Sep 3, 2008

Observant Jews and the Halacha of Eating Out

[cross-posting from the conversation referenced below]

Dear Chevreh,

I'm grateful to Rabbi Leff for beginning this conversation, and am thrilled that Shefa has provided a forum for thoughtful dialogue leading up to a conversation at the CJLS. On this topic it is clear that we bring much life-experience and engagement-with-halacha to the table. Here's what I'm hoping, and what has defined (and will continue to define) the ShefaNetwork as a place of positive purposeful dreaming:

We have seen fruit already, with gatherings of Shefaniks at various Conservative Movement conventions, with a surge in subscription to the email list (currently around 450 college students, USY'ers, professors, rabbis, cantors, FJMC/WLCJ leadership, shul leaders, USCJ professionals, JTS/Ziegler/Machon Schechter rabbinical students, early childhood educators, Israeli Masorti members, potential Jews undergoimng conversion in Europe, etc...). There have been over 40,000 hits on! We have been featured in the Jewish Week and in Movemental publications. The Shefa Learning Mission to Israel two years ago is preparing for a sequel in the Winter of 2009. So much building to do - so many connections brimming to the surface!

The question of eating out in non-kosher establishments is one very much alive in the daily choices of Conservative Jews. I myself have a policy of eating out "cold-dairy", asking questions when relevant about food preparation and proximity in storage. Rabbi Leff's forthcoming teshuvah is an opportunity to effect a more widespread conversation with those who see their current eating practices as 'treif' and a capitulation to convenience. If we can, as halacha has always striven, talk about elevating mundane acts, then we aren't condoning treif practice. We are engaging on a campaign of mindful halachic engagement, true to the historical commitments of Conservative Judaism.

There are some who, when they navigate tradition while eating in non-kosher establishments, take off their kippah. This is a long-standing practice tied to the halachic concept of "marit ayin", or a "deceiving eye", which means that one should never, through personal choices, lead others to believe that a questionable practice is kosher. So, for instance, when my family and I ate at the cafe of the incredible San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum just last month, someone saw my kippah and asked me if the food was kosher. I responded that the food was kosher in its preparation, but that no rabbi had supervised its production. In effect, I said, it was kosher because I trusted the descriptions as published and the food preparer's testimony. (the food also happened to be vegetarian, with only acceptable fish being served). This conversation only occurred because I was wearing my kippah. And I was not misleading someone into misguided practice - I was demonstrating that it's possible to keep kosher in the world.

To the question of "who needs kosher bakeries/restaurants then?" I believe the advocacy falls primarily on synagogues - and Conservative/Masorti shuls should, as some have, "take back kashrut" from the Orthodox establishment which was handed, through recent decades of Conservative Movemental neglect, a virtual monopoly on the claim to general authenticity and kosher supervision in particular.

Why should there be kosher establishments if you can keep kosher in non-kosher ones? Because the navigation of the world through tradition Jewish eyes cannot compare to the creation/sustaining/celebration of a Jewish home. If you can be holy without being Jewish, why be Jewish? Because it's your home. And other people have special homes, but it's not the same. The rhythm of a Jewish eatery is particular - would you hear Israeli folk music or Mattisyahu or Moshav playing in the speakers at a Starbucks? Do Jewish professional/volunteer meetings suddenly contain more pride when the menu affirms their identity and commitments? Is the "schlokiest" falafel joint an opportunity to affirm a relationship with Israel because it carries both "Mitzli" and Snapple, both Ha'aretz and the New York Times?

We need Kosher establishments because they embody the affirmation of a shared Jewish authenticity, the opportunity to have Jewish community where everyone (strict and lenient) can have a common meeting place. This is why I'm hoping that, though the Conservative Movement (in a tehuvah by Rabbi Elliot Dorff) has allowed wine both hechshered (certified) and not, we should support kosher wineries through shul policy - because in today's day and age, you have to try to not buy kosher wine. It's easy - online in in stores. This is a matter of convenience and flavor-preference as opposed to commitment.

When kosher choices are called for because the menu includes non-kosher choices, Rabbi Leff's teshuvah is important as a "how-to." And yes, let's create (maybe as another dreamful 'Shefadik' conversation?) a "how-to-drive-to-shul-on-Shabbat" with a clear ideal of living close enough to shul to make it irrelevant. This doesn't stigmatize those who drive - it channels the necessary choice, based on legitimate factors, into a path of kedusha/holiness - within the Halacha as already validated by the Conservative Movement. When we call into question the Conservative Movement's decisions, we are actually denying our own legitimacy and demonstrating radical, harmful, envy for whichever form of Judaism we claim has it "right" where we don't.

Orthodoxy is based largely on the concept of "yeridat hadorot", that every generation since Sinai has less authority due to the forward march of time. Reform is based on Sacred Autonomy coupled with prioritizing the prophetic (moral) voice of Judaism over rabbinic halachic norms. We are called, I believe, as Conservative/Masorti Jews, to bring Sinai and Torah with us everywhere we go. We stand on the shoulders of giants and are called to be giants of yiddishkeit ourselves, mitzvah heroes (including the Social Justice innovators of Danny Siegel's former Ziv-network) who care about Torah with open eyes and actual decisions. We challenge the inherited halacha and embrace the tension of holding onto ideals without rejecting new authentic possibilities. We retranslate the triumphalist Aleinu's "literal" meaning and still sing it. I'm not worried about being judged authentic by my Orthodox friends - and they aren't worried about being judged as authentic by me. We have work to do, and each community must follow its own authentic path, guided by genuine established commitments (Halacha & Social Justice being the Conservative Movement's, I believe).

I believe we are called to be a Kosher Movement, and that this conversation is about increasing the Kashrut in many people's lives. May the conversations we are so blessed to share on the ShefaNetwork become contagious - throughout our Movement and beyond.

Kol Tuv,

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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