Parasha Shemini (April 5, 2013)

The Spectrum of KashrutAs many of you are aware, I have been leading a conversion class this year. That course will conclude its twentieth and final session on April 25. On May 8, members of that group and their families will travel to Wilmette where they will go before a Bet Din and immerse themselves in the mikvah. Prior to the mikvah the men in the group will make a side visit to a mohel to draw a drop of blood. At services on Friday night, May 10, we will welcome our newest Jewish members into the congregation. I hope you will all be there to welcome them as well. One of the most challenging aspects of teaching this group, for me, is how to guide them in terms of following Jewish dietary laws. In Orthodox circles, the expectation of the convert is that he or she will keep a strictly kosher kitchen and only eat out at kosher restaurants. In Conservative circles, the expectation would be that the convert would keep a kosher kitchen and only eat kosher fish in restaurants. These are non-negotiable requirements of the Jew, according to these movements. After all, does not G-d command adherence to dietary laws in our parasha this week? But how do the Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis guide their converts? What guidance do I, a rabbi from a pluralistic, unaffiliated seminary give to my students of a pluralistic, unaffiliated synagogue? Reform Judaism, at its inception in the United States, was initially indifferent or even hostile to traditionally dietary laws. The insistence on observance of dietary laws, according to this view was a relic of the past. It was alienating modern Jews from their religion and erecting barriers between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. One Reform rabbi, speaking on a panel on the subject at a rabbinic convention, joked that her synagogue in New Orleans was “glatt treyf” when she was growing up. Living in New Orleans, a synagogue meal was not really complete without shellfish! This has changed in our times. Now, Reform Judaism encourages both its congregations and its adherents to study the dietary laws and consider whether in adopting some or all of them as a community or as individuals it would add kedushah, sanctity, to their homes and to their lives. The history of kashrut in Reconstructionist Judaism is different. Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, was punctilious in his observance of Jewish law, including kashrut.  But Reconstructionist Jews do not follow Kashrut for the same reason as Conservative or Orthodox Jews. Reconstructionist Jews do not believe that G-d commanded us to follow specific dietary laws. Reconstructionist Jews believe that dietary laws are folk customs, developed by the Jewish people as a way of expressing holiness and commitment to the Divine.  In other words the laws of keeping kosher don’t come from G-d, despite the fact that their origins are depicted that way in this week’s Torah portion. According to this view, they developed from the Jewish people as a cultural expression of their religious life. Therefore, Reconstructionist Jews do not feel bound to a specific kosher regimen. Individuals and communities develop their own kosher guidelines free from the imperatives of a Divine Commander and in accordance with their own will and conscience. So, where does that leave us? I recently came upon an unsigned article that I had saved entitled “Steps up the Ladder of Commitment”. I do not like the idea of a “ladder” as it implies a hierarchy, one step being “higher” spiritually than another. I think we should think of it as a spectrum of choice. Let me do a survey. If you were to advise someone who was interested in observing one, basic, important Jewish dietary law, what would be the very first thing you would advise them to do? Abstain from pork products, right?  That’s interesting, because the rabbis of ancient times thought of the pig as the worst of animals. The Torah portion for this week states that only if an animal has a cloven hoof and chews its cud is it a kosher animal. There is only one animal that has a cloven hoof but does not chew its cud, and that is the pig. So, they tell a story. The pig lies on its back and shows its hooves, and says, “You see, look how kosher I am.” But it hides the fact that it does not chew its cud. It claims it is kosher when it really is not. For this deception, the pig is especially reviled in Jewish life. So, abstention from pork products may be the first place on the kosher spectrum. The next spot might be occupied by those who also abstain from shellfish. This could even mean abstaining from shellfish at home, but not in restaurants. The third place on the spectrum might be separating milk from meat. The rabbis derived this rule from the commandment in the Torah that we should not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. To cook the offspring of an animal in the very milk of its own mother was considered ethically insensitive. So, not eating milk and meat together, and waiting a specific period of time after eating meat to have a dairy product, is a way of sensitizing ourselves ethically to the taking of a life for food. Another place on the spectrum of kashrut is to look for Kosher labels on food products. These Kosher symbols are called “hekshers”.  These products are not difficult to find in your local supermarket – there are 125,000 kosher products in American markets today. If you have decided to abstain from pork products, you are probably only eating meat and poultry from animals that are biblically permitted. An adjacent spot on the spectrum would then be to eat only kosher meats. For meats to be kosher, they must be ritually slaughtered and salted to remove the remaining blood. When I was growing up my mother had to go to the kosher butcher shop to buy kosher meats. Then she had to salt them herself. Today, one could go to Trader Joes here in Naperville and get fresh packaged certified a kosher meat, pre-salted and ready to pop in the oven. Another place on the spectrum would be to have a kosher kitchen in your home. For this you would have to have two sets of dishes, one for dairy and one for meat. You would need two sets of silverware, and two sets of pots and pans. Want to skip the hassle? You and your family could become vegetarians! There are rabbis who believe that the dietary laws of the Torah are mean to lead us gently into the practice of vegetarianism. Following Jewish dietary laws has been an integral part of Jewish identity since Biblical times. In modern times, many Jews have found these laws inconvenient or unnecessarily restricting. I think, as Jews, we have some obligation to explore these laws and whether and to what extent they can add sanctity to our lives. These laws and customs have served our people well for many years, and we may find meaning in them as well.