American Reform Responsa

49. Kashrut in Reform Judaism


QUESTION: What is the Reform attitude toward Kashrut? What should be done for those who observe kashrut in wartime or during other emergencies?

ANSWER: The dietary laws have been discussed by reformers virtually since the beginning of Reform Judaism. This was prompted by the widespread neglect of all the dietary laws among a large segment of the Jewish population even during the middle of the last century. Holdheim and Einhorn suggested that they be completely eliminated, as they were part of the ceremonial laws which dealt with Levitical and priestly purity and therefore did not apply after the Temple ceased to be in existence (Sinai, 1859-1860). Slightly later, Kohler expressed similar sentiments (Jewish Times of New York, 1872). Others suggested that they be modified so that the basic Biblical ideas continue, while the vast Talmudic legislation--often based on the slimmest Biblical premise--be eliminated. This was the point of view of Wiener (Die Juedischen Speisegesetz, 1895), Creiznach (cited in Plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism, p. 212), and Montefiore (The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 8, pp. 392ff), while Geiger suggested that they either be kept in toto or be entirely eliminated (Zeitschrift, vol. 8, p. 24). The Hungarian reformer, Chorin, also felt that they should be eliminated (Philipson, The Reform Movement in Judaism, p. 276). The Leipzig Synod rejected them, along with the various other ceremonial and ritual laws, following a paper presented by Fuerst (Verhandlungen der ersten israelitischen Synod zu Leipzig, p. 254). A resolution was introduced at the Philadelphia Conference of 1869 which recommended that the dietary laws be eliminated. Dr. Adler suggested that a commission be appointed and a report be made to the next conference (Appendix XI, S.D. Temkin, The New World of Reform, p. 111). The Pittsburgh Platform clearly rejected dietary laws along with other laws which dealt with priestly purity: "We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress, originated in ages and under the influence of ideas altogether foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation." Although this blanket rejection of the dietary laws as outmoded represented the 'official' position of the Reform Movement through most of a century, it did not prevent individual Reform Jews and Reform congregations from adopting certain of the dietary laws for a variety of reasons, including the desire not to offend traditional relatives or guests" (Philipson, The Reform Movement in Judaism, p. 356). On the other hand, neither the Columbus Platform in 1937, nor the Centenary Statement of 1975 made any specific mention of dietary laws, but rather called for "the development of such customs, symbols, and ceremonies as possess inspirational value" (The Central Conference of American Rabbis Yearbook, 1937, p. 100), while the Centenary Statement recognized divergent trends within the Reform Movement while encouraging observances and customs ("A Centenary Perspective" in Borowitz, Reform Judaism Today, vol. I, p. XXiii).

Although dietary laws were discussed at length during the last century and early in this century, they ceased to be a matter of primary concern for Reform Jews. This is also clearly indicated by the lack of questions regarding dietary laws addressed to the Responsa Committee through the decades. Yet, "Judaism has always recognized a religious dimension to the consumption of food. Being a gift of God, food was never to be taken for granted. And if this was true of food generally, it was especially true of meat, fish, and fowl, which involve the taking of life." Those Reform Jews who observe the dietary laws, totally or in part, seem to do so because (a) it adds to their personal expression of Judaism; the daily meals serve as reminders of Jewish ideals; (b) it provides an additional link with other Jews and a link to history; it enables Jews of all groups to eat in their home or their synagogue; (c) it encourages ethical discipline; a large number of Reform Jews observe a modified form of the dietary laws by abstaining from pork products, animals specifically prohibited, seafood, and the mixing of meat and milk. Some form of dietary observance may be carried out as a daily reminder of Judaism; the form may be left to the individual or congregation. "One might opt to eat only kosher meat or even to adopt some form of vegetarianism so as to avoid the necessity of taking a life. (This would be in consonance with the principle of tsa-ar baalei chayim--prevention of cruelty to animals.) The range of options available to the Reform Jew is from full observance of the Biblical and Rabbinic regulations to total non-observance. Reform Judaism does not take an 'all or nothing' approach" (Gates of Mitzvah, p. 132).

In times of emergency and danger of life, the dietary laws lapse and may clearly be transgressed. The only laws which remain in force are those which prohibit idolatry, sex crimes, and murder (Shab. 132a; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 328.10-17). If there is danger of life or even danger of someone becoming unnecessarily weakened, then the dietary laws may be given up (Yoma 83a; Rosh to the above; Tur, Orach Chayim 618; Yad, Hil. Yesodei Ha-Torah 5, 6). The only occasions when the dietary laws may not be breached are instances when an oppressor attempts to use them to force the rejection of Judaism. However, this was discussed at length during the period of the Holocaust and the difficult times immediately preceding it (Oshry, Mima-amakim, vol. 1, 13). It was considered wrong for an individual to refuse proper food even if it meant that the dietary laws had to be trespassed (see also Shibolei Haleket, 117; Pachad Yitschak, Pikuach Nefesh). It is quite clear, therefore, that even in the strictest Orthodox tradition, the dietary laws may be transgressed during times of war or periods of danger.

We should note that the National Jewish Welfare Board has made every effort during the First and Second World Wars and subsequently to provide for Jews in military service who observe the dietary laws. In 1942, there was a suggestion by the Department of the Army to provide vegetarian tables in mess halls. This suggestion was, however, rejected. Consequently, the Department of Defense has found no feasible plan for providing food for this special group. Two pamphlets in our possession deal with the Jewish soldier in the German army in the First World War, and do not mention the question of kashrut. It was left to the individual to carry out as best he could. We would, therefore, suggest that in wartime a soldier contact the chaplain and see what can be done about proper observance. Certainly, that individual would be provided with some special foods and could refrain from eating certain items. Under conditions of actual emergency, he or she would be free to eat anything which might be available.

Walter Jacob, Chairman

Leonard S. Kravitz

Eugene Lipman

W. Gunther Plaut

Harry A. Roth

Rav A. Soloff

Bernard Zlotowitz

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.