Monday, March 15, 2010

Ask the Rabbi: A Shrimp Invasion

This week's's Ask the Rabbi question challenged me to confront the complexity of the mitzvah of Kashrut and the ethics of being a sensitive host, thoughtful guest, loving daughter and supportive spouse. If you are not already subscribed to Ariela's informative Judaism newsletter, you can sign up here. Or check out Ariela's Judaism Blog.

Q. My wife and I have been married for 4.5 years. I grew up reform; she grew up conservative. She keeps kosher, but I don't; however, we have a kosher house in that we never bring pork or shellfish or other traif into the home, and never mix meat and dairy. We don't keep separate plates, dishwashers, etc.; we're really only kosher when choosing what to serve at mealtime. My wife keeps kosher in memory of her father; he kept kosher but tragically died when my wife was only 8. She decided at that time to keep kosher in tribute to him, and has remained so ever since.

That said, here's my question: Is it possible for someone other than my wife to eat traif in the house while SHE remains kosher? For example, we had a dinner party the other night and one of our guests didn't know anything about keeping kosher, so she brought a tray of shrimp scampi. It's a bit awkward to tell a guest that they're not allowed to enter our home with the food they bought and prepared, but that's what we did. If my wife never eats traif, does it place her "Jewishness" or kosher-keeping in jeopardy if someone ELSE eats traif in our house? In other words, is her keeping kosher invalid if traif is ever brought into the house, or only if she eats it?

A. Not to worry. Your wife and your home are still as kosher as they were before the shrimp's untimely entrance. While your practice does not match all the stipulations of the tradition, it is most commendable and clearly very meaningful to you both.

Questions like yours are not uncommon. Think of people who keep kosher living in a college dorm with non-kosher keepers, for example, or those who share an apartment who are not married. Also, increasingly, we have the phenomenon of kosher-keeping children coming home to visit non kosher parents for a prolonged stay, or vice versa. Plus, there are many levels of kashrut observance, as your practice demonstrates, and individuals and couples are (hopefully) on a spiritual journeys as well, where those practices evolve over time. Life is certainly complicated!

To put things simply, when we speak of a kosher home, we are not so much speaking of the whole as the sum of the parts. In reality, the entire home is not the issue. We're not talking about the bathroom, or the television, the computer or the carpet (unless we are discussing Passover and hametz); we are talking about dishes, ovens, pots, pans and of course, food. And we are talking about each individual dish, glass, fork, spoon, knife, oven, dishwasher, sink, pot and pan. If that shrimp scampi stayed in the living room and was eaten on a paper plate, it would not compromise the level of kashrut observance of anyone not eating it. Even were that guest to touch your wife with shrimpy hands, it would not be a problem. If the shrimp were eaten with your silverware or on the house dishes, that would present some (resolvable) complications. If a person eats something unkosher by mistake, s/he would just try to do better the next time. The laws of kashrut understand that people are fallible - things happen.

Your wife's dedication to her dad's memory is extremely moving. People have all sorts of reasons for keeping kosher (or following other mitzvot). BTW, I don't think it would have been rude for you both to have told the guest, sensitively, that your home is kosher, so unfortunately you won't be able to serve the shrimp scampi. You might apologize for not having made that clear in advance. We in the rabbi-biz call that a teachable moment, offering a chance to open a longer conversation about why keeping a kosher home is important to you both - and to the world.

Thanks for the question and good luck to you both.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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