reform kashrut?

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  • May 20, 2010

My friend Cantor Yonah Kliger pointed me to an inter­est­ing arti­cle in this month’s Reform Judaism Magazine. It’s a thought­ful dis­cus­sion (a sort of point-counterpoint) from two rab­bis about whether Reform syn­a­gogues should have kosher kitchens.

On one side, Rabbi David Frank argues that kashrut is a legit­i­mate and valid form of Reform Jewish prac­tice If Reform Jews are going to be made to feel like they are free to make that choice, their syn­a­gogue needs to be a place where they can freely prac­tice this part of their Jewish life. As he puts it, “If our Movement truly con­sid­ers kashrut a viable option for indi­vid­ual Reform Jewish obser­vance, then our syn­a­gogues might indeed pro­vide a means to expe­ri­ence it.”

On the other side, Rabbi Jeff Marx explains that keep­ing a kosher kitchen is out of sync with the lifestyles of the over­whelm­ing major­ity of Reform Jews. If none of the mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion keep kosher, then why should the syn­a­gogue have a kosher kitchen? If we, as Reform Jews, have made a con­sci­en­tious choice to not keep kosher (and, per­haps, have actu­ally made the choice to be food-conscious in other ways), then shouldn’t the kitchens in our syn­a­gogues reflect these val­ues? As Rabbi Marx explains,

Reform Jews should keep kosher, but not the kashrut of the past. Kashrut for our time needs to be con­cerned with food qual­ity (real foods free from harm­ful chem­i­cals and addi­tives), meat con­sump­tion (weigh­ing the envi­ron­men­tal and per­sonal health impli­ca­tions asso­ci­ated with eat­ing red meat), humane treat­ment of ani­mals (when we do eat them), organic foods (to avert health risks asso­ci­ated with pes­ti­cide spray­ing), and employ­ment prac­tices (fair wages and safety for those involved in food pro­duc­tion and distribution).”

Our kitchens, Rabbi Marx believes, should reflect this cur­rent form of “kashrut,” not some tra­di­tional sense of keep­ing kosher that doesn’t res­onate with our cur­rent values.

This debate is funny to me because I think I fall squarely in the middle.

On one hand, I very much agree with Rabbi Frank. I believe that kashrut can be an impor­tant part of an individual’s choices of Reform Jewish prac­tice. As such, con­gre­gants who might make these sorts of choices should (a) be empow­ered to do so by their syn­a­gogue, and (b) should be able to eat in their own syn­a­gogue building.

On the other hand, I’m loathe to sup­port the instal­la­tion of tra­di­tion­ally kosher kitchens in Reform syn­a­gogues for one big rea­son (and it’s a rea­son that Rabbi Marx fails to men­tion): rab­bini­cal authority.

Here’s the prob­lem. If you’re going to main­tain a tra­di­tion­ally kosher kitchen in a com­mu­nal build­ing, then you need tra­di­tional rab­binic super­vi­sion of the kitchen. Someone needs to make sure that cook­ing imple­ments des­ig­nated as meat and dairy main­tain their kosher sta­tus. Someone needs to check to make sure that all ingre­di­ents brought into the kitchen have proper kosher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Someone needs to make sure that only certified-kosher cater­ers may use the kitchen. And ulti­mately, “tra­di­tional super­vi­sion” and “tra­di­tional cer­ti­fi­ca­tion” means Orthodox.

And there’s the rub. I think it is totally incon­sis­tent with our Reform Jewish val­ues to accept that our kitchens need to super­vised and cer­ti­fied by an Orthodox author­ity. In fact, I think that accept­ing Orthodox super­vi­sion of our kitchens is an affront to Reform Judaism. It accepts that our rab­bis aren’t good enough, and by exten­sion gives into the Orthodox canard that Reform con­verts aren’t really Jewish and that our rab­bis (espe­cially the women) are unfit to per­form rab­bini­cal duties. Furthermore, to pay for Orthodox super­vi­sion and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion (and to insist on the use of only prod­ucts that carry this cer­ti­fi­ca­tion) is to pro­vide finan­cial sup­port for the very Orthodox estab­lish­ment that asserts (in deed, if not nec­es­sar­ily in word) that our move­ment is not a viable expres­sion of Judaism.

I guess this leads me to accept Rabbi Frank’s assess­ment that we ought to be pro­vid­ing avenues for viable forms of Reform Jewish prac­tice within our syn­a­gogues, but to take issue only with the notion that we should have “tra­di­tion­ally” kosher kitchens. I am not advo­cat­ing for the cre­ation of some “Reform kashrut.” Rather, I’m say­ing that syn­a­gogues should find ways to cel­e­brate dif­fer­ent Jewish lifestyle choices while affirm­ing the via­bil­ity and author­ity of our own Jewish practice.