The Humanist Dilemma: Colleagues at a Kosher Crossroads

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Is It Kosher? I have a colleague who keeps kosher at home but eats whatever she wants when she goes out, particularly enjoying lobster and shrimp. We recently attended a professional conference that provided a choice of boxed lunches: salad (vegetarian, with cheese and eggs), or one of four sandwiches: chicken, ham, beef, and kosher beef, which was sealed with a certification tape. People were admonished—by the chairman, in the printed program, and via signs and personnel at the tables—not to take the kosher beef unless they observed a strictly kosher diet and had requested the kosher lunch in advance, since there were only enough for people who had done so.

My colleague insisted on helping herself to the kosher beef sandwich even though she hadn’t ordered one. I told her she shouldn’t, since she could have any of the other choices, and if they ran out of the kosher beef, observant persons would have nothing else they could eat. She insisted she was entitled to the kosher box.

As it turns out, she hated her sandwich and was sorry she didn’t get the non-kosher beef I got, which was pretty good.

Who’s right here?

—Asking a Higher Authority

Dear Authority,

I’m not sure what higher authority you mean, but here’s my lowly opinion: since your colleague does not customarily keep kosher outside her home, she does not fit the description of being strictly observant for the purposes of this luncheon. Therefore, she was not entitled to take a kosher box. And if you believe in cosmic karma, she got a fitting punishment in the form of a sandwich she didn’t like. Your argument is spot on: she could have availed herself of all the alternatives, but a person who adheres to kosher laws could not eat anything but the kosher selection—or possibly the vegetarian one, depending on how strictly they observe.

Since kosher food is more expensive, I suspect your host was trying simultaneously to accommodate and economize by providing the kosher option only for those who require it. But it wasn’t foolproof, since there are people like your colleague. It’s wise, whenever possible, for organizers to get a count in advance not only of how many kosher lunches will be needed, but specifically who needs them, and then hand those boxes only to those who ordered them. But that requires more labor and may be beyond the organization’s budget or capability.

The fact is, people with dietary restrictions—whether it’s kosher or halal or gluten-free or dairy-free or nut-free or vegan or any of the host of options—know that they may not find what they need everywhere they go. So they can make alternative arrangements for themselves, such as eating before or after, or bringing their own food when possible. Consider kosher people who can’t or don’t eat meat or gluten. Even the kosher beef sandwich wouldn’t work for them. The onus is on people with dietary restrictions to take care of themselves, but in this case everyone who pre-ordered a kosher meal would reasonably expect to receive one. But no host can get it right for everyone (especially when feeding hundreds or thousands of people) unless the lunch options are closely monitored. Your host made an admirable effort, and your colleague demonstrated its flaws. I hope you talked up how good your non-kosher beef was—without offering your colleague a bite.