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What We Talk About When We Talk About the Menu

What We Talk About When We Talk About the Menu

Erica Brown’s column, “Exclusion On The Menu” deeply resonated with me – well, at least the shared experience did. I, too, have felt very weird and different for keeping a strict form of kosher in many different settings, including Jewish ones.

Yet despite this shared experience, Brown and I do not share the same conclusion. I do not think Jewish organizations should serve only kosher food. While I don’t care all that much about whether or not I will have to tear plastic off of my meal at the next dinner, I think our disagreement here is important because it reflects very different understandings of what it means to be Jewish.

This disagreement is not only about the cost of kosher food, though that’s a good place to start. Brown downplays this issue, asking rhetorically: “Did you even price it out or give kosher catering a chance?” That these Jewish organizations haven’t done this is an assumption that is likely as false as her insinuation that, had they priced it out, they would find the pricing comparable. Spending extra money is as much a part of keeping kosher as ham isn’t. Whether keeping kosher is worth it is a legitimate question; whether or not kosher food is more expensive is not.

So, is it worth it? Brown clearly thinks so and offers two different justifications. The first: “We care about meaning, social justice and spirituality. We’re proud. We’re still here. Maybe we’re still here because for some of us continuity is not an organizational catchword.” Is Brown claiming that keeping kosher is a requirement for caring about Jewish continuity? That would be unfounded, offensive and completely counter to the value of pluralism that she champions throughout the piece. Or is she claiming that keeping kosher is an expression of meaning, social justice and spirituality? If so, that’s where her answer should begin, not end. After all, if we’re trying to convince Jewish organizations to serve only kosher food, the onus is on us to make a compelling case for it.

Her second argument for keeping kosher: “… because a kosher dinner is a symbolic nod to our shared tradition. You are a child of Abraham.” It’s ironic that Brown cites Abraham as the model for her form of hospitality that requires serving kosher food to everyone, since we know from Genesis (18:8) that he brought his guests “… curds and milk and the calf.” That’s right, folks – Abraham himself served his guests milk and meat. Of course this isn't just a funny piece of trivia about Abraham.

The larger point is that “tradition” can be understood in a variety of ways. Which brings us back to the topic of pluralism, Dr. Brown’s main argument for why these dinners should be exclusively kosher.

Rabbi David Hartman talked about Judaism as an interpretative religion, and that’s what I love most about it. If we’re truly going to embrace this notion, we need to make space for the many different ways that Jews interpret Judaism. When it comes to the laws of kashrut, some will observe those laws strictly according to the interpretation of the rabbis. Others will observe the laws mentioned explicitly in the Torah and refrain from foods like pork and shellfish. And others will choose not to follow them at all and to focus instead on aspects of Judaism that more directly relate to matters of meaning, social justice and spirituality. (Rabbi Hartman said we shouldn’t obsess over the details of kashrut, urging: “Take your head out of the pot.”)

While Brown claims to be advocating for Jewish unity, she is in fact advocating for Jewish uniformity by requesting what has been dubbed the “frummest common denominator.” That’s not pluralism. Certainly every Jewish (and non-Jewish) organization should do its best to honor the different dietary restrictions of its guests. The painful irony here is that her issue isn’t about not being accommodated – it’s about feeling isolated and different as a result of being accommodated. Instead of reprimanding these Jewish organizations, I’m often touched when they go out of their way to meet my strict level of kashrut observance, which is shared by a very small percentage of Jews who run in pluralistic spaces. Her analogy to vegetarians is quite apt. Yes, we should accommodate vegetarians at our Shabbat meals, but not necessarily by making the entire meal vegetarian.

Brown’s response to having received her special kosher meal wrapped in plastic: “Suddenly, I am different.” It’s hard to feel different, especially among your own people. But feeling different is actually an essential part of what it means to be Jewish. Two Jews, three opinions isn’t an accident. Our calling is to dignify differences, and that starts by embracing our feelings of being different within ourselves and our fellow Jews. This calling is especially relevant at a time when the front-runner for the Republican Party continues to vilify those who are different. Which reminds me – isn’t it time to take our heads out of the pots and talk about the things that really matter?

Rabbi Aaron Potek serves Jewish 20s and 30s in Washington, D.C.

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