A survey of Conservative clergy released last week found that more than 80 percent eat warmed fish in non-kosher restaurants, prompting the chairman of the movement’s rabbinic kosher subcommittee to begin writing a legal opinion that will likely restrict what Conservative Jews may or may not eat in non-kosher restaurants.
Such a sweeping opinion, if approved by the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, would radically change Conservative practice that has been in place for more than a generation. And it would also set Rabbi Paul Plotkin, the subcommittee chairman and a recognized expert in kashrut for the Conservative movement, on a collision course with more liberal Conservative rabbis who argue that halacha must change with the times.
“It’s been disappointing to me and a matter of personal consternation for a long period of time,” Rabbi Plotkin said of the Conservative movement’s widespread practice of eating hot dairy food in non-kosher restaurants.
“I’ve been toying with writing a responsum on the issue,” he said. “Not only do I want to see this issue revisited [by the Law Committee] but there is a misconception in the Conservative movement that Conservative Jews are permitted to eat hot food in non-kosher restaurants. That is not true.”
Rabbi Plotkin, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Margate, Fla., said he expects to submit his paper by the end of the year. He said the current practice of Conservative Jews was based on a misunderstood legal opinion written in 1940 by Rabbi Max Arzt that focused on the eating of grilled fish and cooked vegetables in non-kosher restaurants in communities that lacked kosher restaurants. “It was limited in scope and rooted in the reality of its time,” Rabbi Plotkin said. “Many of the reasons he permits grilled fish are no longer valid. … And that teshuvah [Jewish legal opinion] does not cover how you can eat pizza from a non-kosher restaurant. I certainly do not eat, nor can I find any foundation religiously, for allowing it — even if one presumes that all cheese is kosher.”
The e-mail survey — which was conducted in January by the Jewish Theological Seminary primarily to gauge views on its Law Committee’s decision to permit gay and lesbian ordination and same-sex commitment ceremonies — was answered by 919 rabbis and 211 cantors. Although their acceptance of gays and lesbians was widely reported last week, little attention was paid to the section of the survey that dealt with patterns of observance and belief.Rabbi Plotkin said his responsum would present an “intellectually honest and halachically valid opinion to guide Conservative Jews as to what they may and may not eat in a non-kosher restaurant.”
He said he realizes that a “more stringent position may evolve” as a result of his paper “because that is the intellectually honest position. … The Conservative movement should not be about how many leniencies the movement can find.”
But Rabbi Barry Leff, of Toledo, Ohio, said that although he agrees with Rabbi Plotkin’s conclusion, he believes halacha, or Jewish law, has to adapt to the times. Making it stricter, as Rabbi Plotkin suggests, “would reduce the relevancy of halacha in the eyes of many.”
“Every once in a while we have to bring halacha into line with what people are doing or we lose respect for the system,” he explained. “Don’t impose something on the community unless they will abide by it,” and a change in halacha now would not be accepted by the people.
“Halacha gets determined by the people, and the rabbis follow,” Rabbi Leff pointed out, citing the case of turkey, which was unknown in the Old World. “The rabbis wanted to ban it, but the people said it was like a chicken and had to be kosher,” he said. “The rabbis followed and had to adapt halacha.”
The same holds true for eating in non-kosher establishments, said Rabbi Leff, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel. He said he found in his own non-scientific survey of 110 Conservative rabbis in the fall of 2003 that 71 percent ate hot dairy meals in non-kosher restaurants and that 92 percent ate hot dairy meals in vegetarian restaurants that lacked rabbinic supervision.
Similarly, he said, he found that a “substantial majority” of observant Conservative Jews ate hot dairy meals in non-kosher restaurants. Last week’s survey found that 90 percent of Conservative Jewish professional leaders (educators and executives) and 97 percent of Conservative lay leaders such as synagogue presidents and board members said they eat warmed food such as fish at non-kosher restaurants. (About one-third of Jewish professional leaders do not keep kosher; 57 percent of lay leaders do not keep kosher outside of the home, the seminary survey found.)
On his own blog, Rabbi Leff argued that the danger in changing halacha in this instance “seems small compared with the benefit that will accrue from our committed people seeing that halakhah can adapt to the changing times and practices.
“The time for wrestling with this issue is long overdue, and this responsum is offered in an attempt to reconcile practice and halakhah. We believe that a seemingly-radical change in halakhah is preferable to allowing the current dissonance between law and practice to continue indefinitely.”
Rabbi Leff said he submitted this teshuvah to the Law Committee in May 2004 and that it still has not been considered. But were it considered, he said he believes it would receive the six votes necessary to be adopted. Rabbi Plotkin, however, said he rejected the paper’s arguments, saying, “If tomorrow everyone is eating pig, do you change the rules? Where does that end?”
Rabbi Kassel Abelson, chairman of the Law Committee, said his committee has left it up to “individual rabbis to make the decision about where to eat.”
“I would assume that even the Orthodox or very Orthodox would eat cold food like salads [at non-kosher restaurants],” he said. “Warm food brings another level of observance in terms of the plates it was prepared on. I presume that most restaurants are clean and the question is whether you accept it or insist [that the plates] be ritually cleansed.”
The seminary survey found also that more than one-third of Conservative rabbis and cantors believe the Torah was “written by people and not by God or by Divine inspiration.” And it found that about one-third turn lights on during Shabbat.
The poll found that 36 percent of Conservative clergy said they believe man wrote the Torah, and that 39 percent of Conservative professionals and 42 percent of lay leaders believe it. In addition, 37 percent of clergy, 17 percent of professional leaders and 6 percent of lay leaders refrain from turning on lights on Shabbat.
There are great divisions between clergy and laity on other practices as well. For instance, 64 percent of clergy refrain from driving on Shabbat, compared with 27 percent of professionals and 11 percent of lay leaders. And although 94 percent of clergy refrain from shopping on Shabbat, that is true of only 60 percent of professionals and 43 percent of lay leaders. In addition, while 83 percent of clergy pray at least three times a week, that is a practice followed by only 40 percent of professionals and 33 percent of lay leaders.
Asked about the poll results, Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, took issue with the wording of the questions. Thus, he said, the results might not indicate the true behavior of the respondents. Rabbi Abelson said the turning on of lights on the Sabbath is in keeping with a Law Committee decision from the 1950s. What was a surprise, he said, was their response to the question about the origins of the Torah.
“I have always thought that the overwhelming majority [of rabbis] would say that even if the words were put down by human beings, they were still divinely inspired,” he said.