Can vegetarianism be the Reform Kosher?

Passover, which begins at sundown Monday, comes with plenty of dietary rules. No bagels, for instance.

Well, a new book published by the Reform movement takes a fresh look at Jewish eating in general. It’s called “The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic.”

The Reform movement has traditionally rejected Kosher laws — or at least made them very optional. But the book (published by the Reform Rabbis association) explores the meaning of Kosher (or Kashrut) for liberal Jews in the modern world.

A press release says: “Does Kashrut represent a facade of religiosity, hiding immorality and abuse, or is it, in its purest form, a summons to raise the ethical standards of food production?  How does Kashrut enrich spiritual practice by teaching intentionality and gratitude?  Can paying attention to our own eating practices raise our awareness of the hungry?  Can Kashrut inspire us to eat healthfully?  Can these laws draw us around the same table, thus creating community?”

One essay in the book is by Rabbi Mark Sameth of Pleasantville Community Synagogue (which is a non-denominational congregation). Sameth is a vegetarian and suggests that the Reform movement adopt vegetarianism as a formal dietary standard.

He writes: “Over one billion people on the planet are either starving or are chronically undernourished. Animal agriculture is inefficient in the extreme… You’ve got to invest eight to twelve pounds of grain for every one pound of edible beef you get back. Unbelievably inefficient. If we gave up our meat-based diets, simply stopped raising animals for food, all of those crops we are now raising to feed those animals would be sufficient to feed every starving man, woman, and child on the planet.”

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has a nice feature about whether the book and other rumblings suggest that the Reform world is considering/suggesting/mulling over some sort of more formal kosher observance.

The article includes this:

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Some Reform leaders, including the book’s editor, Rabbi Mary Zamore of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, N.J., want to play down the trendiness aspect.

“This is part of a continuum within Reform Judaism,” said Zamore, who pushed the project along for 13 years. “It’s not liberal Judaism becoming something different; it’s that we continue to evolve. Here is a topic which for many Reform Jews was taboo or a non-starter. Now everywhere I go, people are talking about these topics as Reform Jews.”

“The Sacred Table” opens with a discussion of the historical Reform approach to kashrut and includes an overview of traditional kosher laws — a first for an official Reform publication, according to Zamore.

It also includes chapters on each of the Jewish values that proponents of ethical kashrut embrace as they seek to broaden the traditional definition of the Jewish diet, from the ban on “tzaar baalei chayim,” or cruelty to animals, to preventing “oshek,” or oppression of workers. It includes the results of a 2005 survey that showed increasing numbers of Reform synagogues, clergy and lay leaders are keeping kosher, partially or entirely. And it ends with a guide that Reform congregations can use to develop their own communal dietary practice, which may or may not include kashrut.

Calling for ‘kosher’ standards for BP and other ‘consuming’ bodies

I mentioned yesterday that a group of religious leaders went to the Gulf to “bear witness” to the BP disaster.

One of those leaders is Rabbi Julie Schonfeld of White Plains, the executive VP of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents Conservative rabbis.

She has a column today on Huffingtonpost.com about the Conservative movement’s initiative for “ethical corporate certification” on kosher foods — a response to scandals at a giant kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. The idea is to give certification to kosher foods that are not only kosher in the traditional sense, but have been produced by workers who are treated ethically.

Schonfeld relates the new certification’s standards and goals to the BP mess. She writes:

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Although it was designed for ethical food production, the Magen Tzedek seal, a holistic Jewish response to the responsibilities of food and consumption, can serve as a model for the corrective needed now for BP. The areas of review of the Magen Tzedek speak directly to the tragedy in the Gulf region: environmental responsibility; corporate accountability; worker safety and other concerns and animal welfare.

The Magen Tzedek seeks to give voice to the large and growing need, not only in the Jewish community but throughout the world, to have concrete ways to connect our values to our consumption. Judaism has always recognized that the human being and the human community are creatures of “appetite.”

In a constructive sense, those appetites can be a creative force, driving society forward and give human beings the impetus to achieve. So, Jewish tradition created an extensive body of “sumptuary laws,” principles by which we consume wisely and moderately. The driving principle behind the limits to our individual consumption is a sense that because we are part of a larger human community, we cannot consume in a way that would harm the basic needs of others.

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It’s not related, but…

Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller has a column worth checking out about the high cost of being Jewish.

High cost in a dollars-and-cents sense.

The cost of living an Orthodox Jewish life has been much discussed in recent years. Miller notes that “an Orthodox Jewish family with three children could expect to spend between $50,000 and $110,000 a year on school fees, synagogue dues, summer camps, and kosher food.”

But she focuses on the simple matter of synagogues collecting mandatory fees from members in order to support their budgets and what this means for families during a difficult economic time.

Around here, most congregations charge $3,000 or $4,000 in annual fees — although virtually every one will make concessions for families that can’t afford it.

Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, calls it a “bizarre pay-to-play philosophy.”

But Miller also quotes Arnold Eisen (that’s him), chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC: “The bills are very high. People need sacred spaces, but when you’re looking at budgets, you’re looking at heat and air conditioning.”