Is Kosher Kosher?

I recently had occasion to extract from my bookshelf a well-used and falling apart 1977 paperback edition of Elie Weisel’s Messengers of God.  The book was inscribed as a holiday gift to the teachers of the religious school where my wife has been teaching for decades (not the congregation to which we belong).

Then, as it happened, this past Sunday was Teacher Appreciation Day and following lunch (kosher barbecue, with a vegetarian option), each teacher received as a gift a hardbound, beautifully crafted book (list price  $29.95), Kosher Revolution: New Techniques and Great Recipes for Unlimited Kosher Cooking, by Geila Hocherman and  Arthur Boehm.  This is not your typical Joan Nathan or Tina Wasserman compendium of Jewish recipes or guide to Jewish cooking, It is most distinctly a thoroughly detailed guidebook to translating traditionally treif food for the kosher eater, without losing taste, texture, or taam (flavor)—prosciutto from duck rather than pork, sauce from egg yolks rather than cream, rules of thumb for substituting without sacrificing the aura of the original dish.  Also here are suggestions for converting your chometz favorites for Passover.  Containing only 95 recipes, this is as much textbook as cookbook, although it does offer Bubbe’s Brisket, directly foll0wed by Lamb Kufte, which it is unlikely Bubbe ever heard of.  By the way, the recipes are accompanied by photos, so appetizing you could die from hunger just looking at the pages.

As someone brought up in a kosher home, who is not a cook, and who eats shellfish, bacon, etc., I call the book to your attention not for its culinary, ritual, or tutorial merits, but rather to stimulate discussion on issues that might concern folks who care about the heart and soul of the Reform Movement.

I am well aware of the autonomy Reform Judaism gives each of us to make dietary choices based on what is or is not personally meaningful, and of the autonomy of the congregation to suggest standards and to role-model practice for its members which may be more or less stringent than any non-binding “official” standards or practices of the Movement.

Although Gates of Mitzvah (1986) opened the door for Reform Jews to pay attention to kashrut, and the penultimate draft of the 1999 Pittsburgh Principles gave express permission for its exploration as a component of a personal Jewish lifestyle, the Principles themselves excised the implied retraction of the virtual ban on kashrut interpreted by so many into the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform.  The dietary laws were still an issue (and probably still are) for many in the Reform rabbinate, best treated by leaving them alone.

A once-standard rubric among Reform Jews, “It’s more important what comes out of your mouth than what goes into it.”

Flash forward to the 2010 edition of Jewish Living, the definitive guide to Reform Jewish practice, in which Rabbi Mark Washofsky provides many roadways into Reform concern over what goes on the table, whether the choice is made for reasons of health, ecology, or even Jewish ritual.  Especially significant is the distinction between individual behavior and what might be expected institutionally, including the clear proviso that kashrut is not an all or nothing expectation, and one may choose one’s own path to the spirit if not the minutiae of the traditional dietary laws.

Certainly I endorse the role of the congregation in setting standards for its own functions, and thus role modeling appropriate Jewish dietary practices for its members to be guided by—or not.  My own congregation, which I assume is fairly typical, serves no pork or shellfish, or meat-milk mixtures, and accepts only dairy or vegetarian contributions to pot-lucks.  The rabbi, by the way, is a vegetarian, her predecessor an omnivore.

But, by gifting its faculty with copies of a book on kashrut, is my wife’s employer sending a message, or merely recognizing as with the selection of the lunch menu that that many members of the faculty are already kashrut-observant (not everyone who teaches in a Reform religious school is a Reform Jew)—and if there is a message, is it an appropriate one?  I have no doubt that 30 years ago, a similar gift would have set off an uproar in this classically-rooted congregation —today my murmur is likely to be the only one heard, and I’m not even a member.

Another aspect of the selection—the contrast in both cost and content from the gift of 40 years ago—a $30 investment in thanking teachers rather than $1.95 suggests not the force of inflation, but a new perspective on serious appreciation rather than the tokenism of an earlier era.  As to content, I see no conscious effort to push a new set of values, ritual rather than spiritual, in the choice, although perhaps a reflection of an era where doing often trumps studying or praying.  I am inclined to analyze the contemporary gift as a sign that the congregation has grown in both Yiddishkeit and menschlichkeit over these four decades.  Hopefully the Movement has done the same.

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Larry Kaufman

About Larry Kaufman

Laurence (Larry) Kaufman, z"l, was a member of Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue, in Evanston IL, where he coached b'nai mitzvah candidates on their divrei Torah. A long-time Reform Movement activist, he served on the North American Board of URJ, the North American Council of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the Board of ARZA, and was a past president of Temple Sholom of Chicago. Even while semi-retired, he consulted with an Israeli technology company on its U.S. public relations and marketing communications.

10 Responses to “Is Kosher Kosher?”

  1. avatar

    A related question — and forgive me if Jewish Living delves into it — is whether it is appropriate to eat food certified as kosher by rabbis who act in abhorrent ways. Should one drink coffee certified as kosher by an Israeli rabbi who urges his followers not to rent apartments to Arabs?

    • Larry Kaufman

      Without going back to Washofsky for details, he certain addresses and encourages the variety of forms of Reform kashrut that are built on stuctures other than Halacha. And he would certainly want us to boycott as you suggest.

      But let me throw back another question at you? Are justified in allowing such people the title of Rabbi?

  2. avatar

    Larry states: “But, by gifting its faculty with copies of a book on kashrut, is my wife’s employer sending a message, or merely recognizing as with the selection of the lunch menu that that many members of the faculty are already kashrut-observant (not everyone who teaches in a Reform religious school is a Reform Jew)—and if there is a message, is it an appropriate one? I have no doubt that 30 years ago, a similar gift would have set off an uproar in this classically-rooted congregation —today my murmur is likely to be the only one heard, and I’m not even a member.”

    I am somewhat surprised by your question. Perhaps your comment about a potential uproar 30 years ago and your modern day murmurings about this gift suggest that today’s Reform Jew need not be curious about how “easy” it might be to keep a kosher home. Reform Jews don’t believe in traditional kashrut.

    Out in yenavelt much of Reform practice, if there is such a thing, is based on nothing more than tradition without any clear education on what it means to be an “observant” Jew. Truth be told, we are all supposed to be “observant” Jews. The definition of observant varies!

    It seems to me that you might be somewhat dismayed that such a book might be given to a member of a Reform congregation. Self-autonomy within the movement is not synonymous with anarchy. There is a framework to Judaism. Yes, feel free to eat that delicious Maine lobster, but know and understand there are alternatives to that dietary approach.

    So what I am saying in the end is, as you well know, a spectrum of observance exists within the Reform movement. No longer, I hope, are men asked to remove their kippot when they enter a Reform sanctuary. Tallitot are commonly worn. Giving a book on traditional culinary kosher delights is celebrated and not looked upon as a throwback to the shtetl.

    • Larry Kaufman

      Jim, with one very minor exception, I’m with you 100%. You say Reform Jews don’t believe in traditional kashrut.
      Fact is, many do. I have one Classical Reform friend who believes that Reform Jews AND their synagogues should flaunt violations and, e.g., serve creamed chipped beef for breaking the fast.

      With you, I applaud the new openness to tradition in the movement, but I also remember the outcry not so many years ago when Rabbi Richard Levy was pictured on the cover of RJ Magazine wearing a tallit and kipa.

      One thing I was trying to elicit with this post was how much remains of that CR gestalt.

      • avatar

        I should clarify, since I’m the friend Larry speaks of, that I think that individuals, households, and synagogues should be completely unselfconscious about dietary practices, and that the only connection between religious life and eating should be in the realm of ethics. Our general Jewish ethical drive to promote fairness and as little suffering as possible should inform our choices regarding the sources of our food. Aside from those concerns, the only factors in deciding what to eat or serve should be practical ones such as cost and personal taste. I think that it would be unnecessary and excessive to have a mindset of “flaunting”, but in theory I see nothing wrong with meat lasagna at a Temple luncheon or regular half-and-half for the coffee at an Oneg that follows a meat meal. The only reason I can see for making slightly more cautious, conservative choices in a synagogue setting would be the possibility of non-Reform guests, who may be excluded if there is not food that they are willing to eat. It is difficult to be sensitive to them while at the same time maintaining the integrity of the Reform position, but it’s a tension worth living and negotiating on the congregational level.

  3. avatar

    It bothers me when I hear a Jew say they eat ham, shrimp, lobster, etc. To me, it’s just one of those things that ought not be done. I can understand people not buying kosher certified items. Perhaps they can’t afford it. Perhaps they’ve seen one too many exposes and think it takes more than printing a little K on the package to make it legitimately kosher and in keeping with the original intent. But, personally, I draw the line at treif animals. I can guess all day long about what the original intentions were for adding those animals, but as I see it, it’s a small price to pay and it yields benefits

    • Larry Kaufman

      I’m always particularly distressed when I see people drawing lines, insisting on all or nothing, or some variation thereof. I too would be bothered at seeing treif at a bar mitzvah or other Jewish function, but basically what I eat on my own is nobody’s business.But neither of these points is germane to my real query: Thirty years the message was still Reform Jews do not keep kosher. Today is seems to be that keeping kosher is a legitimate Reform option. How many people think the Movement has made a mistake in allowing and educating on the option?

    • avatar

      As far as I’m concerned, avoiding that specific group of foods carries a built-in assumption that God literally made those distinctions and commanded us arbitrarily concerning what to eat and what not to eat. In my estimation, serious entertainment of such a belief is chillul HaShem because it demeans the character of God in ascribing such arbitrary and petty legislation to Him/Her/It. An infinitely wise, infinitely just, infinitely intelligent, infinitely caring Being could never legislate such nonsense. I fully realize that in our postmodern world, many non-Orthodox Jews avoid pork, shellfish, and meat/milk combinations for different reasons, such as keeping family tradition, and connecting with a separatist framework of Jewish identity. Those folks do not believe that God literally commanded the specifics of Kashrut. That is even more incomprehensible to me, and I would even call it unethical because of the separatist ghetto mentality that it embodies.

  4. avatar

    Larry, you say it’s a standard saying among Reform Jews, but do you know who said it before Reform was even a twinkle in someone’s eye:

    ◄ Matthew 15:11 ►
    New International Version (©2011)
    What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

    –by which I don’t mean that Jesus said it, but that Matthew (whoever he was) wrote it.

    • avatar

      In general, I am extremely eager to shut down claims that concepts in Reform Judaism resemble concepts in Christianity. In this instance, however, there may indeed be a parallel, or even a direct influence. Be that the case, it is simply an instance in which the early leaders in Christianity happened to have the right idea. As Larry loves to say, “even a broken clock is right twice a day”. If the ultra-liberal Christian scholars are correct in asserting that Jesus wanted not to found a separate religion centered around himself, but rather to “reform” Judaism into a post-ethnic, universal religion with a compassionate, spirit-over-letter interpretation of religious law, then I would call him the earliest proponent of progressive Judaism! Therefore, we should not be bothered by prima facie similarities between progressive Jewish thought and historic Christian sensibilities, even as we recognize that there are ways in which those sensibilities were historically misused and abused to justify anti-Jewish and anti-semitic positions and behaviors.

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