[URJBiennial] The Biennial begins!
[URJBiennial] Creating Meaningful Worship in Small Congregations

[URJBiennial] Are Dietary Laws Kosher for Reform Jews?

We began this panel with some text study, looking at the changes in attitude towards kashrut over the Reform movement's history, from the original Pittsburgh Platform to the recent Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism. Two representative quotes from those two documents:

We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state... -- Pittsburgh Platform, 1885

We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times. -- Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, 1999

There are fascinating changes from the old document to the new, obviously, and we spent about ten minutes reading and discussing those. After the brief text study session, we moved to the official panel presentation, featuring three leaders: Rabbi Lucy Dinner from Raleigh, NC; Dr. Stephen Marmer from Los Angeles, CA; and Rabbi Bennett Miller from New Brunswick, NJ. (As a side note: there's something really funny about having a Rabbi Dinner leading a panel on the dietary laws...)

Rabbi Lucy Dinner asked us to consider how we eat Jewishly and how that might differ from the way our parents and grandparents ate Jewishly. One woman pointed out that this has changed from the time she was a child, to mid-life, to today a return to something like her childhood practice. "The one way I knew I was Jewish was that my mother kept a kosher kitchen." She talked about how her practice has evolved, and how the practice is a reminder of the presence of God when she shops and cooks and eats.

Clearly there are a lot of levels of observance and practice in the room: some who buy only kosher meat, some who eat treif but only out of the house, some who grew up one way and are now another. Much laughter every time someone mentions becoming more traditional as a result of having a child who became more traditional in her/his observance -- apparently that's a common experience. Rabbi Dinner noted that so many of us come from transdenominational backgrounds that it makes sense that many of us wrestle with changing and evolving practice.

I pointed out that my sense of kashrut has to do with two things: the eco-kashrut sense in which I take seriously where my food comes from and how it is farmed/raised, and the practice of investing eating with sanctity through saying brachot. And that paradigm would have been confusing, I think, to my grandparents, for whom kashrut was strictly a question of what was and wasn't permissible to eat.

So what does eating Jewishly mean? Is it a question of following halakha strictly? How the animal is treated? What we do in our homes, and/or what we do outside our homes? A lot of questions are centered around kashrut for us, and Rabbi Dinner suggests that kashrut is a good finger-on-the-pulse of where the Reform movement is going and how it's shifting.

Rabbi Dinner said she grew up in a "glatt treif" congregation, e.g. they hold fast to the Pittsburgh Platform and absolutely reject the notion that kashrut has any relevance. (Much laughter at the term "glatt treif.") This is the Classical Reform position -- our prophetic mission is to be a light unto the nations, and how can we do that if we're dividing ourselves off from the rest of the world? Any Jewish practice that sets us aside from the rest of the world is anachronistic, according to that worldview. She grew up in New Orleans, where avoiding seafood and shellfish was nigh-unthinkable. Her shul had seafood bingo night! Kashrut just wasn't an important part of how they practiced Judaism; this may have been a regional thing, or a generational thing, or some of both.

Today,  kashrut shapes how she interacts with the world and how she invests her life with holiness -- though she's still a "New Orleans kosher-style Jew," which is to say, she eschews pork but can't resist the shellfish when she visits home! She made the interesting point that it might behoove us, as Reform congregations, to keep kosher synagogue kitchens so that we can invite other Jews into our congregations to celebrate things together and so that we don't erect unnecessary boundaries between ourselves and other segments of the Jewish community. "Jews who can eat together can do almost anything else together!"

Dr. Stephen Marmer took the microphone then to talk about the journey toward establishing a kosher communal kitchen. "Reform Judaism has placed an emphasis on goodness as opposed to holiness," he said, and suggested that "goodness" involves both personal rectitude and social justice, and that "holiness" involves God-consciousness meaning, and identity; he perceives that Reform Judaism is shifting more toward the holiness side of things, but regardless, he said that kashrut is relevant on both the goodness/holiness axis and the personal/communal axis.

At the community Jewish high school with which he is involved, a committee arose to talk about kashrut and related issues. Some folks on that committee felt it was their duty as Reform Jews to eat as much treif as possible! But in time they reached a policy that they would strive for a kitchen which would satisfy the dietary needs of eighty percent of the community -- since you can never satisfy everyone. But there would be no "lunchroom police," no one fussing about what the kids do or don't bring in their lunchboxes and no ostracizing anyone regardless of her or his personal practice. In a nutshell: "Institutional kashrut, with individual choice."

Anyway: the high school's kosher kitchen has had an effect on the consciousness at the synagogue, so his synagogue is now in the middle of a major project of reconsidering their dietary practices. The rabbis and board are now considering a kosher kitchen...which raises the question, "how kosher do you have to be to be kosher?" Different dishes? Only kosher meat? Ensuring that milk and meat aren't served within six hours of each other? Avoiding treif? What about serving hot food on Shabbat? What about kosher wine? (Some scattered but fervent applause when he mentions that he thinks the whole notion of kosher wine is nutty.)

They did a survey and found that most of the congregants have a "Jewish consciousness" of eating: fasting on Yom Kippur, eating matzah on Pesach. Many avoid treif at b'nei mitzvah and wedding celebrations if not at other times. So there's a desire to create a synagogue where most of their members would feel comfortable eating, where fellow Jews would feel comfortable eating -- but it's important to balance institutional kashrut with individual choice.

"Obligations are kind of problematic for the Reform movement," Dr. Marmer said. He pointed out that it's often easier to keep kashrut than to keep a diet -- he sees diet as choice and kashrut as an obligation. (Interesting; I might argue that diets are an obligation and kashrut is a choice!)

Rabbi Bennett Miller began by citing Against All Odds, a book which includes interviews with Holocaust survivors. (I didn't catch the author's name.) One of the women interviewed said that once she made it to a DP camp, post-Shoah, she had a conversation with God. She went into town, into a market, and bought a roll, and she went to the meat section and bought some meat, and went to the dairy section and bought some cheese. Went out of the market, put the meat and cheese on the roll, and shook it at heaven as if to say, "You see what I'm going to do now? Because of what You allowed them to do to me." (Ouch. I really don't love the idea of relating to kashrut, or to anything really, in that way.)

"I think the presence of all of us here today should be noted," he said. "The presence of us in this room, at a Biennial, is a radical statement." (Rabbi Dinner had noted that when she proposed this panel, there was worry that people just plain wouldn't come to a panel about kashrut in the Reform movement.) "Whatever your reasons are for being here, your being here is really a radical statement, because 6 years ago this session woud never have been able to take place." At the Boston Biennial, there was a symposium on this subject held the day before the conference -- but it wasn't held at the con itself, and they weren't allowed to put the word kashrut in the title of the symposium. He became interested in the question of, "Where does a Reform Jew go to develop a Reform perspective on diet?" He argued that it's important for there to exist guidelines for Reform Jews, written by Reform Jews -- not by Chabad, not even by the Conservative folks.

One of his points on that issue: to the Conservative movement, Chilean sea bass is kosher. But to a Jew concerned with eco-kashrut, eating an endangered species isn't kosher -- so there may be Reform Jews who practice a kashrut which is, in that way, more stringent than what the Conservative Jews practice.

He cited the book The Painful Parting, by a professor from William and Mary named Julie Gallenbush. It's about people living in the first century of the Common Era. In that century there was conflict among Jews on the question of who was the most authentic Jew, who could  hear the voice of God in the post-Torah age. "God doesn't speak anymore: Jews do. The rabbis do. Or, in Reform Judaism, individuals do, because that's our hallmark." So the question was, who hears the voice of God? In the first century, the Jews were fighting about the same issues we are today: kashrut, circumcision, Shabbat observance. Christianity developed because the early Christians, who were Jews, went to the Gentile community and said, "You can be real Jews without having to be circumcised, keep Shabbat, or observe kashrut anymore." The rest of the Jewish community said, "no, those things are necessary to Jewish identity."

Fast-forward two thousand years. Solomon Schechter apparently once said that Reform Judaism, as a movement, was walking in a direction that would lead directly to the Wall of Assimilation. Some will pass through it; some will hit the wall, turn around, and return to the larger Jewish community again. Regardless of how we feel about that statement, we may agree that Jewish authenticity, holiness, Godliness, are directly related not to what we believe but to what we practice -- and kashrut is an obvious manifestation of that.

Rabbi Miller also pointed out the following important detail: the Reform Movement officially has no position on kashrut. There's a proposal for a guidebook, but there's no money available, so, no guidebook. (Editorial note: I'm willing to bet we couldn't agree on anything to put in the guidebook even if there were money!) We have no policy. Where do we go from here? There's a task force, which he hopes will continue to put the issue of kashrut on the map. To him, what matters is that kashrut is a symbol of our parctice and is worth thinking about, so we should push our rabbis/regional directors/representatives in the URJ to discuss it and work on offering guidance that's deeply and authentically Reform."You can continue the conversation. You can keep the pot boiling."

Then they opened the floor for questions and comment. Here are some snippets of what people said from the floor at that point:

"Shellfish is only shellfish if you keep it in the shell!" One gentleman grew up Classical Reform and says his favorite foods are treif. That's fine by him. But he had some powerful questions: "How can wine be treif? How can Coca-Cola be treif? Why isn't veal an issue for us, if we're talking about ethics? If we don't address kashrut as Reform Jews, we're missing a huge opportunity."

One woman talked about being from a shul in Washington State that's the only option in her region. If they create a kosher kitchen, many people may feel alienated. And they want to have a rationale behind any decisions they make; for a while her shul boycotted California grapes, but that makes sense to her community in a way that other kashrut decisions might not.

Rabbi Dinner pointed out, "The Reform movement, by nature, isn't going to say, 'this is the halakha for Reform.'...We need to have the courage to say, this is our guideline, and this is what matters to us..." We need to accept that our perspectives may change over time, and that we may have growing pains, but that can be a fruitful process.

"We need not to let any of the other movements define the practice of mitzvot, whether they're Shabbat or kashrut. But we don't have our own definition of kashrut. It's our privilege and opportunity to enact that in a Reform context; we may understand it differently than the other movements, but we need to articulate how we understand it." So said Dr. Marmer. That seems like a good place to end this post.

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