A recent article in The New York Times [circa 1999] reported a possible revival of the Catskills, which was until a few decades ago a fabled vacation paradise for countless American Jews. The Borscht Belt vacation fell out of favor for many reasons, including the fact that Jewish families became more cholesterol-conscious and less desirous of three bloating kosher banquets every day.
That article inspired in me some interesting thoughts about our Torah portion for this week. Sh'mini, chapter 11 of Leviticus, deals with dietary laws and outlines which living creatures are kosher for human consumption. Four-legged animals that have cloven (split) hoofs and chew their cud may be eaten. Creatures residing in the water must have fins and scales, which, of course, excludes shellfish. This biblical legislation was expanded upon by the rabbis to include ritual slaughter, kashering meat, and the separation of milk and meat.
It would seem that these traditional Jewish dietary laws have little relevance to Reform Jews today since the classical statement of Reform Jewish principles, the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, affirmed: "We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet...originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state."
Yet there was much discussion about this theme in the Ten Principles (November 1998, Reform Judaism) originally proposed by the president of the CCAR, Rabbi Richard Levy. He had hoped that the CCAR, meeting in Pittsburgh this May, would consider a new platform to guide Reform Judaism into the twenty-first century. In recent months a distinguished panel of rabbis and lay leaders has been working on the original document, which is now a much shorter statement.
It is significant that Rabbi Levy raised the issue of dietary laws in his original proposal: "As part of Reform Judaism's classic belief in ongoing revelation, we know that what may seem outdated in one age may be redemptive in another....Some of us may observe practices of kashrut, to extend the sense of kedushah [holiness] into the acts surrounding foods and into a concern for the way food is raised and brought to our tables."
Clearly Rabbi Levy was implying that some, I emphasize some and not all, Reform Jews might wish to refrain from eating the foods that are cited as forbidden in our Torah portion. He also seemed to suggest that some Reform Jews might wish to express their social consciousness by not eating veal that comes from calves that were raised in a cruel manner or crops that are cultivated and harvested with the use of pesticides, which are dangerous to farm workers. Rabbi Levy was seeking to explore a range of possibilities for Reform observance, some hearkening back to ancient tradition and some quite modern in spirit.
It is unfortunate that some of those who read the article in Reform Judaism regarded these ideas about kashrut and other aspects of the Ten Principles as a "return to Orthodoxy." I believe that Rabbi Levy's intention was not at all a blind return to tradition but rather an affirmation of the critical Reform principle of "informed choice." It is my hope that Reform Jews will take the opportunity to study the history of Jewish ceremonies and practices and only then choose to reject some and to affirm others that they find inspiring and meaningful. Some Reform Jews will find no religious relevance in the dietary prohibitions outlined in our Torah portion. Other Reform Jews may find that such observances link them to thousands of Jews throughout the world and help them to be more conscious of their Jewishness even while they are engaged in the simple everyday activity of eating.
The key element here is that from a Reform Jewish perspective, neither group of Reform Jews—those who choose to observe kashrut and those who choose not to do so—should be considered any more or less pious because they have made the choice they did. In my thinking, that is the essence of Reform Judaism.
Rabbi Martin Weiner is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, CA.