA) The Orthodox Union won’t certify Impossible Pork as kosher, representing a break from the way that decisions about certifying kosher food are normally made. But as someone who studies Judaism’s long relationship with technology, I would argue that it is undoubtedly the right move.

Since the OU first started certifying products a century ago, kosher supervision has always remained doggedly focused on objective fact-finding: Food is kosher because of what’s in it and how it’s made (and, occasionally, who makes it) and that’s basically it.

So it was unusual when the OU — the largest certifier of kosher products in the world — denied certification to Impossible Pork, a next-gen meat substitute, despite the fact that every ingredient in the product is kosher. The OU explained that it could not certify a product that described itself as pork.

Despite protestations to the contrary from hungry Jews and my own deep culinary curiosity, I believe that the OU made the right call. Though it seems that the decision was narrowly decided, the move to withhold kosher certification may in fact turn out to be one of the most important Jewish legal decisions of the 21st century.  The OU’s move is a first, tentative step towards a stance on technological innovation that desperately needs to become more common.

The makers of new technology like to call things “unprecedented” because it generates hype, but disconnecting new technologies from old ones is also a good way of shielding themselves from ethical and legal responsibility for how those technologies behave.

This new tech dynamic plays out in Jewish law, too. How should the rule forbidding leather shoes on Yom Kippur — because they were considered an indulgence — apply in an era of comfortable synthetic shoes? Must one wear tzitzit (ritual fringes) at all when modern shirts don’t have the four corners that triggered the Biblical requirement of tzitzit?

The best example of this is the ban on turning electricity on or off on Shabbat. For millennia, the experience of Shabbat was shaped by the Biblical prohibition on lighting fires; with the advent of electricity at the turn of the last century, that ban threatened to become irrelevant. Orthodox rabbis responded by coalescing around the argument that electricity is fire, or was covered by some other well-established prohibition. That electricity is not actually fire didn’t matter; the argument carried because it was understood by leadership and laity alike that electricity was coming to replace fire, to do everything fire could do and more. Today, the restrictions on electricity are a cornerstone of the Shabbat experience, so fundamental that it is hard for many observant Jews to imagine Shabbat without it.

Is Impossible Pork the 21st century version of electricity? There’s a good case to be made that it is. Their success depends on their being so delicious that they take on the same cultural role as meat.

These developments should be celebrated—but rather than diminishing meat’s special cultural meaning, its substitutes have only served to burnish it.

Meat has a special significance in Judaism, too. God is a big fan of animal sacrifices, and many holidays still involve the ritual or cultural use of meat — and inasmuch as meat matters, it matters that the meat isn’t pork. It’s enough that modern observant Jews (and Muslims) still treat the ban on pig products as a cultural touchstone. We should be glad that technology has created a meaningful difference between veggie beef and veggie pork — but if the distinction is there, the ban on the pork must be, too.

Even if it was not intended to be profound, the OU’s decision is an example of how all regulators, both religious and governmental, can fight back against the cultural unmooring that the present onslaught of new technology continues to cause. In this unprecedented age, creating continuity between the past and the present serves to ground society in the wisdom and norms of its own past.

David Tzvi Kalman is the scholar in residence and director of new media at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and the owner of Print-o-Craft Press. He holds a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.

 

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