February 20, 2020

If you don’t eat bacon, you keep kosher

If you are a Jew who doesn’t eat bacon or shellfish because Judaism prohibits eating pork products and shellfish — but you do eat chicken and beef that have not been slaughtered according to halachah (Jewish law) — do you keep kosher?

Nearly every Jew who keeps kosher — and probably most who don’t — will answer that you do not.

[MORE FROM PRAGER: Is kosher all or nothing?]

Among Jews who keep kosher, in order to be considered a Jew who “keeps kosher,” one must eat only kosher food. That means refraining from eating not only the animals prohibited by the Torah — pork, shellfish, birds of prey and nearly all insects — but also any land animal not slaughtered halachically, not eating in a non-kosher restaurant and avoiding any foods not certified kosher.

I would like to make the argument that this attitude is both logically and Jewishly flawed — that a Jew who only refrains from pork and shellfish should in fact be considered a Jew who “keeps kosher.” 

To understand why, let’s take the example of tzedakah (charity). The Torah commands us to give 10 percent of our income to tzedakah. Now, if a Jew gives 5 percent, do we say that he gives tzedakah? Of course we do. In fact, we might even characterize such a Jew as baal tzedakah, a charitable man. 

But if we applied the same criterion to tzedakah that we do to keeping kosher, we would never call such a person — one who only gives half of what Judaism demands — a baal tzedakah. In fact, we wouldn’t even say that he gives tzedakah. If a Jew who only keeps half of what Judaism demands regarding kashrut doesn’t “keep kosher,” why would we say that a Jew who only observes half of what Judaism demands regarding tzedakah “gives tzedakah”?

This attitude tells us a lot of what has gone wrong in Judaism.

It tells us, for example, that we are far stricter in assessing Jews’ observance in ritual laws (the laws between man and God) than in ethical laws (laws between man and man). Partial observance of ethical laws doesn’t disqualify a Jew from being regarded as observant of those laws or as ethical, but any deviation from what is considered complete observance of ritual laws means the Jew simply doesn’t observe those laws.

It has gotten to the point where even a Jew who refrains from eating any non-kosher foods, even those that do not have an Orthodox Union certification, but who will eat off dishes that may have touched nonkosher food prior to being washed, or eats fruit in a nonkosher restaurant, will not be considered by many Orthodox Jews as keeping kosher.

The same holds true for Shabbat observance.

The prevailing definition of a shomer Shabbat — one who keeps Shabbat — is one who keeps all the laws of Shabbat. If a Jew refrains (even at the sacrifice of income) from working on Shabbat, he is not a shomer Shabbos if he so much as turns on lights in his house on Shabbat, let alone if he drives to shul or to a Shabbat meal. 

In other words, when it comes to ritual, it’s all or nothing when we describe a Jew. But in the realm of ethics, we never apply all or nothing.

There is a very negative consequence to this attitude: We expend far more religious energy in disqualifying Jews from considering themselves religious than in trying to have more Jews consider themselves religious. As a result, the Jew who refrains from eating only Torah-prohibited animals is deemed to be — and deems himself to be — a Jew who doesn’t keep kosher, which is one of the defining rituals of a Jewish life

Why is that good for Judaism? Why would Jewish life want to exclude as many Jews as possible from being considered or considering themselves religious instead of wanting as many Jews as possible to be considered or to consider themselves religious?

It makes no sense logically or Jewishly to say that a Jew who doesn’t eat Torah-prohibited animals doesn’t keep kosher, or that a Jew who doesn’t work on Shabbat but drives to Shabbat-related events on Shabbat is a mechalel Shabbat (Shabbat desecrator). Does any religious Jew label a Jew who only gives 5 percent of his income to charity a mechalel tzedakah (tzedakah desecrator)? And if not, why not?

The bottom line is that a Jew who doesn’t eat any non-kosher foods for Jewish reasons keeps kosher. He simply doesn’t keep kosher to the same extent as more observant Jews do. 

So, if you don’t eat bacon or shellfish because you are a Jew, you can, and should, proudly say that you keep kosher. 

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).