Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Kosher, Vegeterian, Flexitarian

It's been about a month since I blogged about the ethical implications of eating meat*.  Last week, at the URJ Biennial (the major convention of Reform Judaism), the head of the URJ, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, spoke on this very same topic.  He encouraged Reform Jews to consider giving up, or at least highly reducing their consumption of, red meat (I have no idea why he didn't include other kinds of meat, as well).  There were, however, several parts of his sermon which have been causing some controversy.

* I've since learned a new word: Flexitarian. Someone who isn't vegetarian, but consciously attends to avoid meat, when possible. 

First of all, some have complained that this, and one of his other topics (the use of technology in our synagogue), were unworthy of our attention, given the state of the world, the economy, and the Reform movement.  Perhaps, some say, this was a time for bigger ideas.

Some found it hypocritical that, during a sermon in which he was encouraging us to eat less meat, largely for environmental reasons, he was drinking from a plastic water bottle.  I’ll be honest -- I agree, but can't get too fired up about it.  It's not that big of a deal.

The largest amount of criticism, at least that I've heard, centers around his framing of this issue as “not about kashrut (keeping kosher):”

What about kashrut? This is not about kashrut. There are many Reform Jews who find meaning in the observance of kashrut, wholly or in part, and we deeply respect their choice. But it is not a choice that the great majority of us want to make.

In fact, the rejection of kashrut was long a hallmark of North American Reform Judaism. Kauffman Kohler, an early leader of the Movement, proclaimed that "Judaism is a matter of conscience, not cuisine." …

Nonetheless, we - as a Movement - have put kashrut aside, and kashrut is not the issue for us. We do not accept the authority of the kashrut establishment, and its problems are for others to resolve.

I think that this was a mistake, on a couple of levels.  First of all, the word “kosher” really just means “fit,” or in this context, “fit to eat.” So, if red meat isn't (equally) fit to eat, then it isn't kosher. Whether not he wanted to say it this way, what Rabbi Yoffie was really doing was expressing a vision of “Reform Kashrut.” I understand why, I think, he didn't want to frame it this way: the debate about what “kosher” and “eco-kosher” and “Reform Kosher” mean is often frustrating, and it's easy to get bogged down in the philosophical discussions, and lose track of the important, practical point he was trying to make -- we really should be eating less red meat.  But, part of me still wishes he was willing to try to reclaim such an important word, and concept, from our tradition.

I think he also made a big mistake in dismissing Reform Jews’ adherence to a more traditional understanding of kashrut as a specific set of dietary laws.  I remember learning one time that something like 50% of all Reform Jews follow some of the laws of kashrut. They may not eat pork, for example, even though they may not be concerned at all about how an animal was slaughtered. Kashrut, even in its more common understanding, simply isn't irrelevant too many Reform Jews.  It's a shame that Rabbi Yoffie didn't acknowledge that, and was even somewhat dismissive of the idea.

As always, I'd love to get comments from anyone reading this.  But, I'm especially interested in hearing from the Reform Jews out there: do you, in any way, keep kosher?  What do you think of the idea of eating less meat as a Jewish practice?


Anonymous said...

I don't keep any form of kosher, but I'm interested in "eating Jewishly," which is what Rabbi Yoffie's food resolution was titled ( I think he didn't use the word "kashrut" not because he didn't want to scare off those who do abide some form of kashrut but because "kosher" implies a certain set of set standards - and his sermon was very clear to outline his hope that every congregational and individual comes up with their OWN way to "eat Jewishly," NOT a pre-outlined set of standards. As he said, the options may not interest everyone - some may focus on treatment of workers, others may focus on locally grown foods, and still others may choose vegetarianism or meat that's only treated fairly. There is no one strict outline for the form of Jewish eating he encourages - rather, he wants us to think critically & personally about what eating means to us - ethically, and educated by our Jewish values - and to take steps to ensure that we're living out of values through our bites. If that means kashrut for some, so be it - but there are other ways to eat ethically - and Jewishly - too.

Rivster said...

I agree with most of what you have written here.

I must admit that I am in process on this one as far as my own meat consumption. I am in the midst of reading several books on the topic and will be attending the Hazon Food Conference. I expect to have more to say on the topic when I return.

I was reared in a home that refrained from pork, shrimp, and mixing milk and meat. This is the same approach we have taken in our home -- though it was a HUGE change for my husband.

I too was disappointed with the lack of connection drawn between Reform eating and kashrut.

Leah in Chicago said...

I make what I call "kosher choices." I don't eat pork or shellfish, I do my best to separate meat and dairy. But I don't have a kashered kitchen and the meat doesn't have to be kosherly slaughtered.

However, I'm making a move towards a kosher kitchen - simply as a way to be able to host more Jews in my home.

Matt Kennelly said...

Flexitarian was a new word for me and one that I might try and use to explain my food choices. Personally, I am a pescaterian - someone who eats fish, but not other kind of meat - mostly because that is where I am in the process of going to full vegetarian. But in the process, I have found myself making Jewish choices. For example, giving up pork was the first step. A recent step has been to stop eating crab.

However, most would be surprised that I DO occasionally eat meat. But only in a case where it will go to waste (like those mass produced lunches catered into work, or a friend who orders a meat lovers pizza and is going to throw away the leftovers). I never try and eat meat in a case where that will cause another animal to be slaughtered.

I have often wondered what label would apply to me eating this way. But I find that this combination of conscious eating guided by Jewish teachings works for me right now.

Anonymous said...

If one is willing to bend the strict rules of Kashrut, doesn't that dilute it's purpose? One can eat pork today without the concern of becoming ill, so why not eat just a little pork if it's OK to eat a little dairy with meat. Are we bending the rules for convenience, and if yes, couldn't it be bent in many more directions?

Anonymous said...

If one is willing to bend the strict rules of Kashrut, doesn't that dilute it's purpose? One can eat pork today without the concern of becoming ill, so why not eat just a little pork if it's OK to eat a little dairy with meat. Are we bending the rules for convenience, and if yes, couldn't it be bent in many more directions?

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

Anonymous - what you're really bringing up is the tension inherent in all Liberal Judaism. The reasons for making changes, and the justification for it, are too big of a topic for a blog comment, but check out my Rosh Hashana sermon at, if you're really interested. But, suffice it to say that if you take an "all or nothing" approach to kashrut, then you probably have to do so with all mitzvot. And, in that case, I'm not sure that Reform Judaism is really the most natural setting for that!