Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Do you welcome converts - and how should conversion students keep kosher?

Dear Rabbi,

I wonder about how Progressive and Reform Judaism handles potential converts, and kosher eating. Do converts have any dietary guidelines or commitments to hold to?

Thanks for your questions.

In terms of our approach to potential converts, we welcome them and support them as best we can, depending on where they are geographically  - in fact we had a Bet Din (Jewish Court) today in Melbourne and welcomed an excellent person who I'm sure is already a brilliant asset to the community and will become even more so.  He has been interested in Judaism since he was seven, and moved from rural Australia to Sydney to become part of a community and complete his conversion.  He understands more about God, Judaism and Progressive Judaism (and himself) than many born Jews, I have no doubt at all, and this is quite often the way!

Your question about kashrut is apposite.  The answer is no, we don't currently have particular expectations and standards, because we believe in 'Educated choice'.  However I believe there is a fundamental flaw with this concept as it is (as, in fact, I am increasingly thinking about democracy!).  The key word is 'Educated' and how do we get people to have the time, interest, ability and knowledge to make 'Educated Choices' for themselves (and all the more so when it affects others, or society, as well)?

I feel more and more that we should have a 'Progressive Shulchan Aruch' (Guide to Jewish practice) so that there are clear suggestions, expectations and a framework, developed and used by long term, knowledgeable educated Jews, which are 'Guidelines' (not laws).  By following these, candidates would have a good idea of what many Progressive Jews do (shop, cook, eat etc), or how they celebrate Shabbat and what they do and don't do... Having tried to adopt and live by these guidelines over some time, and during their studies, they may in due course decide after study and consideration that they want to modify their practice one way or other, but that would be in a more 'educated' setting, and the revised choices therefore more valid and legitimate, and they would be able to explain to themselves and others why they have chosen as they have.  

So having said that, let me give you some basic information about my own practices and that of my family, but let me first mention 'Eco-kashrut or kosher'.  If one intention of kashrut is to minimse animal cruelty and exploitation (and this is in line with the established principle of tz'ar ba'alei chayim - minimising pain to animals), then there are various new issues not directly addressed by traditional kashrut - factory farming, raising veal in crates, hormones and artificial feedstuffs, and extending to cruel practices such as inversion pens for easier kosher slaughtering, employing illegal workers etc. Another related issue is environmental - emissions, both from raising meat and 'food miles', ie bringing food from long distances, unnecessary packaging, destruction of rainforests etc. Eco-kosher would therefore mean avoiding factory farmed eggs, chickens and other animals, veal, caution with the sourcing of milk and dairy products and palm oils, buying local and in season, looking for less packaging, less processed foods, and probably less food - ie smaller, healthier portions.  We say 'God provides sufficient food for all' ('noten lechem l'chol basar' in Birkat hamazon, grace after the meal), but the truth is that the developed world uses (and wastes) a hugely disproportionate amount, leaving many millions hungry or starving.  All of the above are, or should be, Jewish and kashrut issues. Judaism is about putting 'prayer into practice'! 

So, my family and I are vegetarian.  We also only eat free-range eggs (and we'd love to have our own chickens!).  We are aware of the problems in industrial milk and dairy food production, but have not (yet) discovered an easy answer to that, short of having or knowing a cow and butter/cheese maker! We try not to eat cheese with animal rennet (made from enzymes from an animal stomach), though we don't exclusively buy vegetarian cheese etc.  It is however much easier to buy foods with the vegetarian symbol on them.   

We never ate prohibited foods (pork products, or rabbi, camel, kangaroo, dog etc - kosher animals need to both chew the cud and have cloven hooves), or shellfish, eel or shark (deceitfully known as 'flake' here in Australia and common as fish and chips!) - kosher sea animals should have both fins and scales.  

When we ate meat, we tried not to eat foods cooked with meat and milk together, or the two in the same meal - but we might say grace after meals after the main course, go to sit in the lounge and then have a milk coffee or an ice cream, having deliberately made it a 'different meal'!

We have never had separate crockery or cutlery.  We believe that washing up, or the dishwasher, cleans any meaty or milk bits away - and even if it doesn't, that was the intention!  But of course we'll explain our practices to guests who might be concerned - and if necessary we'll get disposable (paper or bamboo leaf) plates (still bad for the environment), etc.

Generally all fruit and vegetables are kosher (parev, meaning neutral - they can be eaten with either meat or dairy), although technically even some of them are not kosher - for example if they are grown in Israel during the sabbatical year!  There was a suggestion that one shouldn't drink orange juice unless it had a hechsher - kosher seal - because Israel produces much citrus and some of it may have been frozen and made its way - perhaps years later - into any orange juices ('produce of more than one country')!  These complications do not worry us - it is the intent that counts, and anyway, there is a handy law called 'shishim' which basically says that if by accident there is a small part (less than a sixtieth) of a prohibited product in what you eat, that is fine - it is still kosher!    

Whatever the rules are for home, we apply them as far as possible when out as well.  It seems to me to be inconsistent to have one rule for home and another out! 

And we DO keep kashrut.  But if someone says do we, depending on the intent of the question, we'd say yes, but to our own understanding.  If we are going to them or they to us, or we're going out to eat together, of course we'd explain as necessary.

Sometimes people say 'that's crazy - either you do or you don't'.  But that is their problem - they are wrong.  The rules of kashrut are many and derive from nay different parts of Torah - and of course later tradition: do not eat blood, do not eat these animals or those, do not seethe a kid in its mother's milk, do not eat the cow and her calf together, shoo the mother bird away before eating the eggs, do not eat tithed food, do not eat food grown during the sabbatical year....  

There is actually no one agreed set of laws for kashrut.  On Passover the Ashkenazim (Middle European origin Jews) have quite different rules from the Sephardim (Spanish/Portugese).  And year round, some people wait one hour between milk and meat, while others wait 3 or 6 hours!  Some people determine that some fish are kosher whilst others say they are not!  And then there is 'glatt kosher' or 'super-kosher' - for some people kosher is not kosher enough - and for some groups, even glatt-kosher is not sufficient - only food approved by their own rebbe!

So to conclude, you too can keep kosher, and it's a good idea - but over time and with study and thought, you'll decide just how and what it looks (and tastes!) like.


Rabbi Jonathan

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