“Kosher, Shmosher”

hero image
I need time out. Unhappy man showing stop sign at camera. Studio shot, orange background
22 Jan 2018

In the interest of full disclosure, I must first state that I’m writing this on a dare.

Here are some excerpts from an actual conversation with a friend via Facebook messenger (complete with grammatical shorthand common to the medium; don’t judge us!):

Friend: Thinking of a much needed girls’ night out…interested? [link to information about Waitress] …I’ve always wanted to see it…

Me: I never heard of it.

Friend: So look into it first – it has great music but not necessarily a kosher story line, so don’t know what you’re comfortable with :P

Me: Kosher shmosher

Friend: Sounds like a well thought out hashkafic approach… I dare you to title your next blog post kosher shmosher :P

Me: I mean, I do have my limits, but I’m assuming this isn’t past them.

It’s funny; most people who know me would assume I have limits, and might even assume that most things would be past them. As a teenager, I drove my friends crazy every time we tried to rent a movie together. (Yes, back in the days of renting movies.) “Sarah, how about this… No… Or this?…No… Maybe we should just take Sarah to browse the ‘kids and family’ section!”

Ah, fond memories of fruitless hours spent in Blockbuster.

To be fair (to me), my “kosher shmosher” wasn’t serious; I do care about the content of the various media to which I expose myself, and whether it’s “kosher.” But of course, the jokes we make reveal something.

Why do we (and I don’t think I’m alone in this) so often joke about not having standards, about not doing the right thing?

How often do we jokingly minimize something, despite its importance to us, with a line like this? (My husband likes to remind me of his comedic coup, years ago, when I pointed out we should daven because shkiyah was approaching and he responded, “Oh, shkiyah shkiyah!” Get it?)

In, I think, a similar vein, how often do we say things like “I really shouldn’t, but…?”

I really shouldn’t eat this cake, but… (Calories, shmalories! Sugar, shmugar!)

I really shouldn’t watch this show, but…

I’ve been thinking about this ever since my friend dared me, and it proved to be a harder topic than I expected. I’m not sure I have answers, but I do have some thoughts.

Thought number 1: I wonder if maybe we joke about these things because we’re afraid of how others will perceive us if we take a strong, unapologetic, serious stance. Certainly, I tried that defense mechanism even as a teenager, couching my objections in self-deprecating humor wherever possible so I wouldn’t come across as a goody-goody, or worse, holier-than-thou. “You know me and my silly rules!”

In this case, the same (newish) friend who wanted to see the show was also suggesting I might not find it kosher enough. How could I possibly have responded? “Oh, I’d better check it out, then… Okay, I looked at the plot line and you’re right, it looks completely inappropriate, so I’m not going to come with you, but have fun anyway!” Talk about holier-than-thou! My kneejerk reaction in the face of any possibility of maybe coming across that way even a little bit, is to crack a joke at the expense of the very notion of standards.

Why are we so afraid of having standards and standing by them? Why can’t we trust others to respect their own standards enough to allow us ours, without any disparagement in either direction? Why can’t we relax, agreeing to disagree, without fear of being judged as “judgmental?” Even in high school, I think my friends did respect me for my “silly rules” – they did keep hanging out with me, after all, for which I am eternally grateful! – yet I was never quite comfortable. And even now, in my thirties, a friend who does share much of my hashkafa (the well-thought-out parts, at least) raised a question and I immediately put up a wall. Still afraid – because in our day and age, there seems to be no crime worse than appearing to “judge” those with whom we might simply disagree.

Thought number 2: I wonder if maybe we joke about these things because we’re afraid of ourselves, too. Maybe we’re afraid of our own uncertainties about our standards and choices. I’ll enjoy the cake, but is that a good enough reason to eat it despite its nutritional shortcomings? Do I “deserve” this “wicked” treat, maybe just on Shabbos, maybe as a way to share a special moment with a loved one, maybe just because I want it? If I couch it as something I shouldn’t do but am doing, then I get to downplay my cake and eat it too. I feel a little better about my choice for having acknowledged it may not be 100% in keeping with my values – even though I’m still eating it. As if I gave it real thought and came to a determination, when in reality I might be hiding from the complexity of the question.

Maybe I was uncomfortable with seeing a show that might not be “kosher,” but I also knew I was probably going to see it anyway – because who turns down a chance at a girls’ night out? So I instinctively both acknowledged the potential downside and minimized it. Once I laughed about it, I could go – and that’s much easier than actually looking into it and coming to a well-thought-out decision.

Why are we so afraid to own our standards, including the gray areas? Yes, sometimes the cake is worth it, and sometimes a little harmless fun might be valuable, and sometimes there might even be real value in secular media that goes beyond simply harmless fun. (As Highlights magazine likes to say, “fun with a purpose!”) And yes, sometimes we will have to make decisions about which cake is worth it and which fun is harmless or even meaningful, and when to close our eyes and ears from all of it. And maybe we’ll regret some of those choices, but we can still take ownership of them before, during, and after, and maybe learn a little something for next time.

Thought number 3: It’s both humbling and reassuring to have a friend call me out on those insecurities. “Sounds like a well-thought-out hashkafic approach.” Though her point also contained a little dose of sarcastic humor, it was well taken. “Kosher, shmosher” is not a particularly well-thought-out approach, and I’m kind of embarrassed that I even made the joke, because I always did pride myself on having standards.

And sometimes it’s the most reassuring, and moving and humbling and impactful, when those who don’t share our perspectives remind us of them – as even my teenage friends sometimes did for me, especially as we grew up a little. “Sarah, you don’t want to see that movie!” – even when they had no problem with it for themselves.

Maybe, with those adolescent years well behind me, I can embrace my standards with the confidence that comes from having built a wide network of diverse friends with whom to navigate the gray areas. We might sometimes agree and sometimes disagree, but we can offer each other the support to question, to decide, and to stick with our decisions – without apology to each other or to ourselves. Because we can be mature enough to respect each other whether our hashkafic approaches and choices align or not.

Though apparently, I’m not so mature that I won’t take the occasional dare, as long as it’s well thought out.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.