By Jesse Bernstein and David Rullo
When it was first introduced in 2016, the Impossible Burger was embraced by vegetarians and the Jewish community alike.
Suddenly anyone who had given up meat but was still anxious for the smoky taste of an afternoon barbecue could walk into a sit-down restaurant and order a burger without shame. Even better, Jews around the globe could now enjoy the most tantalizing of forbidden combinations: the cheeseburger!
It wasn’t long before other, similar plant-based burgers began to be found not only at restaurants but in grocery stores and fast-food restaurants as well.
Now that Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have given the world a taste for a beef alternative that looks, tastes and feels like the real thing (they can even make your burger “bleed” if you like), the companies have taken on a new challenge with implications not just for the vegetarian and kosher markets, but one that just might make an impact in the halal and Muslim community as well.
Impossible Foods call their new pork-styled offerings “juicy, savory, pre-seasoned meat, made from plants, designed for kosher and halal certification.” Beyond Meat’s sausages are already certified as kosher and are available at some grocery stores and can even be found on the menu of Dunkin’ Donuts.
According to Rivka Isaacson, director of operations at House of Kosher in Northeast Philadelphia, the Beyond Sausage breakfast sandwiches have not yet graced the store’s shelves, but they’re on their way.
While it’s possible to recreate the experience of eating pork or sharing a grilled non-meat substitute bratwurst with the neighbors at a block party, observant Jews might question the halacha of eating a product that tastes so much like the calling card of treif food.
Rabbi Eli C. Freedman of Congregation Rodeph Shalom explains that this is related to a principle called marit ayin, which translates roughly to “appearance to the eye.” It comes from a discussion relating to behavior that may appear to violate halacha, without actually doing so.
One obvious example of this, Freedman said, would be walking into a non-kosher restaurant, even if your intent has nothing to do with eating treif. Ditto for eating something that appears to be pork; what would a non-Jew make of a Jew appearing to break their own rules?
Tough appearance or not, Freedman is happy to add another kosher treat to his repertoire. With the explosion of kosher options that appear to be non-kosher, he said: “We’re sort of beyond that.”
Of course, in Freedman’s opinion, the “ideal kashrut” involves being vegetarian, or vegan. He also acknowledges that total adoption of that view may have to wait for the Messianic age.
Rabbi Shaya Deitsch, of Lubavitch of Montgomery County, explains the issue of Beyond Sausage and other kosher foods that imitate non-kosher foods a little differently. For someone just starting to keep kosher, he said, something like a veggie cheeseburger can be a helpful way to wean that person off of the food they were used to, if not the taste.
“This is a way for them to be able to experience a kosher diet under the strictest kosher standard, because it’s not really a burger,” he said.
However, Deitsch noted, a person who has long kept kosher may feel that imitating a non-kosher food would actually lower their standard of kashrut, and even entice them to crave the taste of the real thing. For this reason, they might avoid the world of Beyond meats, even though it may be kosher as kosher comes.
The truth is, he said, this debate, though it seems new, has been happening for years within kosher communities. Imitation crab has been around for decades, and sparked similar questions for those who munch on kosher sushi. It’s the advent of kosher “pork,” Deitsch believes, with its specific cultural stigma, that’s causing confusion. Still, it’s the same principle.
“As long as the kosher standard is the highest standard, that’s to me what is most important,” he said.
David Rullo is a staff writer with the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an Exponent-affiliated publication.
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