According to “lexical supermaven” Sol Steinmetz, who passed away this fall, “kosher” ranks first among the ten most frequently used words Jews have given to American English.* An adjective originally meaning “fit to eat” according to the Jewish dietary laws, its slang uses have come to describe almost anything – from a person to an offer – that is genuine, reliable or legal. Similarly, something that’s “not kosher” could be not nice, but also unsavory or illegal.
Kashrut, the practice of keeping kosher, is also being redefined in ways that go well beyond the letter of Jewish law. A panel of rabbis and a journalist addressed the provocative question, “What does keeping kosher really mean to us today?” in spirited session on Friday at the Hazon Food Conference – West Coast.
Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, a contributor to the groundbreaking book “The Sacred Table,” described his six-week sabbatical this past summer as “a taste of the olam ha-ba (World to Come).” He was referring to his experience at Kayam Farm at Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland, where he joined a temporary intentional community of 20 Jews farming, learning Torah, and living together. At a meeting about selling their produce at an upcoming farmers’ market, someone asked, “Can we buy Susie’s jam?” Not surprisingly, the answer was another question, “Is Susie’s jam kosher?” This led to an intense discussion about drafting of guidelines for the communal kitchen which lasted until the group disbanded.
A Renewal rabbi and rancher in Pueblo, CO, Elisheva Brenner recounted a conversation with a congregant who asked her what she should be buying after she was told by a butcher at the local Whole Foods that kosher meat is inferior to their non-kosher selection. The session’s moderator, conference co-chair Marc Soloway fields questions like this one often from congregants in his Conservative congregation in Boulder. He challenged everyone to imagine themselves representing a Jewish institution that was rewriting a kosher policy and formulate the questions they would ask.
Taking a broad view based on more than two years of research for “Kosher Nation,” journalist Sue Fishkoff cited the tension between integration into American society and retaining a distinctive group identity through keeping kosher. Historically, who maintains, adapts or abandons traditional Jewish dietary practices, has become a more significant question. As American Jews have become more socially secure and “alternative” lifestyles, including distinctive diets, are more widely accepted, more and more liberal Jews are redefining the meaning of kosher from a category of foods produced according to Jewish law under Orthodox rabbinic supervision, to one which encompasses their social values and ethics.
Audience members participated actively in the discussion. Their questions and comments underscored the panelists’ points. For some, kosher food is integral to an authentic Jewish spiritual and moral life. Self-disciplined eating or an anti-consumerist lifestyle motivates others. As an identity marker, choosing to eat kosher food over non-kosher alternatives, even occasionally, is frequently a newfound expression of ethnic pride.
The rabbis did not necessarily agree on how to approach the creation of contemporary Jewish standards of what is “fit to eat.” Mosbacher, who is Reform, sees the work ahead as a restoration project that draws on traditions pre-dating the 20th century industrialization of food production and establishment of kosher supervisory agencies. Dissatisfied with the options available to their community, Brenner and her husband, also a rabbi and certified shochet (ritual slaughterer), are supplying kosher meat locally in accordance with the “eco-glatt” standard they created. Uri L’Tzedek founder Shmuly Yanklowitz, an Orthodox rabbi who attended the session, advocated for keeping the level of Orthodox rigor alive while bringing the ethics of kosher production up to similarly high standards.
The lively debate made clear that interest in examining and adopting dietary practices that are distinctly Jewish has spread well beyond traditionally observant Jews. At the same time the diversity of the Jewish community makes a universal definition of kosher unlikely. The panelists encouraged everyone to make local leadership a priority. Taking the questions raised back to their home communities and using them to start discussions in synagogues, JCCs, even book groups about what makes our food “fit to eat” in the 21st century is the first step, they argued, towards formulating the policies that will integrate personal values into sustainable kosher practices.
*The others, as reported by William Safire (“On Language,” New York Times, August 25, 2005) are: bagel, glitsch, maven, mensch, schlock, schmooze, tush, chutzpah, and klutz.
Rebecca Joseph, “The Rabbi Chef,” is founder and owner of 12 Tribes Kosher Foods in San Francisco and creator of The Parve Baker, the original kosher dairy-free baking blog.