Parashat Shmini – Keeping Kosher: Not All or Nothing, 4/15/23

Parashat Intro (Rabbi Julie)

Sermon (Rabbi Julie)

Levels of Kashrut – Parshat Shemini 4.14.23

When I was in rabbinical school, living in New York City, one of my closest friends, Luciana Pajecki, invited me over for dinner. Luciana was my hevruta partner and we spent many, many hours sitting together and translating the Torah from Hebrew to English. But sometimes, even several times a homework assignment, Luciana wouldn’t recognize the obscure Biblical term in English and since I didn’t know a word of Portuguese, I would have to try and act out the word. Words like levirate marriage. When we were ordained in 2005, Luciana became the first Brazilian-born female rabbi.

That night that Luciana invited me over dinner, she made an extra special effort to cook a meal that would meet all the specifications of my extremely detailed, doctor-ordered, high-protein diet. As we waited for her husband Alon to come home from work, she excitedly told me about her deliberations with the fishmonger at the fish store, and how she picked out a new type of fish she had never prepared before – Catfish. Have I ever heard of it, she asked? Luciana was so proud of herself, in part because she only started cooking recently, when she got married. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that catfish isn’t kosher.

Catfish do NOT have both fins and scales, only fins and it’s a bottom-dweller. I really wasn’t sure what to do. Here we were, two rabbinical students at the flagship Conservative seminary about to have our own treife banquet. I knew if I told her, she would throw the meal out immediately and then scramble to come up with another dinner, and feel deeply embarrassed. After investing all that time and money in doing something caring and kind and supportive, knowing how difficult it was for me every meal to keep that special anti-inflammatory diet. After struggling with her English every day, determined to become a rabbi despite all the obstacles. So I decided I would eat the Catfish and tell her the truth later, maybe many years later.

When we sat down at the dinner table, Luciana’s husband Alon loosened his tie, and greeted me with the warmest smile. It had been more than 12 years since I had eaten meat that wasn’t strictly kosher. We both picked up a forkful of fish and took a bite. Alon made a terrible face and nearly gagged, saying, ‘Uhghh, Lu this fish tastes awful’. What did you do? It tastes terrible. Julie, tell me the truth, doesn’t this fish taste awful? And I answered, well, if you want me to tell you the truth, this fish isn’t kosher!

Every time we eat and every time we decide whether or not to eat something kosher or not kosher, we are making choices based on competing values. Do we prioritize religious integrity or not hurting someone’s feelings? Do we value taste or nutrition more? Do we want to feel Jewish every time we order from a restaurant menu or do we want the freedom to eat every cuisine from all over the world? Do we care more about the impact on the environment or do we prefer to use disposable plates rather than eat vegetarian takeout food on our regular dishes? Do we value eating in other people’s homes more or strict adherence to kashrut standards? Is it more important to us to preserve Jewish tradition or partake of the foodie culture in Montclair?

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The second half of this morning’s Torah portion, parshat Shemini, outlines the basic laws of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. Land animals are kosher if they chew their cud and have split hooves. Fish are permitted when they have both fins and scales. Birds of prey are off-limits. We are not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. And some locusts are kosher, while other species of locusts are not.

Though the core basis of the Jewish dietary laws are in the Torah – which types of animals are forbidden and which are permitted and the limit of cooking meat in milk – our Torah portion says nothing about keeping separate dishes for meat and dairy, about how to slaughter the animal, or about how cheese is made. These details (and many more) would be developed over the course of centuries to build a fence around the law, to protect us from inadvertently transgressing God’s will.

But few of us keep mitzvot today out of fear that God will punish us. Rather we are motivated for other reasons – the inherent meaning of the act itself, nostalgia for practices of our parents and grandparents, a desire to continue Jewish tradition or bring a spark of Judaism into our lives. This is why Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove defines a mitzvah, an act like eating kosher food not as a good deed or a commandment, but as a “positive act of Jewish identification.”

I strongly believe that keeping kosher is not a zero-sum game. But rather, there are many levels of keeping kosher. Eating lobster or catfish for that matter, is never kosher. But choosing to eat a McDonald’s hamburger instead of a cheeseburger is a form of keeping kosher. And I also believe it can be meaningful to keep more strictly kosher at certain moments in one’s life – during Passover or at Shabbat dinner or at a B’nai Mitzvah reception, even if you don’t restrict what you eat the rest of the time.

Here are some examples of different levels of kashrut:
Blatantly treif, (eating pork and shellfish, mixing meat and dairy).
Sometimes kosher (at synagogue or on certain occasions, you choose to eat kosher)
Kosher style (no pork or shellfish but eating meat that isn’t slaughtered in a kosher way)
Hot Dairy Out (eat vegetarian, fish, or dairy cooked in a non-kosher restaurant or home)
Kosher by ingredient (all ingredients are kosher but not under kosher supervision)
Strictly kosher (only eat certified kosher food prepared on kosher equipment)

Most people simply say kosher and non-kosher, which happens to be a pet peeve of mine. For example, when someone asks me, rabbi can we have non-kosher pizza at the Pizza at the Hut event, they don’t mean, rabbi can I serve pepperoni pizza in the Sukkah? Rather, they’re asking if they can serve pizza, from a non-kosher restaurant, cheese pizza that is kosher by ingredient. When they call that cheese pizza ‘non-kosher’, I know what they mean, and I could just answer the question, but by insisting that they call that pizza kosher by ingredient rather than non-kosher, we are honoring the choices we make to keep kosher at different levels. And when someone orders kosher style at a Chinese restaurant, only choosing from the beef and chicken sections of the menu, and not the pork section, they are making a kosher choice at that moment, they are asserting their Jewish identity at that moment. When we acknowledge different levels of keeping kosher, we affirm the legitimacy of our choices as non-Orthodox Jews as Jewish choices and we open the possibility of keeping kosher to more people at more moments in their lives.

Every time we eat, every time we choose to keep kosher in some way, we are balancing competing values. I grew up in a kosher style home, with the tradition of eating bacon when stopping for breakfast on long car trips. In high school, when my oldest brother became Orthodox and left for college, my parents switched our home to strictly kosher so my brother would continue to eat at home. Around that time, I was inspired at a USY convention to stop eating meat that wasn’t kosher outside the house as well. In my twenties, when I was considering rabbinical school and becoming more Shabbat observant, I thought about switching to a practice of only eating in kosher restaurants. Ultimately, I decided not to keep strictly kosher outside the house because I didn’t want to restrict myself to only eating in the homes and restaurants of other Jews who kept strictly kosher. I valued being a part of a pluralistic Jewish community and being part of a diverse secular community too much.

As we think about how and when we keep kosher as individuals and as a community, I encourage us to think about kashrut in different levels and to consider the competing values that inform the choices we make. That night at Luciana’s house, I chose to eat that bite of Catfish for reasons that are hard to explain. There were competing values at stake, even competing Jewish values, and I chose not to prioritize kashrut in that moment. But otherwise, since 1988, I have found it deeply meaningful to not eat meat that isn’t strictly kosher.

I love that Judaism says that every part of our lives, even an act as mundane as eating, can be holy. I find it deeply meaningful to make a Jewish choice every time I eat. And I believe strongly that the mitzvah of keeping kosher is not an all or nothing endeavor. It’s something we can choose at different levels at different moments of our lives as a mitzvah, as an act of positive Jewish identification. I encourage us as individuals and as a community to think more about when and how we keep kosher because eating is so central to living and to building community.


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