NOTE FROM THE COORDINATORS
STRICT VEGAN STANDARDS?
The Conservative movement of Judaism Committee on Jewish Law and Standards recently discussed an official position concerning "Under what conditions may pizza from a non-Kosher establishment be considered Kosher for use by institutions." The document, technically known as Responsa literature since it was written in answer to a Jewish legal question, was presented by the committee. In the document, a footnote quoting from the chapter on kashrut [Jewish dietary laws] from The Observant Life, a recently released book, states, "An excellent source of information on which restaurant chains offer vegetarian food options is The Vegetarian Resource Group....This organization also helps make vegetarian customers aware of hidden areas of concern in restaurant food, and that information can be valuable to the kosher diner in a non-kosher restaurant." Thank you to our long-time researcher Jeanne Yacoubou, volunteers, and donors, who allow us to be of assistance to vegetarians, vegans, and other groups. They make researching restaurants, chains, and ingredients possible.
There were numerous points in the article to which we could relate and that have relevance for the vegetarian movement. First, in 1952 the Conservative movement addressed a related issue and said they would be following up, but until now, 60 years later, there has not been an attempt to present a comprehensive answer to the question. Not so tongue-in-cheek, we can certainly relate to how many projects are on the back burner due to other priorities or finding the right expert; it can take a long time to come back to and complete some projects. On the other hand, one commentator said everyone was comfortable with the old ruling, so that's why no one has written anything about it since. We certainly identify with people having strong opinions, some thinking there should be change, and others happy with the status quo.
Issues brought up by the committee were the practicality of people following rules, being strict and rigid versus inviting to everybody, and the difference between individual choices and organizational choices. Wading into this discussion, whether for comments on kosher, vegetarian, or vegan choices, is certainly a Pandora's Box. In the past, we have said vegetarianism shouldn't be a religion. However, for a movement that is based on non-violence, unfortunately there can be strong statements and judgments between different factions as in all human endeavors.
In the Conservative document, Rabbi Plotkin cites Rabbi Paul Drazen, giving people in transition to a fuller observance a prioritized series of options to follow when eating out.
- Only eat in kosher restaurants.
- Search out vegan or vegetarian restaurants.
- Eat only minimally processed cold foods when eating in unsupervised establishments.
- Less preferable is strictly vegetarian hot food [in unsupervised establishments].
The same would apply to vegetarianism. If you want to be totally strict, of course only eat in vegan or vegetarian restaurants. You can look for these by visiting www.vrg.org/restaurant or other vegetarian websites. Thank you to Brad Scott and Heather Gorn for creating our current vegetarian restaurant online database and Sonja Helman for maintaining the information. If you are not eating in a veggie restaurant, to be the most strict, it probably makes sense to eat minimally processed foods.
In the document written by Rabbi Plotkin, it's indicated that on many questions of Jewish law, there is often a continuum ranging from the lenient position to the stringent position. While compromises may not be (lawfully) valid, "They are better than those who observe nothing or are antagonistic to the very concept...While a partial observance is better than no observance, we should never mistake the compromise as an acceptable alternative to the rules...We should encourage the practitioners to see what they are doing as being transitional on the way to a fuller observance...Our movement has an obligation to help those making compromise decisions do so as informed choices. It is hoped this paper will aid in educating them on the many issues involved, so as to make a more informed decision as they ascend the ladder of holiness," Plotkin wrote. "The same cannot be said, however, for our institutions ... Since their practices will be emulated, they must always fully observe" the law.
We know that various vegetarians/vegans will practice differently and have different beliefs. For example, see our surveys at www.vrg.org/poll. If you don't eat meat, fish or poultry, and also abstain from dairy and eggs in the case of vegans, it's not another's role to judge if someone else is really vegetarian, vegan or not. However, institutions such as food manufacturers and vegan restaurants should be as strict as possible. There's a constant discussion and reassessment of what's practical and what is holding to high standards.
Rabbi Plotkin wrote, "Some have asked why we need" a discussion at all on this subject "since it is clear that no one's life will end from not having pizza, but in our communal lives there may be occasions when the ability to eat hot pizza will be of great assistance to a constituent group..."
He added that, "...in addition to the halakhic (religious law) limitations acknowledged and accepted in this paper, there is a very tangible benefit to maintaining the standard of only eating in kosher facilities. First, it has a positive sociological effect on our community by establishing yet another institution (i.e. kosher restaurants) where Jews meet each other and interact as observant Jews. Furthermore, if more Conservative Jews did not have the easy option of eating anywhere, they would form a significant consumer base that would spur the opening of many more kosher restaurants. This would have an immeasurable effect on strengthening a Conservative Jewish community."
Certainly all this applies to vegetarians. Eating only in vegetarian and vegan restaurants means more vegetarian and vegan restaurants and a place for us to gather. But on the other hand, in the United States there are very few places where businesses could survive without being patronized by non-vegetarians. Most people would not be vegetarian or vegan if they could only eat in vegan restaurants. And the more we eat in non-vegetarian restaurants, the more veggie options there will be offered, and more people will find it easier to be vegetarian or try being vegetarian. However, if you want to be 100% sure you are being pure, eating in a non-vegetarian restaurant is unlikely to work. Utensils aside, Rabbi Plotkin points out the example of three upscale pizzerias in Chicago that use lard in their dough. In Baltimore, we were highly disappointed several years ago when we learned that a local pizzeria with cheeseless pizza on the menu (so seemingly vegan) had lard in their dough. So each side has valid points, and you have to do what makes the most sense for your beliefs and lifestyle, remembering that vegetarianism is not a religion, but part of putting your other beliefs into practice on a daily basis.
Debra Wasserman & Charles Stahler, Coordinators of The Vegetarian Resource Group