Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Reform goes kosher?

America's Reform rabbinical association is coming out with a new guide to Jewish dietary practice: "The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic".

No, the word "kosher" is not mentioned on the cover. But according to JTA, "Reform kashrut" is part of it, in a way that was unimaginable even a year ago, when Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, dropped plans to suggest kashrut as a model for Reform dietary practice following an outcry from his lay leaders.

In Reform circles over the past two years, conversation about kashrut and Jewish values has come from the grass roots, youth groups and the pulpit. It’s part of the movement’s new readiness to examine once-discarded Jewish rituals for their spiritual potential, and the focus on kashrut comes within the context of heightened interest among Americans generally in the politics and morality of food production and distribution...

“This is part of a continuum within Reform Judaism,” said [Rabbi Mary] Zamore, who pushed the project along for 13 years. “It’s not liberal Judaism becoming something different; it’s that we continue to evolve. Here is a topic which for many Reform Jews was taboo or a non-starter. Now everywhere I go, people are talking about these topics as Reform Jews.”

This is a really positive development. True, there is still no agreement in Reform about what precisely it means by "kosher". Many Orthodox people might not recognise some of the definitions being reached: bringing in "ethical" principles for food choice does not necessarily mean they are "kosher" halachically (although they might be. And it would be nice if more people in the Orthodox camp had some regard for "ethical" food choices as well as for halachic ones. One of the ironies here is that the renewed Reform interest in kashrut is partially being credited to the scandal of the Lubavitch-run Agriprocessors meat plant, which provoked little soul-searching - and some of the opposite - amongst the Orthodox).

But who can object to the movement becoming, in its own way, more comfortable with Jewish practice and terminology? Who knows where their journey will end.

Of course, we are a long way off from seeing a majority of Reform's rank-and-file members keeping kosher. Rabbi Yoffie's experience last year suggests that the image of Reform's rabbis being frummer than their followers has an element of truth to it and a decade ago, just 8% of those keeping kosher were Reform, despite being the largest denomination.

But just how serious this is might be discerned from the comments of Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains NJ, who writes
that he does not keep kosher, opposing its power to separate Jews from non-Jews. He explains his position as a “moral choice based on my definition of Reform Judaism,” and says he feels marginalized at Reform events that serve only kosher food. They may think they’re being inclusive, Abraham writes, but in fact such meals exclude him and his beliefs.
Of course, he is not excluded, because he can still eat the food, while kosher people at a non-kosher dinner cannot eat. That he clearly feels threatened perhaps indicates that something substantial really is happening.

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