In the fall of 2021, the Orthodox Union, the world’s largest kosher supervision agency, announced that it would not grant its seal of approval to “Impossible Pork.”
The product itself, which is a combination of water, oils and soybean plants, does not contain any nonkosher ingredients and could, in theory, be produced in a plant under kosher supervision.
Yet the agency decided against certifying a product whose name bears the word “pork.” Its director asserted that at this stage, too many kosher consumers bear a visceral opposition to such a product, even as he kept the door open for revisiting the decision.
Interestingly, many kashrut agencies have provided certification for vegan or plant-based burgers, nondairy margarine and even fake shrimp. The OU itself certifies “porkless plant-based snack rinds” as well as Bacos, one of the first soy-based meat substitutes. In theory, some of these products may be problematic if people would mistakenly think these substitutes were the original prohibited item.
This problem, known in halachic literature as mar’it ayin, can be circumvented if there are clear distinctive markers, or if it becomes readily known that there are fake look-alike versions.
Thus medieval authorities found ways to permit drinking almond milk with meat products, much as we allow nondairy creamer at meat meals. Besides printing clear kosher symbols on product labels, some kosher supervision agencies will insist that the product name should indicate that this is a faux version (e.g., “veggie bacon”), something that the makers of “Impossible Pork” were apparently unwilling to do.
Interestingly, Jewish law does not prohibit gaining benefit (hana’ah) from porcine products. A Jewish employer, for example, could serve bacon to his gentile workers. Nonetheless, there is a strong cultural taboo against pork because of its role in many anti-Jewish tropes over the centuries.
Within Greco-Roman culture, in which pork was a staple food and regularly used for sacrifices, the Jewish prohibition was seen as misanthropic. On many occasions, Greek or Roman persecutors would force Jews to consume it or place swine within Jewish holy sites. Over the generations, pigs became a symbol not just for nonkosher food (hazir treif) but for our enemies.
Nonetheless, by the disappointed reaction of many kosher consumers to the Impossible Pork decision, it seems that many Jews no longer associate swine with antisemitism. At the very least, they would have no problem eating faux-porcine products along with their “veggie shrimp” and vegan cheeseburgers.
AS PROF. Ari Zivotofsky has noted, there’s been a long-standing ideological disagreement over the propriety of these imitation foods. The ingredients might be kosher, and the branding agencies might promote them as vegan products. Nonetheless, is it the job of Jews to find a way to licitly taste every forbidden pleasure?
This was the question of Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, a leading figure in a famous Lakewood yeshiva, who over 20 years ago published a trenchant critique of these imitation foods. Jews, he argued, distinguish themselves by not seeking every “taste and texture” enjoyed by gentiles. This is part of the essence of being a holy nation.
Yet a well-known Talmudic passage seemingly indicates that there is nothing wrong with enjoying these pleasures, as long as the Torah’s prohibitions do not encompass them.
Yalta, the sagacious wife of the well-known Babylonian sage Rav Nahman, asserted, “As a rule, for any item that the Merciful One prohibited to us, He permitted to us a similar item.” She listed a series of examples to emphasize this point. Consuming meat and milk together is prohibited, yet a meaty udder with its milky texture bears the same taste.
She even includes examples of prohibited sexual relations that, under certain contexts, become permissible. One should not covet a married woman, for example, yet if she becomes divorced, matters change entirely. Among her examples of permissible pleasures are consuming the brains of the shibuta fish, which was a well-known Babylonian delicacy that shared the taste of pork!
Some scholars, like rabbis Moshe Sofer and Eliyahu Dessler, interpreted this phenomenon of licit imitative pleasures as a concession to our carnal human instincts. Given the nature of the human condition and our desire for forbidden pleasures, God created licit alternatives that would serve as permissible outlets and prevent us from sinning. Yet there is certainly no merit in seeking out these pleasures. Following this train of thought, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (d. 2012) deemed contemporary imitation food products as religiously undesirable.
Others disagreed with this interpretation of Yalta’s statement. Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv (d. 1898), for example, understood it as celebrating that God did not deprive his chosen people of any pleasures. Earlier figures such as rabbis Shmuel Eidels (Maharsha) and Haim David Azulai (Hida) similarly noted that there is nothing wrong with enjoying the permissible foods.
To the contrary, partaking of those foods highlights the idea that there is nothing inherently wrong with pork, meat and milk, or other forbidden foods. We abstain from eating them because this is the will of God. By affirming both our desire for those pleasures as well as our willingness to forgo them, we show that our true motivation is to serve God. This is what makes us a holy nation! Accordingly, there is certainly nothing wrong with producing vegan cheeseburgers and other kosher imitation products.
Ultimately, the widespread certification of these products stems from other considerations – namely, the growing trend to eschew meat (for a variety of reasons) and a general goal of constantly increasing the number of kosher items on the market to make it easier to observe our dietary laws. I suspect that ultimately Impossible Pork will become certified, albeit perhaps under a different label.
Either way, I have no problem with embracing these vegan products if they are approved by a reputable kashrut agency. ■
The writer is co-dean of the Tikvah Online Academy and author of the award-winning A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates.