Kashrut and Community

January 6, 2010
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Ruth Abusch-Magder

Live and let live is our answer to the diverse visions of prayer in our contemporary Jewish community. Let many options thrive, allow for diversity, and spare conflict. From where I stand as a religiously liberal Jewish woman, much is lost when we cannot pray together, but much is also gained. Gone is our ability to share in a common conversation with God; we gain innovation and the ability to preserve traditional formats of prayer. Like prayer, our community has many different approaches to kashrut. But here, I question how much we gain when we intentionally choose not to eat together.

The Latin root of the word companion (“com” — with, and “panis” — bread), literally means, the one with whom we share bread. This reminds us that connection comes when we break bread together. Much of the value of eating together comes not from the food itself but from the common humanity that emerges when we talk with others and acknowledge their faces around the table. I am not foolish enough to think that sharing a pizza will paper over the vast ideological differences that have molded the plurality of Jewish expressions; nor do I desire it. However, if we do not sit with each other, we lose opportunities to learn from each other, to broaden our experiences, and to stretch our understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Historically, kashrut was one means by which Jews connected to each other and were distanced from the non-Jewish world. For example, Jewish travelers in the pre-modern era often relied on the hospitality of Jews to feed them — a sign of trust and relationship with the other. Not being able to share a meal, then, means that we forfeit opportunities of companionship with other Jews, opportunities that are essential for maintaining community.

How does kashrut as a religious requirement impact our commitment to the diversity of Jews and Jewish communities? How can we foster the breaking of bread, a great communal table, if we do not eat as Jews with Jews in all places and at all times? Defaulting to the most stringent levels of observance — though it appears the most obvious answer — is not feasible on several counts. Making the standards of kashrut accord with the strictest interpretation is both impractical and often leads to a sense of coercion. It also glosses over how kashrut is understood and practiced at the edges of our community, where disagreement as to what constitutes strict observance exists.

Instead of setting standards, conversations about kashrut should be a means by which we connect across Jewish ideological divides — modeling understanding. The kashrut-observant have a responsibility to make their observance known in ways that neither negate nor belittle the dietary practices of others; to be as flexible as possible within their understanding of kashrut. It behooves those who do not observe kashrut to become educated and aware, without judgment, just as one would about other food restrictions, such as those compelled by allergies. Before resenting someone who requires a kosher eatery, consider whether there would be similar feelings about accommodating a Muslim person who ate only halal. By acknowledging from the start that there are many different approaches to kashrut, these conversations can become exercises in speaking with and learning from each other without judgment.

The organized community needs to be more creative in how it supports and encourages kashrut. We need to reduce the cost of eateries or events that are kosher so that the price does not become a barrier to participation. And we need to explore cooperative models for communal kitchens, ways that individuals or groups could pool resources to collectively purchase and prepare food. For example, Jewish and Muslim college students might even share a kitchen where both groups observe dietary restrictions; preparing meals and eating together might foster other healthy connections.

Unwilling to confront some of the complexities of kashrut, we lose the possibility of growing as a community, of celebrating and struggling together, and of looking beyond our assumptions about each other. When we figure out how to break bread together, we open the possibility of true understanding and companionship.

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Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, PhD, is the director of continuing alumni education for Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a scholar of the Jewish food history.


  1. I agree it’s important for us to be able to eat together. When I was a kid I used to go to summer camp. On the first day we would meet our cabin-mates, but all afternoon everything felt shy and awkward. Then we would all sit down to dinner together, and by the end of the meal everyone was relaxed and chatting easily.

    I don’t know how we can accomplish the ideal of being able to eat together with our different definitions of what is or isn’t kosher, as well as those who are Jewish but who don’t observe any of the dietary laws. Add to that communities in which there are no kosher restaurants, and we definately have a problem.


    Posted by
    Susan Barnes
  2. Typical Reform Jew, no understanding of kashrut at all. I believe that Mrs.Magder needs to sit down with an Orthodox Rabbi and let him explain to her the facts of being a Jew. The only reason we as Jews keep kosher is that G-D commended us to “this you shall eat and this you shall not eat” people seem to like to give reasons for doing or not doing something but the only reason that is needed is that G-D said so.

    Posted by
    Steve Smith
  3. I don’t think the author is trying to “give reasons” for keeping kosher or not. I believe she’s talking about the issues created by the fact that some Jews keep kosher and others don’t, as well as the fact that not all Jews agree on the details of what is and isn’t kosher.

    You could take your Orthodox rabbi and put him in a room with a Haredi, a Mizrahi, and someone from one of the isolated Jewish communities in Africa and they could have a heated discussion about who could or couldn’t eat in each other’s homes and why. All this before you even broach the subject of whether rice is kosher on Passover. And that, as the author points out, is a problem.


    Posted by
    Susan Barnes
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