Eating Jewishly


Traditional Jewish sources tell us to linger over our meals (Berachot 55a) and, above all, to invite God in. The emergence of food and drink from the earth is a wonder and a mystery; therefore, we stand in awe before the work of God’s hands, and recite blessings to give expression to our gratitude. We know that the Divine Presence lives in the texture of our everyday acts, and so, for us, eating can be a gateway to holiness.

We know – as all Jews know – that meals are profoundly important in creating and sustaining purposeful community. When we eat alone, we are sorely tempted to focus on ourselves; we distance ourselves from the world, from the needs of others, and – most often – from the presence of God. And eating in loneliness, we drift away from the Jewish people. Further, meals are profoundly important in creating and sustaining purposeful Jewish community. When we join together for a se’udah – a Jewish communal meal – we open our minds and our hearts to the concerns of others, and we draw God in, as a partner, to our sacred community.

In these difficult times, countless members of our congregations are overwhelmed by work, economic distress, and ever-deepening isolation. For our synagogues, communal meals need to be a fundamental value — an occasion to unite our congregations, rise above our self-absorption, and turn our members in the direction of mitzvah-doing and God.

Our society is more food-conscious than it has ever been. In 1969, when it became clear that most of the grapes served at our tables were produced by exploited workers, the 50th General Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution urging Reform Jews and synagogues to stop eating grapes until collective bargaining rights were extended to farm workers. Our actions drew on the rabbinic teaching that one does not say a blessing over stolen food (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Berakhot 1:19). Surely it follows that we do not bless or consume food produced by acts of injustice, by mistreating animals, or by despoiling the environment. Such decisions simple decisions can increase holiness in our lives.

As we make these decisions for our families, our congregations, and ourselves, we note that there are, specifically, urgent and compelling reasons to reduce significantly the amount of red meat that we eat. According to a report by the United Nations, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas than all transportation sources combined, and the preparation of beef meals requires about 15 times the amount of fossil fuel energy than meat-free meals. We also have obligations to our own health and well-being. Created in God’s image, we are obligated to maintain our physical vigor so that we may bring honor to the Divine Presence. This means reducing the red meat and the processed meat that will kill 1.5 million men and women in the next decade, most from cancer and heart disease.

Ours is an ethically-based tradition, and Reform leaders have long seen no connection between the intricate rules of kashrut and ethical behavior. Sadly, for too much of the kashrut industry, this disconnect still exists; in recent years, kashrut authorities have failed in their duty to treat workers, immigrants, and animals with compassion and justice. For that reason, we applaud the Conservative movement for creating a new system of kosher certification that takes ethical factors into account.

As Reform Jews, we need our own definition of what is proper and fit to eat, because our ethical commitments remain firm, and we understand that Jewish eating has a profoundly ethical dimension. We now see that when we eat with mindfulness, even the humblest meal can become a sacred act. As Reform Jews, we must find ways to eat that are right for farm workers, right for the planet, right for our bodies and right for our souls.

THEREFORE, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:

  1. Support increased congregational and community efforts to eat together in communal celebration;
  2. Urge member congregations to enhance their food-consciousness by:
    1. Educating members about the meaning of Jewish eating for Reform Jews, though the use of URJ-provided and other resources, for courses on Jewish eating, planting synagogue gardens, and engaging with local farmers;
    2. Engaging temple members and boards in discussions about what it means to eat in a Jewish, ethical and healthy manner;
    3. Considering the benefits of reducing red meat consumption both communally and individually;
    4. Creating their own congregational ethical eating guidelines, taking into account food produced by acts of injustice, by mistreating animals, or by despoiling the environment;
  3. Challenge our young people, especially the North American Federation of Temple Youth, to engage in innovative and creative efforts to eat Jewishly and ethically;
  4. Encourage our camps to develop creative and cost-effective ways to explore issues of eating Jewishly;
  5. Applaud the Conservative Movement for creating a new system of kosher certification that takes into account ethical factors.