Sermon – On keeping Kashrut

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 8 April 2011

I am going to do something this morning that I don’t normally do. I am going to talk about my own Jewish practice.  I do so absolutely not with the intention of influencing the practice of others – I genuinely believe in responsible personal autonomy, difficult as the outcomes sometimes are for those of us who care passionately about Judaism.

I absolutely believe that underpinning Reform Judaism is a fundamental belief that each of us has the responsibility for determining our own practice from a position of knowledge and thought… I am not a posek – I am a teacher, a facilitator, not a prescriber.

But this morning I want to use my own practice as an example of how hard real thinking about Reform Jewish decision making can be.  Sometimes we think it is straightforward – you choose to do, or not to do, and that is it.  But rarely is it so simple. So here goes, and I apologise that at times it might not be the most coherent argument I have ever made, but our decisions sometimes aren’t.

First the what: I keep Kashrut Not only the biblical version, not only not torn limbs or proscribed meats, but the kashrut that comes out of the rabbinic exercise of law building. I only eat meat killed according to the rabbinic laws of shechitah. Our home has two sets of everything. The line we draw, we draw at Kosher wine, milk and bread, and at the need for a hechshe. Otherwise, to all intents and purposes our home is recognizably a kosher one.

Now the more important question, the why: The macro-reason is that I have a sense of Jewish obligation coming out of a relationship with our Jewish textual inheritance.  In essence, I believe that our texts matter. This is not in itself obvious.  Once we step out of a mindset of divine authority and authorship as expressed in Orthodox theology, there is no obvious reason that this should be the case.  There is no logical reason for me to privilege text in this way. Yet I do.

I want to stress that I absolutely do not believe that we abdicate responsibility to ‘the text’, in the way some movements might suggest.  Just because something is in our textual inheritance, does not mean we have to do it.  However, that something is in our texts does mean that I choose to give it weight in my decision making. Something being in our texts puts it on the table, so to speak.   But the challenge then becomes a weighing of priorities and values – of ethical, textual, practical considerations. In the case of kashrut, there are values which incline me towards keeping. One is that our home is identifiably a Jewish space.  Kashrut is part of that.  This is not to say that without kashrut of my sort a space is not Jewish space.  But for me, this works.

Secondly, as you can probably tell, food is important to me.  I value a system which creates sanctity in this most mundane of activities.  Again, this can be expressed in other ways – through the saying of brachot, for example, which I do not always do. But for me, kashrut focuses my eating life within a Jewish framework.

As, I hope, you can tell, this is already terribly complex.  There is nothing straightforward in what I have outlined so far.  Underlying are fundamental questions being expressed through practice.

More straightforward, I suppose, are the reasons that are not important for me.  I do not keep kashrut because I believe God wants me to.  I do not believe in a God of reward and punishment who expresses will through text, nor that the rabbinic texts are anything other than man made. I do not keep kashrut because ‘that is what Jews do’.  This is a myth. The majority of Jews do not keep Orthodox kashrut.  The majority of Jews in the world are not Orthodox.  The majority of Jews in the world believe in autonomy in Jewish decision making – either ideologically, or in the way they live their lives.  It would be accurate to say that this is what Jews used to do – but Jews lived in a very different world back then. I also do not keep kashrut because it is, kinder, healthier, or more hygienic. I am not interested in the ta’amei Mitzvot – in possible reasons behind mitzvot.  Apart from anything else, if this is our logic, when the reason disappears, the Mitzvah disappears.

But there are sufficient reasons for me to value kashrut as part of my religious life.  And, because I believe that text matters, I also have a general concept of Jewish obligation which carries a lot of weight for me. Yet it is a very fine balance.  Because to keep kashrut in this way also involves Jewish compromise.  In keeping in this way I am vulnerable to charges of inconsistency.

By keeping in this way I am making ethical compromises.  If opponents of shechitah, the Jewish method of slaughter, are correct, then I am privileging ritual practice over the Jewish value of tzaar baalei chayim – the prohibition on cruelty to animals.  Indeed, even if shechitah is not considered cruel, then kashrut still involves this compromise – because of the lack of transparency about origins of kosher meat.  As a kosher meat eater I am vulnerable to a charge that I am not behaving in a Jewishly ethical way, while those who do not are.

The decision to keep kashrut also carries a risk of an implicit acceptance of some really problematic values.  It is quite clear that one of the core factors in the development of laws of kashrut in the rabbinic period is a desire to keep Jews as a separate people.  This is most obvious in the laws of kosher wine, bread and milk, hence my rejection of them.  But it is there underlying all the laws of kashrut.  To keep a kosher diet is to commit to living in a particular type of community.  Yet I do not believe in separation from the world around me, so to keep kashrut in the way I do carries a level of inconsistency.

Kashrut also promotes a model of authority in the Jewish world which I reject.  Hence my rejection of the hechshe-ing industry.  But by eating only meat which is bought from kosher butchers, certified by Orthodox Batei Din, I am feeding a system of which I wholeheartedly disapprove.  This troubles me deeply.

It is also worth acknowledging that keeping rabbinic kashrut also involves compromises in our modern community – it involves shaming others, awkward conversations.  I know that people say that they keep kashrut “so that anyone can eat in their homes”.  Yet I am painfully aware of the awkward positions that come with keeping a level of kashrut.  To say to someone that they can’t bring a dish for a meal, knowing it is because they do not separate milk and meat, to worry about whether the person who invites you for dinner is serving kosher meat – these are social, communal, relationship compromises that come out of an observance choice.  No decision we make is without them.

So what do I really want to say? Normally my sermons hinge on the idea that texts matter.  And they do.  But they are not all that matters. Decision making if done properly is terribly complicated. Decisions about Jewish practice do not involve simple equations. Every choice we make involves compromise – ethical and practical, in our values and in our relationships. It could so easily be different for me in this particular area.  And it still might be in the future.

So far be it for me to compare myself with anyone else.  Far be it for me to in any way suggest that one outcome is better than the other, if the process has been done with knowledge, thought and integrity. To do so would be to reject the belief in responsible personal autonomy that underpins Reform Judaism.  And on this I will not compromise.