Reform Rabbis Seek To Revive Food Laws

By Nacha Cattan

Published March 12, 2004, issue of March 12, 2004.
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More than a century after the founders of Reform Judaism rejected kosher dietary laws as outdated practices likely to “obstruct” modern spiritual development, a growing cadre of the movement’s religious leaders are seeking to revive the practice.

Discussion about resurrecting the observance of kosher laws, or kashrut, dominated the latest edition of the quarterly journal published by the Reform movement’s rabbinical union. A movement-sanctioned rabbinic task force is exploring the possibility of drafting guidelines for dietary practice, with one leading member going so far as to propose the establishment of a Reform Kashrut Board that would make recommendations for individuals and synagogues. One of the movement’s summer camps now keeps kosher, and individual congregations are discussing adopting the practice.

“Many rituals we once saw as having no redeeming value in many instances in fact contribute to enriching Jewish lives,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Yoffie counts himself among a growing number of the movement’s rabbis and congregants who keep a kosher home.

The apparent end of the century-plus Reform taboo against maintaining dietary laws can be understood as the logical next step for a synagogue movement that has shown increasing interest in recent decades in reviving traditional rituals and liturgy rejected in the late 19th century. Yet the fraught history of kashrut in the Reform movement makes its reemergence arguably more significant than other changes, including a revival of Hebrew prayer and the donning of yarmulkes and prayer shawls.

It was a non-kosher meal, served at the first graduation dinner of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1883, that prompted a walkout by traditionalists from the college and its parent body, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Historians debate whether the non-kosher menu was intentional or not — most think it was a caterers’ error — but the departure of the traditionalists proved to be a turning point. It became a key catalyst in turning the union from the broad, transcommunal body its founders had intended into a denominational body representing only the Reform wing of Judaism. In the ensuing bitterness the traditionalists formed their own bodies, which evolved into the Conservative and Orthodox movements, while the Reform movement turned sharply leftward on ritual matters.

But times have changed.

“It’s no longer a movement perceived of as ‘We don’t do this or we don’t do that,’” said the chair of the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Task Force on Kashrut, Rabbi Bennett Miller. “All Jewish experience is available to us and we have the opportunity to pick and choose which aspects would give meaning to our lives.”

Most of the contributors to the current issue of the CCAR journal note that the societal context facing Reform Jews has changed during the past century: Kosher food can be found at almost any corner market, Orthodoxy is no longer a thorn in the side of liberal Judaism and Jews are enjoying unprecedented acceptance in America.

The CCAR journal published five papers outlining several visions of Reform kashrut. They range from biblical or “Levitical” kashrut forbidding pork and shellfish, which is already embraced by a majority of Reform temples, to a more stringent rabbinical practice involving the regulation of slaughtering animals and the prohibition against mixing milk and meat. The writers also discuss vegetarianism, as well as “eco-kashrut,” or “ethical kashrut,” a contemporary construct restricting the consumption of endangered species, mistreated animals and products prepared by exploited workers.

The movement’s self-imposed ban against upholding the ancient rabbinic version of kashrut began with the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, which rejected all “Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity and dress.” A new set of principles adopted by the movement’s rabbis in Pittsburgh in 1999 appeared to open the door to a return to kosher rituals, by stating that certain “sacred obligations…demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.” This statement, although cleansed of the word kashrut that appeared in an earlier draft, has helped launch a revival of dietary laws.

But some rabbis who favor classical Reform Judaism are resistant to any change. Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus, a lecturer on biblical Hebrew at the New York campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, argues in the CCAR journal that while movement leaders may tout kashrut, most rank and file members do not now, nor will they ever, intend to keep kosher.

“I’m sure at the present time, it’s not going to fly,” said Dreyfus in an interview with the Forward. “There are other things I’d rather galvanize [Reform members] to do. They would fall in the realm of social service and social amelioration. There are far too many problems in society to ask people, some who are not at all affluent, to add to the cost of serving meals and feeding their children.”

Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at the HUC-JIR campus in Los Angeles, argued that congregants should be offered the option and tools to keep kosher even though only a minority of Reform Jews currently opts to do so. “After all,” Levy said, “synagogues observe Shabbat even though many of [their] members do not, and the synagogue provides models for Shabbat observance that its members may follow.” Levy proposed the creation of a central kashrut board as well as local synagogue-led Home Consecration Committees that would enact rituals to accompany the disposal of non-kosher utensils. He also called on the movement to explore whether it should train its own ritual slaughterers and supervisors or contract with “liberal members of those professions.”

Reform supervisors are already operating at the only kosher Reform summer camp in North America, Camp George in Ontario. The Reform community of Greater Toronto, one of the most traditional within the movement, decided five years ago when the grounds were purchased from an Orthodox owner that the kashrut standards should be maintained.

“The alternative was to de-kasher the camp and we weren’t about to do that,” said Rabbi Michael Stroh of Temple Har Zion in Thornhill. Stroh, however, is finding it more difficult to reach a consensus on kashrut in his own temple, which will have to decide whether to maintain a kosher kitchen when it gains a new facility next year.

“The debate is between how much more should we be willing to pay if we could make a party so that our building could be open to the whole Jewish community,” he said.

Those congregants who have chosen to take up the cause, however, speak of a renewed connection to their Judaism. “My goal is to create a Jewish sanctuary in a larger world, which is not Jewish,” said Deborah Cohn of Highland Park, N.J. Using the Yiddish word for meat products, during a telephone interview, Cohn said, “I am currently scrubbing out the fleishig pot in my fleishig sink.”

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