The Humanist Dilemma: Is It Kosher to Pretend Food Is Kosher?

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Keeping It Kosher: I’m a humanist married to a Jewish man who cherishes many of his traditions. When we became engaged he didn’t ask me to convert or go to the synagogue beyond a couple times a year, but he did insist we keep a kosher home. We both ate whatever we wanted when we went out and I didn’t think keeping kosher when we cooked at home would be a big deal, so I consented without giving it much thought or realizing what it entailed. I assumed it was just about eliminating pork and shellfish, but it turns out to be so much more than that.

After a few years of doing things the way his mom does (which, I have learned, is not the same as other people who keep kosher–it varies wildly), I can’t help feeling that it’s a real pain. I have to be careful not to combine meat and dairy products (for example, lasagna either has to have no beef or no cheese), and we can’t even have meat and dairy on the table at the same time, such as if one of us is having leftover chicken and the other just wants some buttered toast. My husband even makes sure I check the labels on hot dog buns, margarine, and canned vegetable soup to confirm there’s no unexpected dairy or meat essence in them. It’s amazing how often there is.

On top of that, it’s very hard to find kosher meats in our neighborhood, and what I can find is extremely expensive and not the best quality. I’m wondering if it would be so terrible if, after I make a good-faith effort to find the real thing, I just pass off an ordinary chicken as kosher, or otherwise fudge a bit here and there. My husband wouldn’t know the difference, and I think the whole thing is just ridiculous anyhow.

—What He Doesn’t Know Won’t Hurt Him


Dear Hurt,

Let me rephrase your question: Since what you readily agreed to as a condition of marriage turns out to be more trouble than you bargained for, is it all right to betray your husband’s trust and deceive him about your compliance? When your question is recast that way, my answer should be obvious. He believes you are true to your word and doesn’t imagine any need to police you in the kitchen. But if he ever discovered you’d been cheating with his chicken (or margarine or hot dog buns) he’d wonder—with justification—whether to trust you about anything. Do you think whatever you might gain by a little fudging is worth that risk?

There are other, more ethical alternatives, such as eating vegetarian at home and having meat only when you eat out. A friend of mine in the same situation as you finally announced to her husband, after a few years of marriage, that if he wanted a kosher home he’d have to take on all the shopping and cooking himself. He suddenly decided they didn’t need to keep kosher any more.

You could also reopen discussion of your agreement. Just because you made a deal before you were married doesn’t mean you can never revisit it. Explore whether and why it remains crucial to your husband. Help him see things from your perspective while you make a genuine effort to understand his. If he’s unwilling to reconsider or flex in any way, you have to decide for yourself whether this prenuptial agreement has turned into a marital deal breaker, or if it’s just something you dislike but are willing to continue to put up with.

No couple is in complete agreement on everything, and compromise is part of marriage. Many couples have differences about what to have for dinner, even if no “higher authority” is invoked as in kosher and halal restrictions. Some people will balk if they’re served spinach or Spam. Some insist on vegetarian or vegan or organic or dairy-free or gluten-free. People who were raised with certain customs, whatever they may be, often have deep, even subconscious associations with them that are difficult to shake. Or they simply value the sense of tradition and identity connected with these habits (or guilt if they abandon them).

Are there instances where you and your husband meet each other halfway, or where he bends to you? If the answer is yes, or that this is the worst of your conflicts, consider carefully whether you want to make a fuss about it. But if your spouse asserts his will over yours consistently, or without regard to what matters to you, this kosher coercion may be a symptom of much larger issues.

Whatever you do, be honest. You promised to keep a kosher home, and until you raise the idea of amending that agreement, you are honor-bound to fulfill it. A word to the wise: be careful about making “until death do us part” promises you may not be able to live with.