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A Reconstructionist Exploration of Dietary Law

When I was growing up, Sunday morning breakfast at our home always included bacon. Seders routinely featured sliced bread alongside the matzah. As we lived just down the block from a Chinese restaurant, pork and shellfish (however diced and disguised) frequently found their way to our table. It is fair to say that my family of origin was lacking in kosher consciousness!

As is true of many Jews who did not grow up to the rhythms of ritual observance, I eventually made my way into the realm of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) as an adult. Kashrut came along with the discovery of shabbat, prayer, tallit, tefilin, lulav, sukkah, and a host of other mitzvot that were not a part of my early years. 

The encounter with kashrut in college was complex. I was able to master the fundamentals fairly quickly. Pork and shellfish were out. The blending of meat and milk was no longer an option. I was able to grasp the implications of this regarding cheeseburgers, but it took a while longer to decipher the nuances of dairy derivatives in food that had the appearance of neutrality (“parve”).

But “kosher meat” — that took a long time to figure out! The market near my home clearly stated: “Kosher and Non-Kosher foods served.” With a combination of sincerity, naiveté and ignorance, I asked the man at the meat counter for the “kosher meat.” With a combination of entrepreneurial ease and a salesman’s eye for opportunity, he promptly served up two pounds of steak that in retrospect I am certain never saw salt nor water nor shokhet (ritual slaughterer) before appearing in the refrigerated case.

Eventually, thanks to The Jewish Catalogue, a group of friendly Hillel students, and a tolerant if somewhat perplexed Orthodox Hillel rabbi, I was able to embrace the details and dynamics of kashrut in their entirety.

As a communal and personal discipline, kashrut became an opportunity to invest the daily activity of eating with a dimension of holiness. Whether accomplished through words of blessing, the style of preparation of the food, the types of cookery used, or the kinds of foods served, kashrut became an important daily affirmation of identity and values. Far from being the “pot-and-pan-theism” with which it is often regarded by critics, kashrut emerged in my life as a vehicle for spiritual and bodily renewal.

I was enticed by the meaning inherent in the surrender of former favorite foods. A verse from The God of Daniel S., an introduction to Reconstructionism written by Rabbi Alan Miller, resonated strongly:

“… He had simply woken up one day to find that he could no longer eat with impunity an animal whose flesh his ancestors had resisted eating to the point of death.”

The separation of meat and dairy foods, the disturbing proximity between symbols of life and death, carried a similarly powerful association. Though I did not choose to observe all the stringencies associated with the absolute separation of these products, the avoidance of serving food that was obviously meat with food that was obviously dairy became an opportunity for honoring the boundaries of life and death.

Upon entering marriage, we established a home in which, for the first time for generations in our families, two sets of cookery were kept, one for dairy and one for meat. So stringent were we in those days that we did not use the dishwasher in our apartment because it had only one set of racks!

Upon entering the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1976, I was faced with the conundrum of where to eat lunch. The old RRC building resided on a desolate stretch of Broad Street in a formerly upscale area of Philadelphia. The nearest eatery, a lone business on an otherwise boarded-up street, was hardly kosher! We students would meander up, ask for tuna or cheese, pick off the scraps of meat left over from the slicing machine, and do the best we could. (We did delight in telling people that it was the only restaurant in the area under “rabbinical supervision.”) Similarly, debates attended on the “fish fillet” at the nearby McDonald’s, which occupied the space where a prestigious Conservative synagogue had once resided, giving the restaurant a residual aura of acceptance.

One evening, during a discussion at my student congregation regarding kashrut, someone asked me the following question: If it could be proved that other methods of slaughtering meat are less painful than the kosher requirements of shekhita (ritual slaughter), would I refuse kosher meat and buy the other meat instead?

I was caught short by this question, because it represented the age-old debate regarding the mitzvot: does one comply because “God commands,” or does one search for the “taamei hamitzvot,” the “reasons for the commandments,” in order to decide what benefit derives from observance? As I had always argued that tza’ar baalei hayyim, the traditional Jewish concern not to cause pain to living beings, was an essential reason for keeping kosher, I had to begin to struggle with where the “break-point” is for kashrut: Where does the observance become meaningful, and where does it become a burden, and why. I was also forced to wrestle with the obligations I had to other Jews to support institutions — in this case, the kosher butcher — upon which they relied for their observance, even if I was uncertain as to my endorsement of the process.

In sorting out a respectful but voluntary commitment to kashrut, Reconstructionism was an enormous asset. Because it does not represent an “either-or” approach, but allows for and encourages people to find a place on the spectrum of observance, it was possible to begin to sort out where kashrut worked and where it did not.

Mordecai Kaplan’’s teaching that the ritual commandments are folkways designed to effect identification with the Jewish people led to an understanding that kashrut can be observed in some areas but not others, without inconsistency. As long as the level of observance supports and strengthens identification with the Jewish people, it is a functionally appropriate level of observance.

Thus, after several years of strict cookware separation, our family decided that keeping two sets of dishes diminished rather than enhanced our commitment to kashrut. With the arrival of our first child, and the concomitant pervasiveness of things dairy, the benefits of this choice became, for us, self-evident.

We have in our family therefore established an adaptation of kashrut which seems to me an acceptable Reconstructionist principle: We are concerned and cautious about what we eat but not the dishes on which we eat it or the pots in which it is cooked. This guideline enables us to eat comfortably in any restaurant or home.

Over the years, we have truncated the time one customarily waits after a meat meal before having dairy. Most Ashkenazim wait between three and six hours. While we cannot claim Dutch ancestry, we figure if Dutch Jews can settle for waiting just over an hour, so can we.

Eating outside our home, we find we are more lenient these days about the degree of kashrut we require, although I prefer that meat and poultry brought into the home be from a kosher market. The prohibition on pork and shellfish, and the overt mingling of dairy and meat (what many call “Biblical kashrut”) remain fundamental categories to which we are committed. From a Reconstructionist perspective, these areas seem so essential to our identification with our history and our people as to be “commanded.”

As the years move on, so have our patterns of observance. My daughter demonstrates a preference for vegetarianism, which I share, and consequently our consumption of meat has declined. I find the Jewish Edenic-Messianic vision of vegetarianism compelling. Although legend teaches that we will all feast on Leviathan meat in the world to come, I expect I’ll just ask for fruit instead.

In recent years, three aspects of kashrut have become particularly engaging.

The first is “eco-kashrut”, in which the fitness of food is measured not only by compliance with biblical regulations but by consideration of ethical-ecological-economic issues. Food which is grown under conditions of oppression is ripe for rejection; overly-packaged and environmentally insensitive products seem indulgent; foods full of empty calories, cholesterol, fats and sugars do nothing to promote health and eviscerate the image of the Divine in which we are created.

The second area of interest is the cycle of blessings which accompany eating in Judaism. I collect these under the heading of “kashrut” although halahically they come under the category of blessings and prayer. The point here is that our attitude towards eating itself should be a dimension of kashrut. For several years I have not begun a meal or snack without the appropriate blessing, and the customary sprinkling of salt on bread. The rigorous and lengthy Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals), enjoyable at the Shabbat table, is a burden during the week; an abbreviated prayer of gratitude, or a moment of silent appreciation before leaving the table, seems more effective.

The third area of contemporary kashrut which engages me is how, and how much, we eat. The accelerated pace of life has obliterated the time set aside for meals. “Grazing,” a contemporary sociological term for how people eat “on the street” from carts and takeout fast food shops, seems to me antithetical to the dignity Judaism confers on human beings. We wash hands, bless, sit and eat and bless again precisely because we are not animals who simply eat out of hunger. As Kaplan said, we should eat to live, not live to eat.

A corollary concern is how much we eat. Americans lead the world in the undistinguished category of being overweight, with the attendant effect on our health (and health-care systems). Jewish events, including seudot shel mitzvah (meals following a celebration) should exemplify modesty: portions should be kept in proportion!

In a survey in the 1990s of members of Reconstructionist communities, many were surprised to discover that 34 percent reported that they observed kashrut. Of course, since the question was not specific, a wide range of patterns is represented in the affirmative response. (Some joke that for some Reconstructionists, “keeping kosher” means not using Styrofoam!)

I assess the information differently. What the statistic says to me is that 34 percent of Reconstructionists identifed kashrut, however defined, as a category of meaning for their Jewish lives. This testifies to the validity of Kaplan’’s insight that ritual binds us to our people and supports identity. It also suggests that the daily disciplines relating to food remain opportunities for Jews of all backgrounds to establish some level of kashrut.

Kashrut is a traditional category of meaning whose details often obscure the spiritual power which inheres in observance. Whether beginning with the simple act of saying a blessing over food, or  restricting Biblically prohibited foods, or avoiding meat and milk, or setting up a fully kosher kitchen, Reconstructionist Jews should be able to find a level where comfort and meaning intersect to further the growth of our Jewish spirits and of our Jewish bodies.

This article was originally published in Reconstructionism Today.

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