Kashrut Themes: Contemporary Concerns

Modern Jews balance their secular knowledge and Jewish commitments in forging attitudes toward traditional dietary laws.

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Reprinted from Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press. Rabbi Jacobs' comments begin with a general statement about the difference between premodern and modern Jewish thinkers in their stance toward explaining the dietary laws. He then surveys the attitudes toward the appropriate extent of observance among modern Jewish religious movements.

Three additional points are worth noting: The Reform movement has in recent years advocated more engagement with traditional categories of Jewish observance, including kashrut. The Reconstructionist movement, primarily in the United States, views kashrut as one of Judaism's central practices with which individuals and communities should wrestle and about which they should make conscious decisions. Many Reconstructionists also share with the Jewish renewal movement a concern for "eco-kashrut"--the myriad social and environmental concerns that one can take into consideration in determining what is "fit" (the literal meaning of the word "kosher") to eat.

Modern thinkers tend to dwell not so much on the reasons that these laws were first intro≠duced, but rather on the effect they have had and on the part they have played in Jewish self-≠discipline and in the preservation of the Jewish people as a people apart, as a holy people, in the language of the Bible (Exodus 19: 6).

Where the view obtains, as it still does among Orthodox Jews, that the dietary laws are di≠rectly ordained by God, these laws will be unreservedly obeyed. But, affected by biblical criticism and general uncertainty regarding the Bible as the direct word of God, modern Jews have adopted a variety of attitudes toward the observance of the dietary laws.

Conservative Judaism, with its emphasis on revelation through the people, not only to the people, tends to accept the findings of the critics that many of the dietary laws may have had their origin in primitive taboos, but still maintains that these laws must be obeyed as the most powerful means of preserving the Jewish people. This is not necessarily to leave God out of the picture or to say that these laws have no divine origin, although, no doubt, some Conservative Jews would say this. Other Conservative Jews still see the dietary laws as coming from God, albeit in an indirect way, through the experiences of the Jewish people in its quest for holiness. Because of its emphasis on halakhah [Jewish law and its observance] as the distinguishing feature of the Jewish religion, Conservative Judaism advocates obedience to the rules and regulations of kashrut as laid down in the Shulhan Arukh, though inter≠preted in a more liberal fashion than Orthodox Judaism normally allows. A Conservative rabbi may eat kosher food in a nonkosher restaurant without being too fussy about the utensils in which the food has been cooked. On the other hand, in some Conservative circles nowadays, especially in towns where there are kosher restaurants and where a large variety of kosher food-products is readily available, Conservative Jews will be as strict as the Orthodox in observing the dietary laws.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.