Kashrut and Liberal Judaism

April 21st: Shemini
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Our Torah portion this week introduces what we now know as Kashrut, our Jewish Dietary Laws. In Leviticus 11, our ancient ancestors are instructed as to which animals may be eaten and which animals are not allowed. There are four categories: land animals (verses 2-8), water-dwelling animals (verses 9-12), birds (13-19), and winged insects (verses 20-23).

In the case of land animals, only those which chew the cud and which have split hooves are considered ritually edible. In the case of water-dwelling animals, only those which have both fins and scales are considered ritually edible.

In the case of birds, there are no descriptions of what is allowed. We are merely told what is prohibited: “The following you shall abominate among the birds—they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, and the black vulture; the kite, falcons of every variety; all varieties of raven; the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull; hawks of every variety; the little owl, the cormorant, and the great owl; the white owl, the pelican, and the bustard; the stork; herons of every variety; the hoopoe, and the bat.” This leaves as edible what we consider standard barnyard fowl (chickens and geese) and doves and pigeons. To my knowledge, chickens and geese are not mentioned in the Torah, but doves and pigeons are. They are what a poor person should bring as a sacrifice if he/she cannot afford a lamb or a calf.

The section on insects is, to me, the most bizarre: “All winged swarming things that walk on fours shall be an abomination for you. But those you may eat among all the winged swarming things that walk on fours: all that have, above their feet, jointed legs to leap with on the ground—of these you may eat the following: locusts of every variety; all varieties of bald locust; crickets of every variety; and all varieties of grasshopper. But all other winged swarming things that have four legs shall be an abomination for you.” I am not aware of Jewish cuisine involving insects, but I was once told that eating insects was sometimes necessary in places experiencing plagues of locusts. They needed to eat something.

The bigger question, of course, is what we moderns think about these ancient dietary rules. Are they relevant to our modern lives? Do they help us in our relationship with God? As we evaluate our ancient tradition, continuing some things and discarding others, what do we do with Kashrut?

There was a time, in the early days of the Reform Movement, when many people believed that the dietary laws were antiquated and problematic. In the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, Plank #4 reads:  “We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical 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.”

Lest anyone think that these changes were impious, the Statement of Principles began with:“We hold that Judaism presents the highest conception of the God-idea as taught in our Holy Scriptures and developed and spiritualized by the Jewish teachers, in accordance with the moral and philosophical progress of their respective ages. We maintain that Judaism preserved and defended midst continual struggles and trials and under enforced isolation, this God-idea as the central religious truth for the human race.”

But, given the many changes in modern life, the Rabbis believed that modern Jews need to make judgments about which parts of Tradition should be kept and which should be eliminated. Here is how they explained it, in Plank #3: “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”

 Many people thought that this kind of thinking meant a permanent rejection of many traditional elements, but the phrase, “maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives,” has turned out to be a kind of utility clause, making Reform a continually-reforming “verb” rather than a past-participle Reformed.

So, while Reform discarded many traditional elements in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many of these have come back, e.g., kippot and tallitot, chanting, Bar Mitzvah, and Kashrut. Even the amount of Hebrew in Reform services has changed and changed back again. Whereas Classical Reform services had very little Hebrew, many modern Reform synagogues have 50% or more of the service in Hebrew.

The operative phrase for evaluating religious elements is “as elevate and sanctify our lives,” and the changing religious and cultural sensibilities of Reform Jews has resulting in a continuing process of reform.

This is why, as Reform Jews, we need to respect the individual choices that people make in regard to the ancient dietary laws and customs. Some may find that keeping kosher elevates and sanctifies their lives, and therefore this element of their Judaism is to be respected and encouraged. Others may not find Kashrut to be religiously or spiritually meaningful, and their decision, too, should be respected.

The purpose of religion, according to my teacher Dr. Alvin Reines, is the human search for ultimate meaningfulness. To the extent that the traditional elements of our religion enhance this quest, then they are great. To the extent that they do not help—or perhaps hinder—our spiritual process, then our understanding of Judaism allows and encourages each Jew to craft a religious response that elevates and sanctifies his/her life.