Posts Tagged ‘kashrut’


Two weeks ago, my friend, Ellen, delivered a drash (mini-sermon) during Friday-night Shabbat services. She proposed that kashrut (Jewish dietary law) divides people at a time when globalism seeks to unite humanity. Meals bring people together. But strictly kosher Jews don’t go to non-kosher restaurants and avoid eating in non-kosher homes.

Ellen’s is the position Reform Judaism took two hundred years ago. The chukim—the Torah’s non-ethical commandments for which no rational explanation is given—were considered irrelevant to (newly) modern Jews. Why no pork or shellfish? Why no mixing meat with dairy? Theories abound from disease prevention to separation from polytheists, but no one knows.

Orthodox Jews keep kosher because this represents God’s will. Kashrut remains the standard for the Conservative movement but is not widely practiced among its members. Some Reform Jews like me eat kosher-style. We avoid forbidden foods (treif) and separate meat from dairy but don’t buy meat from a kosher butcher or have separate dishes for meat and dairy meals.

Kosher-style eating enables non-Orthodox and “post-denominational” Jews to make dietary practices a conscious part of their lives and still dine with others. In restaurants, I skip shellfish and eat fish with fins and scales. Pork, including ham and bacon, often fill the menu. I choose chicken, beef or lamb. Do mashed potatoes with butter or milk come as a side? I ask for extra vegetables. And I can always order a salad. True, I find restaurant menus limiting. But when I eat out with friends, I always enjoy what’s most important—their company.

Admittedly, I sometimes ask: Why set myself apart? That leads me to ask: Why do others set themselves apart from me? Why do they eat pork and shellfish? Why do they eat cheeseburgers? And more important, why do they think I should?

People worldwide have distinct dietary practices. Muslims don’t eat pork but do mix meat and dairy. Some eat shellfish, some don’t. Hindus refrain from beef. Then there are vegetarians, vegans and a complex number of allied groups.

Should we all have the same diet? If so, who creates the menu? And what other practices should be recognized not as preferences but as law? Before I retired, did I induce conflict by not working on Friday night and Saturday? Do I fracture the global society by attending Shabbat services and Torah Study? Do I create civil disorder by being in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

If peace depends on foregoing “tribalism” and adopting universalism, whose is the default position? Will those who claim it cling to or cast off Christmas trees and Easter bunnies? Will San Francisco see the last of parades on St. Patrick’s Day and Chinese New Year?

At the end of her drash, Ellen invited anyone to join her for lunch while she eats a BLT. “You can have a tuna sandwich,” she added. She was referring—jokingly—to me. And that’s just the point. We can keep to ourselves, because that’s our right. Or we can eat as we wish and still sit at the same table, which Carolyn and I did with Ellen and her husband, David, last night.

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If a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, that first step often is the most difficult. So we go nowhere. Witness the fiscal cliff and gun violence. Why? We fear the unknown leading us down a slippery slope.

Fear of the slippery slope is ancient. Proverbs 2:12-15 warns against a series of actions actions culminating with following evil people. The Mishna (Pirke Avot 1:1) calls for building a fence around the Torah to prevent violations of the Law. For example, while Torah (Exodus 23:19 and 34:26, Deuteronomy 14:21) forbids boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, the Sages push the fence out by forbidding mixing any meat and dairy.

Recently, I mentioned to a friend means testing for Social Security. He dismissed discussing the idea. Tax the full Social Security benefit (85 percent now is taxable) instead, he said. What did he fear? Even mentioning reductions for upper-income retirees would cause fear of the slippery slope. Americans en masse would assume that everyone’s benefits eventually would be reduced.

That’s no way to create policy. Sure, you have to do the math to determine whether fully taxable benefits might sufficiently ease future pressure on Social Security versus cuts at the upper end. But let’s be honest. If benefits for recipients with incomes (tax-free included) of, say, $125,000 were lowered by 10 percent with a 15 percent cut for people with incomes of $200,000 and above, those folks’ lifestyles wouldn’t suffer. Meanwhile, people who must survive on Social Security would retain their full benefits and could count on them in the future.

Discussions about gun violence produce the same illogic. Ban AR-15 military-style weapons, according to the National Rifle Association, and Washington will ban all guns. Thus Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, stated this morning that armed guards should be posted in all schools. Which leaves assault rifles unaddressed until attempts are made at mass murder. So let’s get serious. Many people hunt. Their weapons should not be confiscated. Others want to protect their homes. Fine—if they’re properly licensed and thoroughly trained. And they understand the risks Nicholas Kristoff pointed out in yesterday’s New York Times.

But whatever your opinion, it’s nonsense to withhold rational discussion so we can separate fact from fiction and find a gun policy that makes more sense—even if it’s not perfect—than the one we have now.

The problem is that many people equate putting everything on the table with accepting everything on the table. So they refuse to talk at all. If you’ve ever been involved with a group trying to solve a problem, you know that the first rule is to consider all suggestions. Censorship, other- or self-directed, greatly limits finding good solutions.

What now? We’ll likely find ourselves suffering from paralysis yet again. And that’s what demagogues love. They stir up fears of the slippery slope to obstruct—and chase political payoffs at the nation’s expense. When Proverbs 2:15 warns against “Men whose paths are crooked / And who are devious in their course,” we should take notice. Because what’s really scary isn’t the slippery slope. It’s slippery people.

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