'Ethical' food, not kosher, is priority for US Reform

By Sue Fishkoff, November 26, 2009
Follow The JC on Twitter
Reform Jews were urged to cut down on red meat consumption at the biennial Reform conference this month

Reform Jews were urged to cut down on red meat consumption at the biennial Reform conference this month

For the past few years, the American Reform movement has been edging toward a re-examination of kashrut. Those tentative steps were diverted somewhat at the movement’s biennial convention in Toronto earlier this month.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, devoted much of his Shabbat sermon to urging Reform congregations in North America to develop a dietary practice based on Jewish ethical, environmental and health values. He reminded the 3,000 conference delegates that Jews “eat mindfully and thoughtfully”, and that “eating can be a gateway to holiness”.

But he stopped short of asking them to consider eating kosher.

“This is not about kashrut,” he cautioned, as he outlined the main points of the Reform movement’s new Green Table/Just Table Initiative. Referring to last year’s scandals at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant, he added: “We do not accept the authority of the kashrut establishment, and its problems are for others to resolve.”

But acknowledging Americans’ increased interest in food choices in general, and pointing to Jewish values concerning stewardship of the earth, sustainable agriculture and treatment of workers, he urged Reform Jews and congregations to develop consciously Jewish and ethical food policies. He said: “We need to think about how the food we eat advances the values we hold as Reform Jews.”

That, he said, is how Reform Jews can eat food that is “proper and appropriate”, the literal meaning of the Hebrew word kosher.

Eat less red meat, he urged — 20 per cent less. It’s good for the environment and for your health. Plant synagogue gardens. Pay attention to how animals are raised, and how food workers are treated. Develop a consciously Jewish dietary policy for your synagogue. Eat more slowly and eat together, he said, suggesting that synagogues hold regular communal Shabbat meals.

“Above all,” he said, “let’s avoid the temptation to do nothing.”

For much of its history, the Reform approach to Jewish dietary practice was standoffish at best. In its founding Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, Reform Judaism declared Jewish rituals of dress and diet outmoded, including kashrut. But this past generation, hostility towards these observances has lessened, particularly among younger Reform Jews.

Some Reform Jews who do not keep kosher themselves feel that their institutions should.

A 2000 survey of Reform synagogues in North America revealed that 10 per cent have a kosher kitchen, 80 per cent do not permit pork or shellfish in the building, and nearly half do not serve milk and meat on the same dishes.

But many, usually older Reform Jews, believe this growing embrace of Jewish ritual represents a betrayal of core Reform principles.

“Kashrut is a visceral issue for many Reform Jews, in the negative sense,” Rabbi Yoffie said. “It has been seen by many Reform Jews historically as something we reject — ritual without ethical content.” Largely for this reason, Rabbi Yoffie was careful not to promote kashrut in his talk.

And whereas a guide to Reform Jewish dietary practice that has appeared on the URJ Web site for the past two years presented kashrut as one of the options Reform Jews might consider in developing a conscious dietary practice, it is noticeably absent from the Green Table/Just Table initiative.

“My central objective was putting food issues on our religious agenda, and in our movement, kashrut is not the vehicle to open that discussion,” Rabbi Yoffie said.

“I intentionally put the focus on the ethical and communal dimension, which is central to who we are.

“If I had talked about kashrut, it would have had the opposite impact.”

    Last updated: 3:08pm, November 2 2010