Due in no small part to the recent controversy at the AgriProcessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, there has been a lot of talk of late about how glatt kosher meat is produced. Yet for all the sensational headlines about whether the standards of kashrut are being met, little attention has been paid to how those standards are actually determined.
In nearly every Orthodox community today, glatt kosher has come to stand for unquestionably kosher, with the result being that food carrying the regular kosher label is shunned.
This is more than simply an issue of certification. It is a significant transformation in the religious lifestyle of the Orthodox, a group that, ironically, claims to embody religious continuity.
Regular kosher might be okay if you’re in, say, Montana, and it’s the only meat available. Even then, though, you might want to think twice before bringing home such food. If you’re thinking of having a barbecue for Orthodox friends and throwing some regular kosher hot dogs on the grill, don’t be surprised if your guests suddenly develop a distaste for meat and profess that they’ve recently become vegetarians. You might as well be serving Oscar Mayer franks, because the reaction will be little different.
For hundreds of years, halachic authorities disagreed as to what exactly could be considered kosher. The “Shulhan Arukh” insisted on no adhesions — glatt means smooth, and refers to the fact that the lungs of animals slaughtered according to glatt kashrut do not have any adhesions. Rabbi Moses Isserles disagreed, and ruled that an animal could be declared kosher even with certain adhesions.
In the Ashkenazic lands, regular kosher was the standard, with glatt being reserved for the exceptionally pious, who were also willing to pay more. This is also how matters were in America until about 30 years ago.
Since then, the Orthodox have adopted a new standard in kashrut, one that defines only glatt kosher as acceptable. Regular kosher has been relegated to Conservative Jews and others who don’t take kashrut as seriously as the Orthodox.
Recognition of the change in kashrut standards has, by all indications, been picked up by the Jewish community at large. On numerous occasions I have been informed by non-Orthodox relatives or colleagues that I can eat the food that is being served since, they told me, it is glatt kosher, with the emphasis on glatt. This community-wide acceptance of glatt in the United States is quite significant, as things are rather different in Israel and Europe, where regular kosher is still very popular among the Orthodox.
In previous years, it wasn’t simply the masses who ate regular kosher. The great rabbis did as well. Many of them, including Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, even provided hashgachot, or kosher supervision, for non-glatt kosher meat.
So how did we reach this point in the United States where a practice that was basic to Orthodox society simply disappeared and came to be no longer regarded as acceptable? Much of the blame — or praise, depending on your outlook — falls on the Orthodox Union, which is considered the gold standard of kashrut supervision in the United States.
As part of its effort to achieve universal acceptance, even in the most right-wing circles, about 30 years ago the O.U. stopped providing supervision to non-glatt meat. Once the O.U. no longer recognized the validity of non-glatt, it soon became verboten for the average Orthodox Jew. The great irony here is that the leading Modern Orthodox organization is itself responsible for creating a situation where virtually all Orthodox Jews in this country, even the most liberal among them, would not dream of buying anything but glatt kosher. It is also impossible for a restaurant or hotel to attract an Orthodox clientele without being exclusively glatt.
The O.U.’s move to glatt is not the only example of the organization adopting policies that are not in line with the Modern Orthodox tradition of its founders. Many Forward readers, I am sure, have wondered about the Popsicles and other products that have absolutely no milk in them yet are still stamped “OU-D.” Or, for that matter, the yearly Passover guide that tells people that their candles and laundry detergent do not need a special Passover hashgachah, but do need a regular one.
It was the O.U.’s move to glatt, however, that had a truly momentous impact and changed the religious landscape of American Orthodoxy. Other hashgachot soon followed the O.U.’s path, leaving supervision over regular kosher in the hands of hashgachot that in many people’s minds were regarded as less reliable. Even if these hashgachot were, in truth, completely dependable, the fact that they agreed to certify meat that the O.U. and others would not reinforced the idea in people’s minds that there were problems with regular kosher. It took just a few years following the O.U.’s decision before regular kosher was no longer regarded as acceptable in American Orthodoxy.
Yet this is not all there is to the story, and here things get even more interesting. The very meaning of glatt kosher in the United States is not what most people think, namely, meat that has no adhesions. While this is indeed the original meaning of glatt and the meaning most people identify it with, the word as used today means something more expansive, depending on which kashrut organization you ask.
For some, it simply means that they hold themselves to a very high halachic standard in all areas of meat production. For others, it means that they permit only a couple of small, easily removed adhesions, a type of glatt that was actually quite common among Hasidim in prewar Europe. One thing that is certain is that glatt in the United States does not mean that an animal’s lung is completely smooth. Sephardim, who are supposed to eat only real glatt, are under normal circumstances not permitted to eat the typical “American glatt,” and they therefore have their own special “Beit Yosef glatt.”
While the kashrut organizations have not exactly hidden this information, and will tell you the truth if you ask, they have not been exactly forthcoming about it either. There is, for example, no explanation on the O.U. Web site as to what it means when it stamps a product glatt. The closest you get is an article titled the “The Kosher Primer,” which explains that real glatt is free of all adhesions on its lungs. The primer does acknowledge that, “Recently, the term ‘glatt kosher’ is increasingly used more broadly as a generic phrase, implying that the product is kosher without question.” Yet there is no clarification that the O.U.’s glatt falls into the second category — which also explains how the organization believes it appropriate to certify “glatt chickens.”
A great deal has been written about how the Orthodox have in recent years adopted new religious standards. The turn to glatt, however, is in its own category, because here the Orthodox have indeed adopted a new standard, but it is not what most people think it is. If they knew the facts, they might not be so attached to the glatt-only culture of contemporary Orthodoxy — which is something worth chewing over the next time you munch on a Hebrew National regular kosher salami.
Marc Shapiro is a professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton.