Sermon: Have a Reform Kosher Pesach – Acharei Mot 2011

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 20 April 2011

In his book Chasing Shadows where Rabbi Hugo Gryn recounted his childhood in Berecovo, he wrote about the life of the Synagogue in the town. We are used to hearing a sermon weekly, a drasha every Shabbat to bring our Torah portion to life in our day given by a Rabbi or guest preacher.  In Berecovo, in keeping with minhag in sub-Carpathian Ruthenia – the rabbi would preach only four times a year and the Synagogue would be full to bursting to hear his carefully considered words of guidance and hopefully wisdom.  One of those four yearly occasions was this Shabbat – Shabbat ha Gadol – the Shabbat immediately before Peasch.

Why was this Shabbat the one for a grand sermon?  Because in Berecovo observance of the Mitzvot was the ground of the learning that the Rabbi would teach and the complication of observing Pesach Kashrut was worthy every year of a grand sermon so that community would not err – which combined with a good dose of hope for the future based on the hope for Elijah the prophet to herald the messiah.  After all it is the traditional greeting for Pesach – have a happy and Kosher Pesach.

Now fast forwards to 1995 and it is Pesach in London.  I was leading a week long trip to Israel for 14 and 15 year old Reform and Liberal Jews from a number of synagogues.  It was the third day of Pesach and we were waiting in Heathrow airport for our departure. The young people were given half an hour free to do as they wished. And what about half of the group of 25 wished to do was to buy a sandwich.  It was clear that many of them were not keeping kosher for Pesach at home in any way. I was shocked.

In Israel of course things were much easier as there was no choice but to keep Kosher – even Mc Donalds in Jerusalem, as my young companions discovered to their delight transferred to Potato flour rolls for Pesach.  They all spent the week kosher for Pesach and I think gained much from the experience – and the joy when on day five of the week bread returned to our diet was a sight to behold.

Kashrut is bound up with Judaism in five ways.  It’s essence is that we choose to forgo certain foods at certain times – even though they may be good for us, tasty and easily available.  Some of the foods which are not Kosher most of us would consider disgusting – like worms, guinea pigs as eaten in South America and, the first non kosher food listed in Torah, the limbs of live animals.  But most non-kosher foods are just fine to eat.

Maimonides  writes in his guide to the Perplexed that Pork meat is delicious, it’s just not Kosher – though he also writes that due to all of the pigs running around the villages of the Franks are very dirty!

What is the role of keeping Kosher in Judaism?  In Leviticus 11 where we hear about the non-kosher animals, fish and birds it is simply said that it’s purpose it to bring a Jew who observes it closer to God – kadosh – to holiness.  So keeping Kosher enables us to bring Godliness into every mouthful that we eat.  Even if we do not pray three times a day we eat three times a day!

It’s not about health!  In the middle Ages Jewish systematisers who were asking the why questions that had not previously been asked in Jewish literature began to suggest that kashrut was God’s gift to Jewish health promotion. Perhaps in contrast to other people’s around, Jewish communities were suffering from fewer health problems and they became convinced that Kashrut was the root.  Trouble with this analysis is that if you consider Kashrut to be somehow God given then if health promotion was the reason it was not a job well done – the fattiest foods can be kosher (chicken smulz on bread anyone) potentially poisonous mushrooms are kosher, you can get food poisoning just as easily from poorly stored and prepared chicken as from pork or shellfish.

But Kashrut is about one more general aspect of healthy eating which has repercussions in a broad scope of life. That is training for self discipline and control – if you cannot eat anything you fancy whenever you fancy it then you have the foundation for not giving into other harmful aspects of life and of our treatment of other people.  Hence the use of the word kosher for a decently conducted business deal.  Remember the root meaning of the Hebrew word kasher is fit or proper – proper to eat, proper to do.

Woven into kashrut is simply respect for life.  We are not to eat blood because it is the life force of an animal or bird. Thus if you buy eggs from a kosher food shop they will be White shelled rather than the brown shelled eggs now general to all supermarkets the better to bs able to hold then up to the light in order to inspect them for forbidden internal blood spots before use.  The separation of milk and meat rule is interpreted as being needed to separate from life giving milk from death caused meat – beyond the insult of boiling a kid in it’s mothers milk. Shechita has at its root a method of slaughter intended to cause an animal as little distress as possible at the time of it’s inevitable death. The current threat to shechita which is the proposal that all meat killed by it’s method should be labelled as “not pre-stunned” is effective only to the extent that people don’t believe shechita to be the kindest method.

A fourth basis for kashrut is based on the root meaning of kadosh – holy – that which Jewish laws of eating is presented as enabling us to gain – the Shoresh root of kadosh means separate. But what does kashrut separate us from? Something impure – that brings something undesirable into the world – like lack of self control, lack of respect for life, like forgetting God in daily life. But of course for many Jews kashrut has become the factor that separates them from non-Jews or even their own jewfish friends and family because the degree that they choose to take it separates them from enjoying regular social interaction with them.

Behind Passover kashrut is all of these and also a sense of history in the very substances which sustain us.  To me this has always meant that even if you choose not to observe many of the other aspects of Kashrut you cannot properly participate in Pesach and it’s meaning without observing a reasonably high degree of Passover Kashrut. How better to feel that you yourself came out od Egypt than to eat the bread of affliction – Matzah for seven days?  How better to remember the value of freedom in our history than to clear out the substances that  puff up like the pride of our erstwhile captors.  How better to ensure that the memory of Pesach past in yours and the Jewish family is preserved than to have the taste of your own charoset, Passover cakes and biscuits passed down from generation to generation?

All of this was different a century ago in Reform Judaism.  The Pittsburgh Platform in which American reform rabbis set out the principles of our Judaism in 1885 states:  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 altogether 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. Kashrut was out – for the time being.  And thus Donald Salinger z”l told me that he remembered being given ham sandwiches after choir practice at West London synagogue in the 1930’s in the sure knowledge that none of the members would object.

Reform Judaism, like all authentic Judaism grows, learns and develops. Now the 1999 Pittsburgh platform – when a group of American reform rabbis gathered in the same town to restate reform Judaism puts things differently –  We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of  (mitzvot) and to the fulfilment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these (mitzvot), sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.

And so it is with British Reform Judaism – kashrut is back. But it’s broader. Reform Judaism is no longer willing to wipe large areas of Jewish practice off the agenda. When it did it did so because as far as we were concerned the duties of the heart or rather of the intellect always trumped the duties of the limbs or body.  Reform Judaism is progressive – we live in react to and sometimes try to lead the real world in response to God and humanity.       Kashrut is a matter of degree, and it starts from the principle that there are some foods which are not right to eat, even though they are edible, because they are not fit for a person who lives by Jewish values to consume or to encourage their production.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi writes that “in every age Jews exist to ask the question ‘What is Kosher?’.  Kashrut is a continual effort to find what is clean pure and good for the natural processes of the universe.”   A Reform Jew today joins every Jew in finding their own degree of kashrut.  As Reform Jews we add to the structures which have been built by Jewish tradition our knowledge that the ways in which animals are raised and slaughtered can range from those with no respect for the animal’s well being, only its productivity, to those which recognise we should use every means possible to avoid tza’ar ba’lei chayyim – causing a fellow living being pain.   Many Alyth members will therefore consider buying free range and not battery eggs and insisting on meat from free range animals to be an aspect of kashrut today.  Some choose to be vegetarian.  Many will include conditions of the workers who produce our food to be part of kashrut by seeking out fair trade in production.  Many will feel that we need to include the Mitzvah to steward the world in a way which does not wreck the environment or its productivity for future generations in our understanding of kashrut and thus seek out sustainably fished cod or foods which have not been air freighted.   In Torah itself the only reason given for the laws of kashrut is that they help us to approach God’s holiness and purity (Leviticus 11:45).  This means that kashrut cannot only be something static, based on the approval of a particular Rabbinic authority which charges a licence fee to place a seal on a foodstuff.  Instead it is one of the dynamic ways that we interact with creation in order to try to bring the world a little closer to God.  It is a wonderful aspect of Judaism that we can do this through every mouthful that we eat to fuel our bodies.

The full extent of kashrut will only be revealed when, in the words of out Haftarah portion Elijah comes and clears the way of God by answering all the outstanding questions.  Till then have a happy and kosher Pesach eating our history and sharing it with future generation





Torah From Around the World; The World’s most Lucrative Investment – Tazria 2011


Published in  the World Union for Progressive Judaim series

The World’s Most Lucrative Investment Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, Alyth – North Western Reform Synagogue

The birth of a child is always an amazing thing – no matter that children have been born in huge numbers since time immemorial – it is still a little miracle every time a child is born.  In a midrash interpreting our Torah portion, Tazria, Rabbi Levi compared the miracle of childbirth to giving someone a silver coin and having the person return with a block of gold nine months later.  No investment provides higher interest!

The Midrash was trying to explain why something so natural as childbirth should give rise to the sacrifices of thanksgiving and purity that a mother was required, by our Torah portion, to make after the birth of a child.  The Rabbis gave many and various examples of the miracles of pregnancy itself which precede the childbirth and which are worthy of thanksgiving themselves.  They show a marvellous medical naïveté – but are also an expression of the wonder of the whole process.

Rabbi Abba Bar Kahana said that it is a miracle worthy of thanksgiving that, whilst all other animals carry their unborn babies in a horizontal position – human mothers walk upright and yet the baby doesn’t fall out!

Rabbi Eleazar said that it is a miracle worthy of thanksgiving that,  no human being could exist if he lived all the time at the temperatures inside the body (which according to his knowledge was at boiling point), yet the foetus can thrive and grow into a baby at these temperatures.

Rabbi Aibu concluded this section (Leviticus Rabbah 14:2-4) by saying that it is a miracle worthy of thanksgiving that however horrible a new born baby looks (and his language here is particularly strong) everybody rushes to embrace it!

In our sedra this Shabbat about the rites surrounding the birth of a child – the mother was held to be impure for a period after the birth of the child.   This impurity was twice as long for a girl as for a boy.    Why the difference?

The reason was not explained in our portion – the biblical commentators in the middle ages tried to explain – Ibn Ezra said it was because a boy foetus became essentially formed into the shape of a baby in half the time of a girl foetus, Ramban said that it was because the matter that girls are made from took twice as long to leave the mothers body as that from which boys are made.

Modern commentators suggest that when this portion was redacted the longer time may have been because the girl possessed a body which would itself have the handicaps of impurity that her mother had.

Where did these ideas of impurity come from?     When you look at the lack of understanding of the mechanics of childbirth that was displayed in the Midrashim and by our commentators, at the taboos surrounding the time of childbirth that existed in all the cultures surrounding that of our ancestors and especially at the type of offering that was asked for to render the woman pure again, it becomes clear that the idea of impurity after childbirth was a way of dealing with something that was not understood.

The offering that the woman was to bring was a sin offering – after she has handed this to the priest and it has been sacrificed she was pure again and allowed to enter the Sanctuary.

We shouldn’t get too concerned about the word “sin” offering.  This meant an offering which a person would bring to the Temple to atone for doing something wrong without having intended to do so.  Also the word used for Sin here is the word Chet, which literally means “to miss the target”  What target has a woman missed by giving birth?

The Talmud (Niddah 31b) suggests that while giving birth she might have vowed that she would never let her husband come near her again!  I’m sure that they were being humorous.  But to the compositors of the law it was a target important enough for her to require purification.  Purification meant that the person who was impure had to be kept separate until the impurity had passed.    Our Torah portion also tells us that menstruation (in the Hebrew Niddah) required the same separation.  This separation is still practised among many Orthodox Jews and comes to an end with a ritual cleansing in the Mikvah ritual bath.

The confusion of our ancestors as to what was actually happening in pregnancy and childbirth meant that they turned it into something for which separation was required. The sin offering was not for the baby but because something had happened to the mother that could not be fully understood.  If it could not be understood then maybe it had given rise to an inadvertent sin therefore a sin offering was required.

This would all just be unfortunate anthropological sociology if the effect of it were not very far reaching.  There are no sin offerings today in Judaism – just a service of thanksgiving after childbirth which parallels the mothers’ coming to the priest of the sanctuary.  There are however impurity laws in Orthodox Judaism in which the natural functions of a woman’s body are made the subject of a need for the ritual bath and are made a handicap which stops her from participating in the service of the synagogue or handling the ritual objects such as the Torah scroll all her life.

Progressive Judaism does not accept these obstacles which we see as man made. Progressive Judaism suggests that God, who is not confused about childbirth, does not need them nor want them.  Thus Progressive Judaism encourages all women to take an active part in the religious life of their community.

For the last forty years, and more if Rabbi Regina Jonas had not been murdered by the Nazis, our Judaism has benefited from the work of many women Rabbis – ordained on the same basis as men – and there is no distinction whatever in the role of men and women in any aspect of religious practice. We do not need to – we do not see women as inherently capable of impurity.  The few Reform Synagogues which still cling to gender inequality have almost completed modifying their practices.

The sin offering mentioned in our portion ceased to be required when the Temple was destroyed.  The laws of impurity were rejected as stemming from invalid taboos by the earliest Reform Jews.  In this generation let us finally put to rest all manifestations of gender inequality that arose from ignorance and let us continue to ensure that our Synagogues really do offer full participation in all aspects of Jewish practice to all of our members