Thursday, February 23, 2006

Hilchot Pluralism, Part I: The Two-Table System

Grassroots independent Jewish communities have been developing new practices to address new communal realities, and Ilana suggests that minhagim like the two-table system have become so ingrained (within a particular oilam, which is just "milieu" pronounced phonetically backwards) that they have attained the status of halacha.

The two-table system is an approach to kashrut for independent Jewish communities, and can be extended as an approach to other issues in communities that are striving for Stage 3. (To stave off the inevitable criticism that Kol Zimrah, the NHC, etc., aren't pluralistic because they don't include everyone, I assert that a community can be pluralistic within a limited range of Jewish practice and identity even if it doesn't encompass the full possible range. For example, the Kotel is in some ways a pluralistic davening space. Certainly egalitarian davening is unwelcome there, but it is a place where Ashkenazi and Sephardi men can pray side by side according to their respective practices.)

Two approaches to communal decision-making have existed in the past: authoritarian (a rabbi or other authority makes the decision for the community) and democratic (the people in the community make a decision, by vote or consensus). Neither of these approaches are appropriate for today's grassroots communities, for several reasons:

1) We have no "rabbis". (We have individuals with semicha, but no one serving in a rabbinic capacity.) The community does not defer to an external authority.
2) We don't agree on ideology. Unlike the institutional movements (which have ideologies that everyone at least pays lip service to, even if not everyone follows those ideologies in their personal lives), the independent minyanim form communities that are brought together more by sociological and aesthetic commonalities. (One could argue that the movements, too, are held together more by sociological and aesthetic commonalities, but the leaders of the movements don't argue that, and therefore their policies don't reflect this.)
3) Therefore, there is an incredibly wide range of ideology and practice brought together in a single community. And since the community doesn't affiliate with a movement that has a particular statement of belief, there is no metric to determine which practices are more in line with the "correct" ideology.
4) We're secure enough in our own practices that we're not afraid to coexist with people who have other practices.
5) For better or for worse, we want immediate gratification. This is the Internet generation, which never extends Shabbat invitations before Wednesday. The time it would take for the community to hammer out a policy that satisfies everyone would be wasted time when we could be doing something more productive.

Therefore, instead of having a process (however democratic or authoritarian) for making decisions about Jewish practice, we find ways of avoiding making those decisions at the communal level, while creating an atmosphere that respects everyone's individual decisions.

Hence, Kol Zimrah has adopted the two-table system for potluck dinners (when we have control over the space and we're not meeting in a building which has a kashrut policy of its own; because of other practical issues, this means that we rarely get to implement the two-table system these days). Here's the way it's worded in the email:

KASHRUT: Kol Zimrah acknowledges the diversity of kashrut practices in our community, and in order to ensure that everyone can contribute and everyone can eat, it is requested that all food adhere to ONE of the following two standards:
1) Vegetarian, with only vegetarian ingredients. (Fish with fins and scales is also ok as long as it is labeled or self-evident.)
2) Still vegetarian (plus fish, as above), and all ingredients are marked with a recognized kosher symbol (more than just "K"), cooked (if applicable) in a kosher kitchen that uses only hechshered products.

There will be a separate buffet table for each category, so that everyone can be fully informed. Feel free to email if you have any questions.

(Bonus points to anyone who can identify where this minhag began. We borrowed it from the DC independent scene, but we don't know if it started there or elsewhere.)

So let's look more carefully at the two-table system:

Ok, yes, it does assume a cultural milieu in which it's acceptable to make every meal vegetarian (with the occasional lox or tuna). To mix a metaphor, meat is a tougher nut to crack. But let's assume that milieu for now.

If the whole world were table 1, then people who had specific requirements regarding hechshers or utensils wouldn't be able to eat. And if the whole world were table 2, then people whose kitchens did not meet this standard wouldn't be able to cook, and would feel like less-than-full members of the community. And if the community were to work out some compromise between tables 1 and 2 (everything must have a hechsher except cheese, etc.), then (a) lots of time would be spent hammering this out, and (b) at the end of the day, some people still wouldn't be able to eat, and some people still wouldn't be able to cook.

The two-table system, which captures the two "extremes" (within a setting where everyone is ok eating vegetarian and no one is making distinctions about which hechsher they trust), makes it possible for everyone to eat and for everyone to cook, without anyone compromising. "But wait!" you say. "I don't fit into either of those categories. My kitchen uses only hechshered food, except for cheese, and I eat only hechshered food, except for cheese." Fabulous! Cook something and put it on table 1, and then eat from table 2. And people like me (whose kitchens use only hechshered food, but who eat non-hechshered vegetarian food) can cook for table 2 and eat from table 1.

This doesn't produce divisions in the community, because this division is only for the buffet tables, not for the tables that people are sitting at. Nobody really pays attention to where other people are taking their food from.

Of equal importance to the two-table policy itself is the language and framing. It is very intentional that one table is called "vegetarian" and the other is called "vegetarian with a hechsher". Neither table is called "kosher" (implying that the other table isn't kosher). To some people, everything at both tables is kosher (since there is no meat from non-kosher animals, no milk and meat together, and no meat from animals that were not properly slaughtered). To other people, it is important to have a printed guarantee on the package that this is the case. But no one should be put into the trap of saying "I don't keep kosher" because they eat vegetable products without the OU imprimatur or because they don't believe that hot cooking utensils store and transmit taste. There are multiple approaches to kashrut, and all can coexist in the same community. And meanwhile, some people really really don't keep kosher or claim to keep kosher (by any standard), and also participate fully in the same community.

This post is Part I, and other examples will be featured in a future post. Assignment: What other pluralistic practices of independent Jewish communities belong in Part II?

UPDATE: Judith Hellerstein of Washington DC sends in this history:

I believe I have the answer to your question of the two tables. Several years ago, Eric Gurevitz, who was then the Mayor of Van Ness, (an area in DC where lots of traditional/egalitarian/pluralistic jews live, created this system so that everyone who came to Van Ness Minyan could participate.

His goal was to set a higher standard than the present Adas Israel Kashrut standards and so created a system where everyone could feel comfortable, the people who ate strictly Kosher, and the ones that did not. Prior to this, peopel who kept strictly kosher would only eat their food or the food cooked by someone they knew to be Kosher.

The 2 table set up was also done in an effort to get more people to bring main courses and salads without having to rely solely on the people in the community who kept kosher to provide all the food.

It also gave other people the opportunity to host potlucks. This would relieve Eric of the task of finding people a place for shabbat dinner. At that time he had started a volunteer effort to make sure anyone who wanted a place for shabbat had one.The 2 table system succeeded and then grew to other groups as people associated with Van Ness Minyan began spreading the idea.

Many of the people who started Tikkun Leil Shabbat had been regulars at Van Ness events and they continued to improve on the concept.

I believe this was the genesis of the two table set up in use today.

(Present Van Ness Mayor and Head of the Ruach Minyan)

She also writes:

The only addition I have is that Eric told me that Jonathan Levine had helped him create the Two tables standard that Van Ness uses and that others have adopted.. I had not known that when I wrote my response and thus did not give him the credit he deserved.


  1. First occurrence of two-table system that I'm aware of was at the Van Ness Minyan in DC, which was at that time led by the "Mayor of Van Ness," Eric Gurevitz. (Van Ness has since folded into the lay-led Ruach Minyan at Adas Israel Congregation, which meets on the first & third Fridays.) I've emailed Eric to see if the idea started there, or came from somewhere else. Yay for pluralism level II!

  2. What would you say about a community that shares a kitchen? How do you transcend different ideologies and private practices and agree on the rules for a communal kitchen where people who are more "trad" can eat, and people who are less "trad" don't feel like they are giving in?

  3. First of all, reading ingredients is more "trad"; hechshers are a late-20th-century innovation.

    Anyway, how big is the kitchen? Is it big enough to subdivide it into different zones? Is this a kitchen that people use full-time, or where they're bringing food that they cooked in their own homes?

  4. (Not that innovations are necessarily a bad thing, of course.)

  5. Nothing comes to mind right now for a potential Part II. But I hope that some future Part addresses kashrut again, giving an alternate method. Because I really hope that the two-table method hasn't "solved" the kashrut "problem"; something about being "finished" with an aspect of pluralism feels unsettling to me.

  6. BZ, thanks so much for spelling out the halacha on this one. I'm proud of our communities for having worked out and taken on this practice.

    A few responses to Part 1, and a suggestion for Part 2:

    Issue 1: You've outlined a solution that allows people with different levels of stringency around kashrut to be able to cook for each other and eat together. But you have not included the concern for eco-kashrut. Does KZ use disposable dishes? If not, how does it guarantee the integrity of the 2-table system when reusing dishes?

    Issue 2: How does the 2-table system apply to our homes? That is, for those of us who have a set of "table 1" dishes (vegetarian, perhaps with kosher-type fish) and a set of "table 2" dishes (heksher required) -- what practices do we need to have in place to keep them distinct? Do we need separate... sponges? dishracks? dishwasher runs? none of the above?

    Suggestion for Part 2: "double mechitza"/trichitza/meshlitza. That is, having one davenning with 3 sections for folks to be in.

    Hooray for halacha that is creative, understandable, and helps bring us together!

  7. Re: Shaynale's comment, I once shared a tiny NYC kitchen with a non-Jewish woman from Nebraska who didn't know anything about keeping kosher. My parts of the kitchen were stricly hechsher-kosher and her parts of the kitchen weren't kosher at all. We had separate microwaves, toasters, and shelves in the fridge, we split the stove burners (two for me, two for her), I used a washing tub in the sink, and the default for the oven was that it was kosher. (The few times she wanted to use it, I kashered afterwards.) It was actually one of the best roommate situations I've had and we got along perfectly fine. I suspect, though, that things might have been more difficult had my roommate been Jewish and just had different ideas about kashrut.

  8. ER—
    I agree that it was probably easier because there wasn't a disagreement about defining kashrut, and therefore no worries about authenticity. Do you think it could be possible to use a two-table style labeling which doesn't define one as kosher or more kosher in a setting with two different Jewish practices? Is there a sense of missed opportunity if two Jews who both seek to keep kosher and make community have to divide their shared life in such a way?

    I think that two tables works very well as a solution to this specific challenge, and I'm looking forwards to parts II, III and beyond. But I'm not yet convinced that this approach can be used for a majority of the "hilchot pluralsm" our communities face today.

  9. Just a thought: would the two-table system work for the rules of discourse? Could Ishmael and Akiva take Torah from different tables (one from Heaven, one not from Heaven) and have a meaningful discussion over lunch? Can the Torah scholar who reads for halachah and the one who reads for aggadah speak to each other rather than past each other?

  10. Desh-
    I agree that this isn't a permanent solution to anything, both for the reasons Ilana brings up and because it was created for a specific early-21st-century religio-sociocultural context. Who knows what we'll be eating in 100 years? (But everyone agrees that Soylent Green isn't kosher.) But I disagree with the general statement that it's wrong to declare something "finished". Beit Shammai wanted mezuzot to be put up horizontally, and Beit Hillel wanted them to be put up vertically, so for the last 2000 years we've been putting them up diagonally, and I think it's ok if we keep doing that for another 2000 years. It won't bother me if we never revisit the mezuzah question, because we have lots of other questions with which to occupy ourselves that Hillel and Shammai never dreamed of.

  11. Ilana:

    Issue 1: KZ encourages people to bring their own reusable dishes in order to reduce environmental impact, but also provides disposable dishes to people who don't bring their own. I agree that this is not ideal from an eco-kashrut perspective. However, even if we all agreed on a single kashrut standard, we still wouldn't be able to have a set of reusable dishes, because we move around to different locations and wouldn't have anywhere to keep them. If we had our own building, then it would be appropriate to get a set (or two) of reusable dishes, and we'd have to figure something out.

    Issue 2: I'll leave the questions about sponges and dishwashers to those who are more knowledgeable about these issues, but I hear that the founders of the Zoo Minyan have 5 sets of dishes in their home: dairy, meat, Pesach dairy, Pesach meat, and potluck (and there's a special "potluck" dishwasher in the basement).

    Suggestion for Part 2: Good call!

  12. This is really a very minor point, but BZ wrote: "First of all, reading ingredients is more "trad"; hechshers are a late-20th-century innovation."

    Actually, having prepared, pre-packaged food with ingredients listed is not really all that "trad." It's so very post-war, mid-20th century. What's really "trad" is knowing the person who grew/produced/baked/cooked your food, or doing it all yourself, and thus knowing exactly what went into it.

    Your resident social historian...

    1. The first OU certified products (Sunshine crackers) were in 1924. The first OU heksher(on Heinz Vegetarian Baked Beans) was in 1927.

  13. Good stuff here -- thank you. I appreciate your awareness of the dual challenge, to wit, everyone wants to be able to eat; everyone wants to be able to feed others.

  14. Re: the positiion of mezuzot . . .

    I believe the mahloqet was between Rashi and Rebbenu Tam (not Hillel and Shammai)


  15. The two-table system spreads:

    I recently, for the first time, participated in "the two-table system" being used at a single table (in a private home in Cambridge, MA). Items on one side of the table were heksher-kosher, and on the other side, vegetarian without hekshers.

  16. I had a roomate situation in which my roomate was "table 1" (though she would eat only hechsherd meat)and I was "table 2".
    It was perhaps one of the best living situations I had. It gave for some great "what is kashrut really" conversations.
    The only downside was when some of my not so sensitive friends came over and asked "so are these the kosher dishes or the treif ones?" She was, understandably, really insulted from that one.

  17. Do you think there's some critical community size or diversity where this becomes important? Because we have a mixed-practices community where we do a lot of vegetarian potlucks, and we don't use the two-table system. There are certain "community standards" (e.g. use hekshered cheese for the potluck even if you don't at home), but for the most part people seem to do fine eating what they feel comfortable with (which in a few cases might mean eating their own main dish plus salads).

    On the other hand, when the synagogue holds (much larger) potlucks, the range of kashrut practices (and non-practice) and the level of knowledge is much more variable, and I could see the two-table system being useful in that context.