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?