Kashrut Themes: Contemporary Concerns

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

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 introduced, 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 directly 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 interpreted 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.

The attitude of Reform Judaism, in the earlier period, was more or less one of indifference to the dietary laws. In 1888, a number of leading American Reform rabbis adopted the "Pittsburgh Platform," in which is contained the declaration:

We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinic laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.

Nevertheless, some Reform Jews do keep the dietary laws, especially those found directly in the Bible such as that on the forbidden animals. To the taunts of those who scathingly dubbed observance of the dietary laws as "kitchen religion," Morris Joseph, himself a Reform rabbi but one who kept the dietary laws, retorted, "It is better to have kitchen religion than drawing-room irreligion." Rabbi Gunther Plaut summarizes the modern Reform attitude, "The spokesmen of Reform Judaism rarely find it necessary either to attack or defend these observances. They do not regard such provisions as the literal word of God; they hold that they are no longer religiously meaningful and therefore need not be followed. But they have no quarrel with those who choose to observe the dietary laws." To which final sentence one can only say, "Jolly decent of them!"

It cannot be maintained that all Jews who call themselves Orthodox are strict observers of the dietary laws. Some, for example, will keep a "kosher home" in which the separation of meat and milk and the other laws are strictly observed, but will not be too particular about eating nonkosher food outside the home in restaurants or in the homes of non-Jewish friends. Against this is the marked tendency in Orthodoxy, nowadays, to be excessively strict. Various organizations exist to provide rabbinic supervision of prepacked foods to ensure that these contain not the slightest trace of terefah [non-kosher] ingredients. In right-wing Orthodox circles, there is a tendency to go rather over the top in matters of kashrut, ignoring even the leniencies found in the standard codes of Jewish law.

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