Is Kosher Kosher?

I recently had occasion to extract from my bookshelf a well-used and falling apart 1977 paperback edition of Elie Weisel’s Messengers of God.  The book was inscribed as a holiday gift to the teachers of the religious school where my wife has been teaching for decades (not the congregation to which we belong).

Then, as it happened, this past Sunday was Teacher Appreciation Day and following lunch (kosher barbecue, with a vegetarian option), each teacher received as a gift a hardbound, beautifully crafted book (list price  $29.95), Kosher Revolution: New Techniques and Great Recipes for Unlimited Kosher Cooking, by Geila Hocherman and  Arthur Boehm.  This is not your typical Joan Nathan or Tina Wasserman compendium of Jewish recipes or guide to Jewish cooking, It is most distinctly a thoroughly detailed guidebook to translating traditionally treif food for the kosher eater, without losing taste, texture, or taam (flavor)—prosciutto from duck rather than pork, sauce from egg yolks rather than cream, rules of thumb for substituting without sacrificing the aura of the original dish.  Also here are suggestions for converting your chometz favorites for Passover.  Containing only 95 recipes, this is as much textbook as cookbook, although it does offer Bubbe’s Brisket, directly foll0wed by Lamb Kufte, which it is unlikely Bubbe ever heard of.  By the way, the recipes are accompanied by photos, so appetizing you could die from hunger just looking at the pages.

As someone brought up in a kosher home, who is not a cook, and who eats shellfish, bacon, etc., I call the book to your attention not for its culinary, ritual, or tutorial merits, but rather to stimulate discussion on issues that might concern folks who care about the heart and soul of the Reform Movement.

I am well aware of the autonomy Reform Judaism gives each of us to make dietary choices based on what is or is not personally meaningful, and of the autonomy of the congregation to suggest standards and to role-model practice for its members which may be more or less stringent than any non-binding “official” standards or practices of the Movement.

Although Gates of Mitzvah (1986) opened the door for Reform Jews to pay attention to kashrut, and the penultimate draft of the 1999 Pittsburgh Principles gave express permission for its exploration as a component of a personal Jewish lifestyle, the Principles themselves excised the implied retraction of the virtual ban on kashrut interpreted by so many into the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform.  The dietary laws were still an issue (and probably still are) for many in the Reform rabbinate, best treated by leaving them alone.

A once-standard rubric among Reform Jews, “It’s more important what comes out of your mouth than what goes into it.”

Flash forward to the 2010 edition of Jewish Living, the definitive guide to Reform Jewish practice, in which Rabbi Mark Washofsky provides many roadways into Reform concern over what goes on the table, whether the choice is made for reasons of health, ecology, or even Jewish ritual.  Especially significant is the distinction between individual behavior and what might be expected institutionally, including the clear proviso that kashrut is not an all or nothing expectation, and one may choose one’s own path to the spirit if not the minutiae of the traditional dietary laws.

Certainly I endorse the role of the congregation in setting standards for its own functions, and thus role modeling appropriate Jewish dietary practices for its members to be guided by—or not.  My own congregation, which I assume is fairly typical, serves no pork or shellfish, or meat-milk mixtures, and accepts only dairy or vegetarian contributions to pot-lucks.  The rabbi, by the way, is a vegetarian, her predecessor an omnivore.

But, by gifting its faculty with copies of a book on kashrut, is my wife’s employer sending a message, or merely recognizing as with the selection of the lunch menu that that many members of the faculty are already kashrut-observant (not everyone who teaches in a Reform religious school is a Reform Jew)—and if there is a message, is it an appropriate one?  I have no doubt that 30 years ago, a similar gift would have set off an uproar in this classically-rooted congregation —today my murmur is likely to be the only one heard, and I’m not even a member.

Another aspect of the selection—the contrast in both cost and content from the gift of 40 years ago—a $30 investment in thanking teachers rather than $1.95 suggests not the force of inflation, but a new perspective on serious appreciation rather than the tokenism of an earlier era.  As to content, I see no conscious effort to push a new set of values, ritual rather than spiritual, in the choice, although perhaps a reflection of an era where doing often trumps studying or praying.  I am inclined to analyze the contemporary gift as a sign that the congregation has grown in both Yiddishkeit and menschlichkeit over these four decades.  Hopefully the Movement has done the same.