Thousands of years before the 19th-century saying, “you are what you eat” came into being, Judaism recognized the essential significance of food in the Jewish and human experience. Originally, without explaining “why” we should eat some, but not all types of different foods, the Torah in this week’s portion, Sh’mini (Leviticus 11), laid down a lengthy list of culinary dos and don’ts, the textual foundation of kashrut, Jewish dietary practice and law. Subsequently, the laws of kashrut were greatly expanded by the Rabbis to include food preparation in general and, especially, on the Sabbath, the full separation of milk and meat products, methods of slaughter, and a whole range of food regulations during Passover.
Kashrut became more complex and even controversial in modern times. A number of factors contributed to the debate over kosher food during the last two centuries. Among those factors are massive acculturation, changes in food production including the industrialization of the making of foods, “new” foods from tofu to genetically modified products, changing views of hygiene, the application of scientific method to kosher food inspection, mass marketing, the health food movement, new understandings of Jewish spirituality, and the recent growth of Orthodox Judaism to mention a few.
Today, according to Forbes, sales in the kosher food business may exceed $12 billion with 800,000 products under rabbinic supervision that are being produced in over 8,500 food processing plants and with sales markets in 100 countries. At present, it is probable that Jews are neither the majority of kosher food consumers or producers. On the other hand, today it is possible both to shop in large, upscale kosher food stores in many Jewish communities in the United States and dine in five-star kosher restaurants on several continents.
Until the post-World War II era, the kosher food industry was widely afflicted by an endless array of problems involving fraud, price fixing, and even infiltration by organized crime. As early as 1771 there was a complaint against “Shochet Moshe” in colonial New York and in 1796, a New York kosher butcher had his business license revoked. The well-known American Jewish leader Mordecai Manuel Noah unsuccessfully tried in 1844 to develop a chemical test to detect lard in Jewish food products. And in 1888 Orthodox Jews in New York hired Jacob Joseph to be their chief rabbi and bring order to the city’s kosher food industry. Although personally popular, Rabbi Joseph was unable to tame the Big Apple’s unruly kosher food industry. Before World War I, a number of American Jewish communities even witnessed kosher food boycotts and riots protesting price fixing, and other questionable practices.
Progressivism and its “quest for order,” ultimately solved the problem. In 1911, Procter and Gamble, a large company, sought and received kosher certification for Crisco. Other corporations quickly followed suit. In 1915, New York State passed its first kosher fraud law. The New York law, as well as other laws enacted in New Jersey and Maryland, initially failed to meet the constitutional requirements of separating church and state, but subsequent rewrites, in some cases, helped impose the police power of the state on the supervision of kosher food in America. In other cases, the precedent of Sunday blues laws allowed the courts to uphold the legality of state standards in kosher food cases. In Postville, Iowa, complex issues of fraud and labor practices led to a series of trials involving a Chasidic meat slaughtering operation, which had been first established there in 1987.
Ultimately, however, it was self-regulation that righted the course of America’s problematic kosher food industry. In 1918, Abraham Goldstein, a New York City chemist, began importing kosher food products. Goldstein was hired in 1924 by the Orthodox Union (est. 1898) to head up its newly founded kosher-certification program under the OU brand. One of his successors, Rabbi Alexander S. Rosenberg, greatly expanded the OU operation from 1950 to 1972 laying the foundation for the huge expansion of kosher food certification in the last quarter of the 20th century. Thereafter, demographic growth in the Orthodox community and the rise of “foodie-ism” among other factors helped propel phenomenal growth of kosher food in America and elsewhere.
How did Reform Judaism fit into the picture of modern kosher food history? Within the Reform Movement, early radicals such as Rabbi David Einhorn taught that kashrut was largely part of the ancient Levitical religious system and was no longer binding on Reform Jews. Other reformers reversed traditional wisdom about Jewish dietary practice, which was understood to have the social consequence of isolating Jews in their diaspora communities and therefore contrary to the higher, even messianic purposes of the emerging Reform Movement. On the other hand, Reform moderates who organized the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1873 ruled that it was expected that all UAHC synagogues would maintain traditional kashrut in their quest to build an inclusive Jewish religious movement.
Within 10 years, however, a more radical Reform prevailed, and at the ordination of the first class of rabbis at the Hebrew Union College in July 1883, a non-kosher meal later known as the t’reifah banquet was served. In fact, the Cincinnati dinner was typical of American Jewish banquet practice at the time: similar food was served at the double wedding of two ordainees in the class, as well as at a national convention of B’nai B’rith, which met in Cincinnati that fall. Two years later, an anti-kashrut position, influenced by Einhorn, was adopted at the Pittsburgh meeting of a group of leading Reform rabbis in 1885. The wisdom of a policy allowing food acculturation was reinforced by a 1918 Reform responsum granting Jewish soldiers an exemption from keeping kosher during World War I.
For approximately the next 60 years, Reform Jewish food policy was a settled matter until the great revolution in the kosher food industry began in the last quarter of the 20th century. In 1979, a lengthy historical Reform responsum on Reform Judaism and kashrut helped set the stage for a new approach to the issue of food in the Reform Movement. At the same, Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin’s book The Gates of Mitzvah appeared, urging religious experimentation with “keeping kosher.” Thereafter, Reform synagogues increasingly began defining their food policies in “Levitical” terms prohibiting the consumption of pork and shellfish on the premises of the synagogue. The second Pittsburgh Platform (1999) also recognized the new openness to tradition in late 20th century Reform by stating:
“We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.”
Most recently, the early years of the 21st century have witnessed a general broadening of the debate over kashrut both within and beyond the Reform Movement. Very importantly, in 2008 the Conservative rabbinate embraced the concept of Magen Tzedek, a certification of kosher food products based on a whole spectrum of food issues from labor practices to health concerns. In 2011, the Central Conference of American Rabbis published The Sacred Table, edited by Rabbi Mary L. Zamore, again widening and intensifying the Reform debate about the movement’s food policy. The possibilities of an ethical, health-based, spiritual approach to culinary culture in the Progressive Jewish community are endless today, an increasingly important part of the flourishing of kashrut in our time.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA. He has written numerous books and articles in the field of American Jewish history and has taught at Princeton University, Binghamton University (SUNY), and Hunter College (CUNY). Rabbi Sussman is currently working on a book on Jews, Judaism, and law in America.