It’s almost 7 p.m. and it’s time for dinner. A friend – who is vegetarian – suggests a local vegan Vietnamese spot known for its spicy eggplant. As the hostess takes you to your table, you notice a group of yarmulke-clad men sitting with their wives, laughing over tofu in black bean sauce. You recognize a friend and walk up to say hello – though it isn’t long before you blurt out,
“Umm…how are you eating here? Aren’t you kosher?”
“It’s a vegetarian restaurant,” your friend replies. “There’s no meat.”
Such is a typical scenario among vegetarian Jews who, while less observant than their ultra-Orthodox kinsman, wish to remain kosher to a certain degree. Many of these Jews oft keep a kosher household, but when it comes to eating out, a restaurant whose kitchen is entirely void of meat products may trump one that bares a certification from COR, the kosher certifying agency of the Kashruth Council of Canada.
“I’d prefer to eat at a vegetarian restaurant that serves no meat, and may not be COR-certified,” says Sheldon Richmond of Thornhill, Ont. “You never know if the vegetarian food will be cooked in the same oven or with the same utensils as meat, so it could be contaminated.”
Richmond, 69, has kept a vegetarian diet for 28 years, longer than he’s been fully kosher, though maintaining both are equally important to him. “I’m a bit more fussy about being vegetarian than I am about being kosher, because I’m concerned with how an animal is killed, kosher or not.” Richmond’s dietary practices are an “adaptation” of his own ethics merged with the teachings of Judaism. “I’ve grown more and more observant but within my own principles,” he says.
Julian Brass, founder and CEO of Notable.ca, also abides his own set of morals as a kosher vegan. “As a Jew, I believe we’re all here to spread love and light unto the world and follow the Torah. While keeping kosher is an important part of that, eating a plant-based diet that doesn’t harm living creatures brings me even closer to this beautiful world that Hashem created.”
Abiding a strict plant-based diet gives less for him to worry about when it comes to keeping kosher, Brass says. “I’m not concerned whether something is COR-certified since I’m not eating meat.”
While Orthodox Jews would argue eating at non-certified restaurants isn’t technically Kashrut, it all boils down to your level of observance, says Rabbi Schachar Orenstein, senior rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue of Montreal.
Orenstein, 43, has been vegetarian since he was 17 – though he did have a brief stint where he ate fish, until he watched Finding Nemo and reverted back again.
If a member of his congregation were to ask about eating at a vegetarian restaurant, there’d be a “whole list of issues” to discuss, he says. “For example, salad dressings commonly have food additives, or non-kosher wine or vinegar. I recently read a book on food, and with the amount of chemicals and preservatives that go into some vegetarian products, you’d have to be a chemist to know for sure,” he says.
“In my experience, religious Jewish vegetarians only eat at kosher-certified restaurants. There are many issues that can come up at vegetarian or vegan restaurants that wouldn’t conform with a kosher diet. For example, fruits and veggies need to be cleaned in a rigorous way to ensure that there are no traces of insects, which are of course not kosher,” adds Richard Rabkin, COR’s managing director.
And what of maintaining a plant-based diet in general? How does the religious Jewish community see vegetarianism? According to Orenstein, there’s an ongoing debate.
“Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, argued that eating meat was a temporary concession,” Orenstein says. Rabbi Kook believed that a God who is merciful to his creatures would not institute an everlasting law permitting the killing of animals for food. “The Garden of Eden ideal is also vegetarian,” he says.
“There are rabbinic voices who argue that kosher dietary laws are intended to teach ethical responsibility. In my case, as being both Kashrut and vegetarian makes me more aware of what I put into my body, I believe there’s a synergy between the two. Also, this way I can always eat dairy ice cream after a meal.”
“I think that both practices are designed to foster greater awareness of and respect for the world in which we live and a greater connection to a spiritual life path,” adds Modya Silver of Toronto. Silver has remained kosher since 1985, and vegetarian since 1988.
There are different schools of thought, though. There’s a movement of Jews that only eat meat on Shabbat and holidays, and those who eat meat symbolically as a religious duty. “My understanding of Shabbat is it’s supposed to be an oneg (delight), and for me it’s problematic to eat meat,” says Orenstein.
Of course, working in a predominantly Sephardi community where eating meat is very common, some of the more traditional members of the community find his vegetarianism a bit strange. “But I have to be who I am,” he says.
“The Torah pretty clearly states that there is nothing wrong with eating meat, as long as the meat is kosher,” says Rabkin. “In fact, in Halachah, people are actually encouraged to eat meat on Shabbat and Jewish holidays as a way of elevating the day and making it more holy. At the same time, there is a growing movement of people who are both kosher and vegetarian and I think that this may be a response to a desire to be more mindful about what we eat, whether it is for health or other reasons.”
Chaim Shpigelman, owner of Pizza Pita (a staple in Montreal’s kosher community since 1989), says many of his patrons are either kosher, vegetarian or both. “If somebody is really kosher, the fact that a restaurant is vegetarian won’t be enough because you don’t know what ingredients are being used,” he says. “If you’re strict about following the rules of Kashrut, that comes before being a vegetarian, I believe.”
For those vegetarians who do follow Kashrut to the letter, there’s a vegetarian certification run by COR called VegeCert. To date, there are roughly 30 companies that are VegeCert certified.
“Vegetarians, and in particular vegans, are quite mindful about what they eat and look at product labels closely to make sure that what they are eating conforms with their dietary choices,” says Rabkin.