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Sitting at the Sacred Table

Taking Jewish food consciousness to a different level

The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic (CCAR Press, $19.95), an anthology edited by Rabbi Mary L. Zamore, undertakes a bold challenge: defining a new food paradigm for Reform Jews.

For over a century, the outside perception of the Reform movement’s dietary philosophy has been largely defined by the infamous “Trefa Banquet,” held in honor of the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College in 1883, with its menu of soft-shell crabs, shrimp salad and beef tenderloin followed by ice cream. The banquet set a strong precedent of deliberate kashrut non-observance for the Reform community and its leaders, but the movement has grown and shifted since then. The Sacred Table attempts to hold this important historical moment in the balance while acknowledging what Reform movement leader Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie calls the “re-ritualization” of the movement over the last 60 years.

Just a few decades ago, questions like “how many Reform Jews refrain from pork or shellfish in their homes?” would likely be viewed as irrelevant. Today they share space and consideration within The Sacred Table along with Zamore’s story about her work as a mashgiach (kashrut supervisor) at a nearby bakery, and another by Rabbis Josh Whinston and Gersh Lazaraow about their experience learning how to shecht (ritually slaughter) animals for food. The tone of these articles remains true to the movement’s liberal, outward-focused outlook, but their very inclusion in the conversation is nonetheless remarkable.

The Sacred Table also explores Jewish tradition’s insight and wisdom on a variety of ethical food questions like combating hunger, fostering farm workers’ rights, animal welfare, and environmental responsibility. “While the majority of Reform Jews do not look for a hekhsher (kashrut certification) on their food, it is nonetheless incumbent upon us to demand and support a higher standard of ethical behavior from the Jewish food industry,” writes Rabbi Ariana Silverman. Taking that notion a step towards the practical, Rabbi Richard N. Levy wonders if a dietary practice for Reform Jews rooted in Jewish ethical precepts like bal taschit (the prohibition against wasting) and tzaar baalei chayim (compassion towards animals) might ironically be even “more stringent” than a traditional approach to kashrut.

At the end of each of the book’s 10 sections, Zamore includes a personal essay offering insight into eating as a Reform Jew in the 21st century. A professor saying hamotzi (the blessing over bread) before eating a fish sandwich at McDonalds; a Los Angeles rabbi expressing admiration for her vegetarian husband (and guilt over her own meat consumption); and a New Jersey rabbi striving to balance shalom bayit (peace in the home) and kashrut observance at her Norwegian in-law’s Christmas dinner. These stories among others are a fitting testament to a movement that deeply values individual voices and lived experience.

One potential drawback of The Sacred Table is that in several instances, the book fails (possibly on purpose) to make a clear distinction between the traditional laws of kashrut and other Jewish dietary mandates. These blurred boundaries could potentially be confusing or misleading to a newcomer looking for a traditional definition of kosher food. Still, while The Sacred Table is clearly and unapologetically geared towards the Reform reader, the majority of its articles would be relevant for discussions around food and Jewish tradition across the denominational spectrum. And most importantly, this collection of articles succeeds in setting forth a proud, vibrant post-Trefa Banquet vision, which will hopefully inform an unfolding understanding of ethical Jewish eating. 

Leah Koenig is a freelance writer and author of The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen (Rizzoli, 2011).