Monday, December 17, 2012

Kosher Quandries

There are so many important issues to write about at the current moment . . . that and I'm admittedly delayed on finishing my comments on Brit Milah.  Nevertheless, I'm writing about something that's been on my mind for a while, and is currently a hot topic of conversation in Israel.

Recently, a new Jewish leadership organization called Beit Hillel was formed, comprised of leading Rabbinic figures (with a focus on synagogue Rabbis ;-)) and female religious leaders and educators.  The group was formed with an emphasis on promoting a more moderate and sensitive version of Orthodox Judaism than that which people (too) often encounter.

What's caused a stir is that they recently put out a teshuva (document containing legal rulings) regarding the permissiblity of dining in homes and establishments which are not Kosher.  The document can be accessed here, and is noteworthy for many reasons:

1) Style
While the observant community, particularly its Rabbis, used to be known for scholarship and scholarly debate regarding important issues, this trend has experienced a significant decline in recent years.  We've grown used to proclamations of law, "kol koreh" documents, conflicting verbal accounts, and simple stories, rather than the scholarship and reasoned argument of generations past.  Argument occurs by tumult and fiat on far too many occasions, without sophisticated or nuanced debate.

Beit Hillel's rulings are organized, well-researched, thorough, and sourced.  They cite opposing arguments, and note why they've chosen to rule the way they have globally, and then on individual issues as well.  This is a surprisingly refreshing trend, and hearkens back to the way things were done not so long ago (save the fact they've posted their thoughts on the organization's website :-)).

Lastly, this helps to push back against a growing problem.  Many legal rulings in the Jewish world today are heavily influenced by ideology and haskafa, one's philosophical-religious outlook on life.  That's all well and good, and it's done on all sides of the equation.  However, there's been a trend whereby those associated with a more stringent version of Judaism assert that the law or custom is such, when the legal ruling of the classical sources was much more lenient.  However, the Rabbis in question merely issue a proclamation, without explaining that the added stringencies are based on a sequence of philosophical suppositions, suppositions which many of us firmly reject.

2) Content
Right at the beginning of the teshuva linked to above, Beit Hillel transparently note the religious ideology that motivates them, and passionately argue for it.  Basically, they state that while keeping Kosher according to Jewish law is an important value, there are other values that are also important.  Therefore, when certain norms in Kashrut which are stricter than the basic law become normative, other values suffer.  In this case, strictures have kept the people of Israel from socializing with each other, increased strife and skepticism of the Rabbinate, and decreased the honor due to God and his Torah.

Therefore, they published a researched guide explaining (according to mainstream Jewish law) how Jews who keep Kosher might legally eat in other settings, in an effort to increase cooperation and interaction between Jews.  These include rulings permitting wrapping food in aluminum foil and warming it in a non-Kosher oven, and eating vegetables which may not have been checked for bugs (based on the fact that there may be reasons why it's permissible - the subject of another overdue post) especially given that a person can always check as they eat.

I would add that the Rabbinic desire to return to a basic observance of law, yet stress communal and national cooperation (also the subject of many positive mitzvot) rather than individual piety is a much needed and long overdue step in the right direction and a return to religious balance.  This actually represents a Rabbinic move to take other ignored yet central Mitzvot into account.  To the extent that any of the rulings cited seem a little edgy, it's only because our halachic discourse has shifted so far towards stricture that normative Jewish law now sounds unreliably lenient.  Three cheers for Beit Hillel!          

1 comment:

  1. I never knew that wrapping food in aluminum foil was a violation of Kashrut. Why is this so?