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Resetting the table
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Resetting the table

NJ rabbi leader in debate on kashrut and Reform Judaism

The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic
The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic

SAN FRANCISCO — Kosher: It’s the first word in the book. And tackling the “k” word head-on is part of what makes the first Reform guide to Jewish dietary practice so significant.

The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic, published in December 2010, uses an array of essays by Reform rabbis and activists to challenge Reform Jews to develop a conscious dietary practice grounded in Jewish values.

The book’s editor, New Jersey’s Rabbi Mary Zamore, will speak at Temple Emanu-El in Edison on Sunday, Oct. 30, in advance of the synagogue’s Global Hunger Shabbat the next week.

The Sacred Table is not shy about suggesting kashrut, both traditional and re-imagined.

“No longer an oxymoron, ‘Reform kashrut’ has entered the Jewish lexicon, although there is no consensus on what this means exactly,” Rabbi Carole Balin, a Jewish history professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, writes in the book, which was published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis Press.

For a movement whose founding Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 rejected kosher laws along with other traditional Jewish rituals of dress and body as “entirely foreign” to modern sensibilities, the book represents a milestone in the development of Reform spirituality and practice; it is, significantly, part of the “CCAR Challenge and Change Series.”

It also illustrates the increased attention focused on kashrut across the denominational spectrum since the 2008 Agriprocessors scandal, which shuttered the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse and spurred a rash of “ethical kosher” initiatives — from small, humane kosher meat operations to the Conservative movement’s Magen Tzedek project, which certifies kosher food products that meet certain ethical standards.

‘Continuing evolution’

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.

Some Reform leaders, including Zamore, the associate rabbi of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, want to play down the trendiness aspect.

“This is part of a continuum within Reform Judaism,” said Zamore, who pushed the Sacred Table 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,” said Zamore.

The Sacred Table opens with a discussion of the historical Reform approach to kashrut and includes an overview of traditional kosher laws, a first for an official Reform publication, according to Zamore, who was also a contributing writer.

The book includes chapters on the Jewish values that proponents of ethical kashrut embrace as they seek to broaden the definition of the Jewish diet, from the ban on “tza’ar ba’alei hayim,” or cruelty to animals, to preventing “oshek,” or oppression of workers. It includes the results of a 2005 survey that showed that increasing numbers of Reform synagogues, clergy, and lay leaders are keeping kosher. And it ends with a guide that Reform congregations can use to develop their own communal dietary practice (with or without kashrut).

Westfield resident Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a longtime advocate of bringing more Jewish ritual into Reform practice, said he was pleasantly surprised to see the book’s forthright approach.

In the summer of 2009, he refashioned the keynote speech he was preparing for the movement’s biennial conference after movement lay leaders pushed back against its suggestion that kashrut be used as a model for Reform dietary practice.

Instead, he unveiled at the conference the “Just Table, Green Table” platform for developing consciously Jewish food choices, a program that was “not about kashrut,” Yoffie told delegates.

At the time, he said, he “wanted people to be open to the idea of Jewish sacred eating, and didn’t want to touch an emotional chord that would prevent them from hearing that message.”

So a year later, when the book came out, he said in an interview that he found it “fascinating” that the Reform rabbinical leadership had seized the reins.

“Our rabbinical body is coming out and unabashedly embracing the word kashrut, saying this is how we’re framing the discussion, and we want people to struggle with it,” said Yoffie, who wrote the foreword to Sacred Table.

The thrust of the book clearly favors broadening the definition of kashrut to include related Jewish ethical values, in keeping with longstanding Reform history.

“That is essential,” Yoffie said. “There are those in our movement who will accept kashrut in the traditional sense, but the great majority will take elements of kashrut in a broader sense. They want to relate it to issues of ethics, community, and identity.”

So the book’s recommendation to adopt kashrut itself, albeit in an adapted form, does not sit well with some Reform leaders, whose voices also appear in the book, however briefly.

One is Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains 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.

Jewish ethical values about treating workers and animals well, and respecting the environment and one’s own body, are all important to Reform as well as other Jews, he says.

“But we don’t need to graft them onto kashrut,” he said, acknowledging however that he is in a shrinking minority among Reform rabbis.

Well, it hasn’t always been. But the 1999 Pittsburgh Principles, drafted by Rabbi Richard Levy, then CCAR president, opened the door to kashrut in a new way. That publication for the first time suggested that ethical commands were no longer privileged over ritual commands.

The Sacred Table also contains essays by two other NJ rabbis, Douglas Sagal of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield and Joe Skloot, a resident of Westfield.

NJJN staff writer Johanna Ginsberg contributed to this article.

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