Silow-Carroll: Can you be a little bit kosher?

In his column this week, the editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News, Andrew Silow-Carroll, reflects on his decision to run an article about Dinnersmith, a new community kitchen in Maplewood, N.J., that “isn’t kosher” but accommodates those who “keep a lenient form of kashrut.”

How does a Jewish newspaper write about an establishment that is clearly nonkosher but goes out of its way to cater to a crowd that keeps a personal form of kashrut out of the home? More to the point, how does it write about it without really ticking off rabbinic authorities who demand that clear lines be drawn between what is certified kosher (that is, carries a hechsher from the local rabbinical council or national agency) and what isn’t?

Lets return to the Dinnersmith dilemma. Plenty of Jews go to nonkosher restaurants but observe what some call “kosher lite” — ranging from no pork or shellfish, to no meat or fowl, to eating cold foods only. Many of them keep kosher homes. (They’re the ones who never ask for doggie bags.)

By the Orthodox rabbis and many Conservative rabbis (but not all, as we’ll see) kosher lite is like being a little bit pregnant — or not pregnant, if you want to be technical, and if you care at all about kashrut, of course you do.

Silow-Carroll asserts that the deeper debate is between “Authority and Autonomy, the milk and meat of modernity.”

For many people, limiting the menu outside the home is a personal and, in some cases, a profound statement of Jewish identity, whether or not the restaurant carries a rabbinical certificate. When I started becoming observant in my 20s, one of the first things I began observing was kashrut, under the thesis that no matter what else I did or didn’t do Jewishly, I’d be making Jewish choices every time I put something in my mouth. I’ll eat in a nonkosher restaurant, but every time I pick and choose I remind myself and my tablemates that I belong to a people apart.

In the end, the N.J. Jewish News editor writes, the newspaper published the Dinnersmith article but left it to readers to make their own informed choices.

For the uninitiated, “the owners cover the counters in plastic” sounds like mere fastidiousness. For others, it’s code for “we’ll do all we can to keep your meal from touching another’s treif.”

We’ll also leave it to readers to debate whether it is better to help people do a mitzva as they define it, or only as the rabbis define it.

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