For a long time, a great many Reform Jews dismissed kashrut, Jewish dietary laws, entirely.  Some Reform Jews referred to kashrut dismissively as “kitchen Judaism” and compared it unfavourably to “prophetic Judaism,” a Judaism primarily concerned with ethical behaviour.  In 1885 a group of fifteen rabbis gathered in Pittsburgh and wrote a statement of principles for Reform Judaism.  One section said, “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.”


When I was growing up, barely anything was off-limits for Jewish reasons.  The only thing that my family observed was not eating bread on Passover.  I do remember, however, having ham and cheese on matzah at least once.  My family was not exactly alone in its lack of interest in kashrut.  The vice chairman of a Reform synagogue in Illinois once explained to me why he did not keep kosher.  He told me that he was raised in a strict kosher household, but that as he became an adult, he really came to resent it.  Keeping kosher the way he was raised meant that he could only eat at his home, the homes of (certain) family members, and that was about it.  Almost none of his friends kept kosher, which meant he could not eat at their homes.  He would not have been allowed to eat out, except at a kosher restaurant, and there were no kosher restaurants in the town that he lived in.  So he gave it up.  And he told me that by giving it up, he was preventing himself from disliking Judaism.  Not only did he serve well on the synagogue board, but he also taught in the cheder, and was, by all accounts, an excellent, involved Jew.


So does that mean that kashrut and Reform Judaism are antithetical?  Not at all.  A great many Reform Jews do see a lot of value in the dietary laws.  So what would kashrut for a Reform Jew look like?  What reasons would one have for being interested?  For starters, I should say that I don’t like the question, “Do you keep kosher?” as though there are only two answers – yes or no.  For a lot of Jews, the answer would have to be somewhere in the middle.  As a child, I almost certainly would have said no, but then what was I doing refraining from bread on Passover if not observing a small piece of it?   The point is, kashrut involves many smaller decisions, not just one overarching one.  “Do I eat pork at home?” can be a separate question from “Does all of my meat need to come from a kosher butcher?” Also, it most certainly is not true, now or historically, that the most restrictive diet is the most authentically Jewish.  Many of the strictest rules were never universally followed, nor even widely followed, until relatively recently.  Early rabbis, some of whom are remembered as the greatest who ever lived, saw no problem whatsoever in mixing dairy and chicken, and the Biblical Israelites almost certainly would not recognise any law prohibiting dairy and meat.


A Reform Jew may decide to keep all or some rules of kashrut for a variety of reasons.  Some may choose to because it feels like a connection to other Jews.  Some may choose to because they were raised to and it seems natural.  Some may choose to keep some aspects of kashrut because of ethical considerations.  Kashrut most certainly bans almost all hunting of animals for food and my understanding of it also prohibits most veal.  Some may choose to have a kosher home because that means they can invite over other Jews for whom that is important.  Some may choose to as an acknowledgment that Jewish tradition has historically valued such things, even if they don’t keep every bit of law.  Some may choose to do some things, but not others.  I personally don’t eat pork, at home or out, but I eat beef or chicken that was not slaughtered by a kosher butcher.


One thing that I do believe is that kashrut, like any Jewish practice, can be part of a Reform Jewish life.  Whichever way one decides, it is worthwhile to learn about the practice of kashrut and to spend time thinking about what is appropriate in one’s life.


B’tayavon, bon appetit,


Rabbi Jason Holtz