I’m going to take a brief detour from the main focus of this blog — my life with allergies — to discuss a whole other food issue. And that is, the question of whether or not cow’s milk is kosher.
For the record, everyone paskens (rules) that it is.
But that doesn’t stop some public figures from expressing their personal stringencies, and what I’d like to discuss is: 1) why that’s a problem for the kashrut-observant Jewish population and 2) why dairy is important and community-wide veganism is unhealthy. And a disclaimer, before I get into it all — the article I’m referencing was written by Rav Shmuly Yanklowitz, who I know personally and quite like. I think Shmuly is kind, has the best of intentions, is generous, and smart. But I also think his article in this week’s Jewish Journal was very, very dangerous.
This week, Los Angeles’ premiere Jewish publication The Jewish Journal published a cover story called “When You Drink Milk, Does the Cow Matter? Why a Leading Rabbi Believe Milk Today May Be Treif (unkosher).” And I’m betting 98% of the reasoning behind this article was to stir controversy, increase ad sales, and get a ton more clicks to their website. (Has working in journalism made me too cynical?) Even though I really, really, really don’t want to drive traffic to obvious link bait, I also think once controversy is stirred, it has to be addressed, and the below won’t make much sense without reading the whole article. Two sides, and all that. So, with great reluctance: read the full article here.
A few things from the article particularly stood out to me:
In the first paragraph, Rav Shmuly mentions how he and his wife decided to stop consuming dairy products when they got married, but kept it private. Until now, when they found out that the Rosh Yeshivah (head Rabbi of a school) at Yeshivah University, Rav Hershel Schachter, also doesn’t consume dairy products. Apparently, the weight of two people – and as I infer, two people from very different Orthodox Jewish approaches – makes this an issue worth discussing.
Rav Shmuly then argues for the ethics of animals; they are mistreated and certainly we aren’t supposed to derive benefit from the mistreatment of animals. He then states that the benefits we all believe we get from cow’s milk – calcium and vitamin C – are not necessarily the benefits we’re led to believe and in fact, cow’s milk is harmful to us. And there are lobbyists involved.
And the part that really gets to me?
“Experts estimate that if all Americans ate a vegan diet, that alone would cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 6 percent. Changing our diets is the most powerful way to help the environment.”
He also mentions: “We must also consider moving toward almond, soy, rice, and coconut milk alternatives, until the dairy industry cleans up its act. There is no shortage of affordable, healthy, tasty alternatives, so it is relatively easy for us to make the change in accordance with our consciences.”
Why It Bothers Me: From a Jewish Perspective
Rav Shmuly is best known for founding the social justice group Uri L’Tzedek. He’s a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, the most left-leaning liberal Orthodox rabbinic school. He’s a poster child for a new way of liberal observance, and is the last type of person anyone would associate with unnecessary stringencies. We expect stringencies from the more ultra-Orthodox community. Even the centrist Orthodox community. But when liberal rabbis start arguing for stringencies, we just give credence to the right and encourage them to keep doing so. While Rav Shmuly agreeing with Rav Schachter is nice and communal hugging and all that, it also gives weight to the potential opinion of “I’m going to follow Rav Schacter’s lead, [by the by, Rav Schachter does not think anyone else, even his own children, should take on his stringency,] even that liberal rabbi guy from Rabbi Weiss’ school holds by that law.” And then what happens? One Jewish Journal link-bait piece stirs up a new movement of veganism.
Additionally, Judaism is not meant to be the sort of religion that forces you to give up all earthly pleasures. It’s not a religion that tries to bind you against living life the way you want to. In fact a person who takes on extra stringencies, such as a nazir who doesn’t cut his hair or drink wine, is told to give a sin-offering sacrifice by the Torah. What’s his sin? Not living the life God laid out for him. We are not add nor detract from the Torah. And sure, maybe halachically (according to Jewish law) we can’t have milk anymore because of dairy practices. But Jewish law is supposed to be LIVED. It’s called halacha — translated from the root of the word “to walk” — because we walk with it. We move with it. It moves with us. Giving up milk — a kosher product — for an assumption about all dairy products in America — is just unreasonable and not livable. And that’s outside the spirit of the law, which includes an element for tircha d’tzivura (an unnecessary extra burden for the community). Should we try to advocate for animal rights? Sure. Should we try to buy milk from cows that are housed on smaller dairy farms? Sure. But that’s harder to rally for, and there won’t be a big enough dent in the dairy industry to make change.
But where there will be dents if milk starts being “unkosher” is in the community. First, let’s look at what giving up dairy products actually requires — and let’s keep in mind that people don’t have all that much money all the time, especially when Jewish day school can be up to $20k a year:
1. Disposing of all dairy pots and pans, and silverware, china, etc.
2. Making a kitchen where dairy was once cooked totally kosher again.
3. Throwing out ANY product in the house that may contain milk. Any dry goods, any cereals, and also any cheeses, ice cream, yogurts, etc.
4. Shutting down every kosher dairy restaurant. This means the loss of livelihoods for any restaurant owner and workers. Oh, and any kosher cheese companies, who also have workers.
5. Stopping to certify products that contain milk, which will be a huge loss to the Orthodox Union and other kosher certification organizations (especially now that the “dairy equipment” label is gone, and anything on dairy equipment would no longer be able to be certified kosher). This will increase the price of certification on all other products, to ensure the OU and its counterparts have enough money to function, which in turn raises prices of kosher goods.
6. Families who aren’t vegan will need to buy more meat, beans, soy, and lentils to gain the protein from cheese. These items are not cheap.
7. Not everyone will adhere to this ruling, because it’s too insane. So there will be communal rifts where a person won’t eat at another person’s house, or potentially associate with them, if one eats cheese and one does not. We already have a “shidduch crisis (getting-our-children-married crisis)” from all the disparate behaviour in Orthodoxy. Now we’re going to add “Does she eat dairy? Do her parents? Siblings? When did they stop?” to the dating questionaires? Good luck solving that crisis, now.
8. As much as almond, soy, rice, and coconut milk are “affordable” for Rav Shmuly, they’re not really that cheap. A gallon of 2% milk at Von’s is $4.19. A quart of almond milk at Von’s is $3.59. That’s almost the same price for a quarter as much product. Sure, you might be able to splurge if you’re vegan and not buying kosher meat, but it’s unreasonable to think everyone will be vegan.
And all of the above takes into account only “normal eaters.” Sure, if you can eat everything kosher in the world, giving up dairy isn’t hard. I mean, honestly, I gave up dairy and 50 other things for the last few months, and I’m still kicking. Half my original size, more tired, and have like no nutrients, but that’s probably from the other things and not the dairy. I could live without cheese, milk, etc. FOR SURE. It’s a top 8 allergen, so many people live without dairy, and they get by just fine.
BUT they have no choice. Keeping kosher is hard enough when you’re on a restricted diet. Outlawing more foods to constrict our diets even more is just not acceptable for someone who already has biologically imposed food restrictions. And sure, you can argue that God wouldn’t want you to suffer, so you can eat dairy if you’ll be too unhealthy without it (not sure if that argument is valid, but you can argue it), but you’ll still run into problems when it comes to community — just because I can hypothetically eat non kosher food does not mean my family can nor does it mean the community can, and thus I become isolated. And, who wants a food restriction to also impede the way they serve God, or the way they are perceived to do so? The thing that hurts me most about my allergies is the fact that participating in Jewish rituals is harder when I can’t eat the foods. My heart breaks every Passover that I can’t eat the bitter herbs. It’s a reminder of a disability, and just salt in the wound that not only can I not eat properly or play properly or go to work without being sick, but I can’t even serve God to the extent to which a “normal eater” can.
Why It Bothers Me: From an Allergic Perspective
Aside from the above, the thing that bothers me the most about this article from an allergic perspective is Rav Shmuly’s call to veganism.
Newsflash: not everyone is able to be a vegan. Whether we want to be vegans or not — I personally don’t believe in veganism and wouldn’t if I could eat everything in front of me — not everyone can.
For instance, if I were a vegan, and living on my current diet, I would only be able to get protein from beans.
No nuts, no soy (not yet), no lentils, no fish. No eggs, no cheese, no meat. Honestly, the only difference for me personally right now would be meat, because I’m not eating those other things anyway, but I can’t go more than a day without meat or I can’t drive properly, much less think straight. People need protein to survive, and I barely get enough of it as it is.
Not to mention calcium. Even if milk having calcium is a myth, like Rav Shmuly insinuates, the other sources of calcium in food are leafy greens, soy, almonds, and white beans. So, I guess I could eat white beans. And get a whopping 96 mg of calcium per serving…which I’m only eating 3 times a week.
And honestly, my diet is totally not sustainable long term. Cheese and eggs will be a hugely welcome addition. If you can’t have carbs — like most vegans need to — you don’t really get very many calories. I mean, unless you eat a ton of processed foods. And chemicals. Yum, that’s SUPER HEALTHY. And I’m sure the production of those chemicals is awesome for our environment. Rav Shmuly argues that dairy cows have too many hormones and antibiotics being fed to them. That’s animal cruelty. Well, the chemicals is soy burgers aren’t that great for humans. Who knows what the next generation of humans will suffer from because of how many faux-foods and processed foods we ingest?!
Vegans can’t live without soy. And soy is a really common allergen. Now, I’m not a scientist, but I know my body, and I know I got to where I am because of overdosing on foods I was mildly sensitive to. Eating tofu, soy burgers, soy cheese, and soy milk, not to mention actual, you know, edamame, is so unhealthy when it’s consumed that often. We need diversity in our diets. How do you get diversity in your diet if you can’t eat enough? Sure, if you’re a totally normal eater, you’re fine being vegan. But if you have some food restrictions, I don’t think it makes any sense. And with as many as 15 million people having food allergies — not to mention those with Celiac, food sensitivities, diabetes, or other food-related issues — calling for all Americans to go vegan is just not okay.
Calling for all people who keep kosher to give up dairy is not okay, either (and neither is writing an article that suggests as much). Giving up dairy is not a choice for some people. Did Rav Shmuly research how many products have traces of milk? Anyone with a milk allergy knows that it can be heart-breaking to go grocery shopping and read label after label of “Milk. Death. Milk. Death. Milk. Death.” Why impose that on an entire population who already is restricted in its diet? Why make life harder for people for whom eating is already a heart-wrenching experience? Why not have compassion for the human population to the same degree as the animal population?
I’m sure Rav Shmuly did not mean to offend the food-restricted populous with his article. I know him well enough to know that. But, I do think he didn’t consider it when formulating his argument. And that’s a topic for a whole other time — but an important not nonetheless.
With Rabbis saying things like “only eat peeled asparagus, don’t eat strawberries, don’t drink tap water, you can’t eat lettuce unless you eat it from this supervisor, you can’t have broccoli etc.,” I imagine the kashrut-observant population will be down to a list of “acceptable foods” that’s shorter than mine. And that’s just a hell of a lot of malnourishment.
Or, I guess, a bonus to the teff-growers of Ethiopia, because they’ll see a certain spike in consumption.