(Crossposted to Jewschool.)
Last week in Toronto, the Union for Reform Judaism held its biennial convention, and as in past years, URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie delivered a sermon laying out goals and initiatives for the next two years.
The sermon began with a great shout-out to the Biennial’s host country:
We Americans, it needs to be said, do not know Canada as well as we should. [...] I have a question for the Americans sitting in this congregation: How many of you can name the last three Prime Ministers of Canada?
Well, we Americans need to do better. The Canadian political system is far from perfect, but remember this: it has well-regulated banks; tough gun control laws; legalized marriage for gays; and an excellent, publicly-run health service - all matters of importance to Reform Jews and worthy of emulation by the United States.
This American (who can name the last three Canadian prime ministers and knows all the words to “O Canada”) says hear hear! (However, I was surprised that this was the only mention of health care, an issue that was featured so prominently two years ago, given that this sermon was just a few hours before the House passed the health care bill.)
The major initiatives are about food and technology. David A.M. Wilensky has already weighed in on the technology part, so I’ll leave that alone for now. There’s a lot to say about food; I’ll just focus on two points.
First, kudos to Rabbi Yoffie for endorsing flexitarianism (though he didn’t use that word). “Flexitarian”, the American Dialect Society’s 2003 Word of the Year, refers to someone who isn’t fully vegetarian but eats mostly vegetarian. There are different reasons for not eating meat, and a flexitarian lifestyle makes sense under some of these but not others. If you’re vegetarian because of a categorical opposition to eating meat, then being flexitarian doesn’t make sense, since eating any amount of meat is wrong. But even if you’re not opposed in general to eating meat, there are solid reasons for eating less meat than the standard American diet, mostly based on the effects of meat consumption. And if two people cut their meat consumption in half, that has the same effect as one person becoming fully vegetarian.
Rabbi Yoffie lays out some of the reasons for meat reductionism:
My proposal is this: let’s make a Jewish decision to reduce significantly the amount of red meat that we eat.
[M]eat consumption in North America has doubled in the last fifty years, and we can easily make do with far less red meat than we currently eat. And contrary to what many think, Jews are not obligated to eat meat on Shabbat and holidays. The Talmud suggests that fish and garlic are the foods that we should serve to honor Shabbat (Shabbat 118b); it also instructs us to eat meat in modest quantities (Hullin 84a). Remember too that in biblical Israel, the common diet consisted of barley bread, vegetables, and fruit, along with milk products and honey. My point is this: for the first 2,500 years of our 3,000 year history, Jews consumed meat sparingly, and we can surely do the same.
And we must. The meat industry today generates nearly one-fifth of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating climate change throughout the world. According to a U.N. report, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas than all transportation sources combined. And the preparation of beef meals requires about fifteen times the amount of fossil fuel energy than meat-free meals.
Professor Gidon Eshel of the Bard Center has suggested that the effect of reducing our collective meat consumption by twenty percent would be comparable to every American driving a Prius instead of a standard sedan. And this twenty percent reduction is something that every one of us - every Jew, every family, every synagogue - can do.
Perhaps we can begin by offering some Shabbat dinners and Passover Seders that will delight with their variety, creativity, and taste, and that will be a model for our members of healthy, festive, meat-free meals.
This is a way that non-vegetarians can make a real difference in our environmental impact and our use of resources. Vegetarian meals are already standard at public functions throughout much of independent progressive Jewish culture; this would be a welcome shift if the URJ brings it into mainstream Jewish institutions as well.
Unfortunately, Rabbi Yoffie’s sermon goes downhill after that:
What about kashrut? This is not about kashrut. There are many Reform Jews who find meaning in the observance of kashrut, wholly or in part, and we deeply respect their choice. But it is not a choice that the great majority of us want to make.
In fact, the rejection of kashrut was long a hallmark of North American Reform Judaism. Kauffman Kohler, an early leader of the Movement, proclaimed that “Judaism is a matter of conscience, not cuisine.” Ours is an ethically-based tradition, and Reform leaders saw no connection between the intricate rules of kashrut and ethical behavior. Sadly, for too much of the kashrut industry, this disconnect still exists; in recent years, kashrut authorities have failed in their duty to treat workers, immigrants, and animals with compassion and justice. For that reason, we applaud the Conservative movement for creating a new system of kosher certification that takes ethical factors into account.
Nonetheless, we - as a Movement - have put kashrut aside, and kashrut is not the issue for us. We do not accept the authority of the kashrut establishment, and its problems are for others to resolve.
What is he trying to accomplish here? Is this just a “No Ortho” disclaimer to preempt reactions along the lines of “I’m Reform, so you can’t tell me what not to eat”? Or is there something more to it?
The reason I find this problematic is, of course, framing. One could advocate for the exact same practices, but frame it differently, and the way Rabbi Yoffie framed it seems like a big missed opportunity.
He does note that ethical eating is about “what is proper and fit to eat”, a translation of “kashrut”:
But we do now realize that we need an approach of our own–our own definition of what is proper and fit to eat. Because our ethical commitments remain firm, and we understand - as we did not a century ago - that Jewish eating has a profoundly ethical dimension. We now know that God cares what we eat, and that eating can be an entrance to holiness. We now see that when we eat with mindfulness, even the humblest meal can become a sacred act.
But rather than framing this sacred eating as a form of kashrut (cf. the framing of “eco-kashrut” and the “Hekhsher Tzedek”), he frames it as “not kashrut”, with no connection to the dietary laws in the Torah and Talmud (which are part of the textual heritage of all Reform Jews, regardless of practice). He could instead have framed it as a modern application of those laws — not only in the general category of sacred eating, but in some of the specifics. For example, I see a strong connection between my kashrut observance and my meat reductionism, and find that one reinforces the other. Kashrut sharply limits what meat I can eat (I can’t just pick up a McDonald’s hamburger, or french fries for that matter), makes meat less accessible and more expensive (more accurately reflecting the true cost of meat consumption), and makes me think twice about eating meat even when I have kosher meat available to me (since it means no dairy concurrently or for a while afterwards). The original kashrut in Leviticus 17 restricted meat consumption even more, limiting it to sacrifices (until Deuteronomy came along and loosened the rules). (To have a brief “No Ortho” moment of my own, I find that these restrictions on meat, which I think of as being at the center of kashrut, lose some of their power if everything, even vegetables, can be considered “not kosher” based on where it was cooked or whether it’s broccoli. But that’s not an important point.) So when Rabbi Yoffie cites texts supporting meat reductionism, it’s strange that he doesn’t include the Torah’s most obvious example of a structure limiting meat consumption. This structure can be an inspiration for modern efforts at meat reductionism, whether or not those modern efforts incorporate specifics of that classical structure.
Rather than framing kashrut as something that has multiple approaches (which might include vegetarianism, eco-kashrut, the inaccurately named “Biblical kashrut”, etc.), Rabbi Yoffie says “There are many Reform Jews who find meaning in the observance of kashrut, wholly or in part”, suggesting (again) that there is a well-defined external definition of “wholly” observing kashrut, and that other kashrut practices are merely “in part”, and everyone’s kashrut practice is on a linear spectrum from 0 to 100.
Of course I agree with his condemnation of Agriprocessors et al., but when he (as the leader of the largest Jewish denomination in North America) implicitly equates kashrut with “the kashrut establishment” (see the parallelism in “…kashrut is not the issue for us. We do not accept the authority of the kashrut establishment…”), he also grants power to that establishment and in a sense does accept its authority, in the sense that he does not challenge the connection between kashrut and that establishment.
Also, the frame of “rejection of kashrut” is strange in the 21st century. As Rabbi Yoffie notes, the majority of Reform Jews don’t keep kosher. This means that the majority of Reform Jews in this generation (unlike in Kaufmann Kohler’s generation) can’t “reject” kashrut, since they didn’t have it in the first place. See this post and this post for more discussion of this point.
Oddly enough, if Reform congregations follow Rabbi Yoffie’s recommendations and hold more vegetarian events, they’ll actually be more accessible to people with various kashrut practices, though this is apparently just incidental.