Earlier this week, my wife started a pretty interesting conversation with me. We had spent the morning meeting and befriending an Orthodox rabbi, Yoni, and his wife and children. Yoni had been in town to officiate a wedding, but we connected so wonderfully with this family that we invited them to come to our home the following day to celebrate our son, Asher’s, 2nd birthday. We had planned the perfect low-key kid’s party, with bike riding outside, lots of toys inside, and, of course, some snacks for the kids and parents. But then it hit us: Yoni and his family were Orthodox. Kashrut laws. Uh-oh.
Luckily, Yoni and his wife were very accommodating, as was the whole Federman crew (our local Chabad family). They all told us not to worry about it, as most Orthodox Jews do. But it got us thinking. What could we give them, and what couldn’t we? We couldn’t serve anything on real plates, only paper, as our plates were not categorized for milk or for meat; we couldn’t serve them food that had been touched or cut by cutlery, forks or knives, for the same reason; and our meat isn’t kosher, neither is anything else really. To be fair, it’s not like we had bacon and shrimp, but the challenges were there. Moreover, my wife and I realized that Asher’s party was the first time the Federman’s, who we considered to be dear friends, had been in our home. We’ve known them for over two years, but we had always traveled to their home for Shabbat lunches, or Sunday afternoons, for no other reason than Kashrut.
And maybe, my wife and I thought, that was the point. I remember visiting my Conservative and Orthodox cousins in New Jersey growing up, and they always had other families from their synagogue over to their home for meals. The parents knew each other well and the children were best friends. There was an air of family about it all, and even as a young child I realized that growing up in the Reform Movement, we didn’t feel this way. If we think about Orthodox Jewry, they usually live in the same neighborhoods, close to the same synagogues, shopping at the same butchers, and at the same stores. Their homes are always filled with other Jews, especially on Shabbat. I grew up in a Reform synagogue, and I had friends from youth group, but I didn’t have family friends like my cousins did with their Orthodox and Conservative congregants. I yearned for that, even as a young man. Where were my best friends that grew up with me in synagogue? Growing out of the small shtetls in Eastern Europe it made sense that Jews who did not wish to assimilate would flock together. However, maybe the reason for their closeness wasn’t a higher value on family or friendship, and maybe it wasn’t a more hospitable atmosphere. Maybe the reason why Orthodox Jews stick together is because, for purely practical reasons, they have to, because they can’t eat anywhere else.
Or at least, this is what my wife and I found ourselves pondering over. To be fair, I don’t want to over generalize or over dramatize the role that kashrut can play in the closeness of our Orthodox and Conservative neighbors. But it is worth thinking about. If you only eat with those who keep the same Kosher rules as you, that seriously limits your entertaining ability. Of course my cousins were close with other congregants; they were over to eat at their homes all the time, because they could be. Could they play sports and hang out with their non-Jewish friends? Of course. But they couldn’t sit down at a meal with them. Kashrut, it seems, builds community closeness between Jews, and perhaps that is something we Reform Jews lose by fully assimilating into secular culture, or by removing Kashrut law from our private and public lives.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a rabbi, and I’ve studied Kashrut law extensively. I make sure that my congregants understand “informed choice,” which means that I can tell you why most Kashrut laws existed and why they are no longer relevant today. Take, for instance, the prohibition against eating shellfish. These are laws in the Torah that do not have an explanation. We are simply supposed to follow these laws without knowing why. But when we dig into Near Eastern cultures, we start to see remnants of pagan understandings of good blood and bad blood, live blood and dead blood, and we make the connection that we’re not allowed to eat scavengers, those animals that eat dead animals, because they would be infected with “bad blood,” which would then infect us. “Good blood,” if you’re wondering, includes circumcision, and painting on the doors of our homes during the Passover story. Both have incidents in the Torah of protection. “Bad blood,” on the other hand, makes us sick, and cannot be eaten, according to other cultures during the time of the Israelites.
I won’t take tonight to go into the milk and meat separation because it’s too complicated, but basically it’s a prohibition that stems from a misunderstood commandment regarding boiling a baby cow in its mother’s milk. But these interpretations led to different plates, cutlery, dishwashers, sides of sinks, soaps, and sponges. And, of course, we can’t forget how an animal is slaughtered. If it isn’t slaughtered correctly, meaning its blood is not drained, it cannot be eaten. This has to do with the belief that the blood of an animal is the soul of the animal and we should not eat the soul of something. Do these understandings fully relate to 21st century living? Not really, but the traditions are powerful.
There is, additionally, incredibly pertinent Near Eastern scholarship which theorizes that Kashrut law was actually designed to do exactly what it inadvertently does today, to keep Jews separate from the rest of society. The scholars theorize that idol worship was considered the highest crime in Israelite culture, and usually the Israelites were pulled away from their tribes because of intermarriage, and befriending other tribes. Kashrut law put a stop to all of that, because if you can’t have dinner with your Canaanite neighbor, you can’t befriend them; and if you can’t sit at the table with your Amorite buddy, your daughter can’t meet his son and they can’t get married. In other words, Kashrut laws kept the tribes apart from one another to protect their ideologies.
It turns out that in 2017, that purpose still lives. There are those that practice Kashrut law in Judaism and those who don’t. Most of the time, those that do practice Kashrut dine together, and thus grow close, while those who don’t can dine at any restaurant with anyone of any religion or any race in an assimilated world. The downside, of course, is that we, who don’t practice Kashrut, miss out on getting to know those Jews who do practice, because we can’t have them over to our homes, or if we do, it’s a whole “to do” and we can’t do that every week. The upside, however, is what we see in the Orthodox and Conservative world, and what I saw in my cousins’ homes: an incredible bond that we cannot match. These families eat together, share meals and stories, multiple times a week, only in their homes, or in Kosher restaurants. The children around the table grow up together, the parents come to rely upon one another. Friends become family, the Jewish family around the table dining together with the same rituals, the same kinds of food. It is a powerfully sobering aspect of the differences between Reform and Orthodox Judaism that I did not notice, until my wife, as I said earlier, started this conversation with me.
Kashrut is a heavily debated topic in Judaism, with theology merging with archeology, tradition combatting evidence. Maybe for too long we’ve been thinking too academically about Kashrut, and maybe no matter how much of it is unnecessary, outdated, or tribal, maybe if we all kept the same Kashrut laws out of tradition, maybe if we all dined at each other’s homes, engaging in respectful discourse, telling jokes and sharing stories, maybe if our children grew up with family friends, with traditions of dining at one another’s homes each week, just maybe, the Jewish people as a whole would be less divided. Reform Jews yearn for connection with other Jews. We call it Jewish engagement. We call it audacious hospitality. But maybe it’s as simple as keeping two sets of forks and plates and inviting our Orthodox buddies over for some brisket.