The Mishna (Nedarim 6:6-7) in today’s daf (Nedarim 52a) presents us with a general rule about the flavour (טעם) of a prohibited food. For example, according to Rabbi Tarfon, if someone made a vow prohibiting themselves from meat, and eggs were then cooked with that meat in a pot, then those eggs are also forbidden to them as long as the eggs have absorbed some of the meat flavour (יש בו בנותן טעם). Similarly, if someone made a vow prohibiting themselves from tasting wine, and some wine is added to a cooked dish, then if any meat or vegetables etc. have absorbed some of the wine flavour then they too are forbidden (יש בו בנותן טעם). As the Rambam summarises this rule (Hilchot Nedarim 5:11), ‘this is because this meat or this wine is considered as if it is non-kosher meat or as if it is a forbidden insect or the like. And similar laws apply in all analogous situations (וכן כל כיוצא בהן).’
Admittedly, when the Rambam speaks of ‘analogous situations’, he is likely to be referring to prohibited foodstuffs which emit flavour. Nevertheless, I believe that there are situations which are analogous to this which go far beyond the realm of food and which certainly deserve our attention.
Specifically, while observant Jews living in the modern world are often very clear in maintaining their boundaries about what we may call the עיקר – the ‘core’ prohibitions in terms of kashrut, shabbat etc., there are still risks that arise from living in the modern world in terms of the possibility of absorbing the טעם – the ‘flavour’ of forbidden attitudes and behaviours.
Of course, there are Jews who choose to disengage, as best they can, from the culture and influences of wider society for fear of encountering these forbidden attitudes and behaviours. However, this is not the path I have chosen nor the one that I think that we, as Jews, should choose. Instead, I believe – to quote the title of an important booklet penned by Rabbi Sacks on this subject (which can be downloaded from bit.ly/3BF0lkv) – in ‘A Judaism Engaged with the World’.
Yet, and this is a point that emerges from today’s daf, my choice to engage in the world means that beyond my absolute commitment to the עיקר (i.e. core prohibitions), I must also be cognizant of any טעם (i.e. the ‘flavour’ of forbidden attitudes and behaviours) which may be encountered from such engagement. This is why, as Rabbi Dr. Michael Harris explains in his book ‘Faith without Fear’, authentic Modern Orthodoxy is centrally about ‘critical engagement’ with the modern world.
This word, ‘critical’, is critical, and unfortunately, I don’t think it is communicated clearly enough in schools, shuls or homes. Yes, we speak of engagement, but rarely do we discuss ‘critical engagement’. But the fact is that without critical engagement, the choice to engage can oftentimes lead to an outcome where someone is careful about the עיקר (i.e. core prohibitions) but who nevertheless comes to consume טעם (i.e. the ‘flavour’ of forbidden attitudes and behaviours).
Ultimately, if we are careful about the foods we consume whereby we wouldn’t eat an egg that has been cooked in a mixture containing a prohibited food which has absorbed its flavour (טעם), we should be at least as careful when engaging in the modern world to critically engage with what we consume in terms of ideas or attitudes.