Conservative Ruling Tips Scales On Cooked Fish

Hot dairy meals at non-kosher restaurants should follow certain protocols, law committee says. Will anyone comply?

12/11/12
Staff Writer
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In 1952, when the Conservative movement was rapidly becoming America’s largest Jewish denomination, its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards issued this opinion: “Fish dinners in non-kosher eating places shall not be construed as a violation of the dietary laws.”

However, that opinion was not the final or official position, the Law Committee noted at the time, promising to release more details soon.

Sixty years later, the official position has finally come. And members of this movement, whose numbers have shrunk dramatically in that time, may be displeased to discover that the Golden Age of rabbinic-approved fish dinners has drawn to a close.

A new ruling, issued late last month, spells out for the first time the difficulties of eating hot dairy food in a non-kosher restaurant it was written for the organizational arms of the movement: the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

It is unclear how widely the new ruling will be followed.

The opinion focuses on the hoops a rabbi working with sisterhoods and men’s clubs, which have long held dairy functions at non-kosher restaurants, should go through before certifying that pizza from a non-kosher eatery is kosher. Although the new ruling does not apply to individuals, the author of the teshuvah or opinion, Rabbi Paul Plotkin, said “individuals can learn the complexity of the problems and then make their own decisions.”

It is unlikely that a sizable number of individuals will change their personal practice, whether at restaurants or at home, as a result. In fact, a 1996 study of the Conservative movement found that the majority — 75 percent — of Conservative synagogue members do not keep kosher.

The new teshuvah was adopted by a vote of 14 to 7 with one abstention. But two of those raising questions are major players in the movement — Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Calling it a “tough call,” Rabbi Nevins explained in an e-mail that he “abstained because I felt this approach was just not realistic — how many restaurants will admit a non-employee customer to their kitchen, allow them to inspect ingredients and food temperatures and follow their instructions about which pans and knives can be used for their personal pizza?”

He suggested instead that in areas where there are no kosher restaurants a protocol be established “for temporary kashrut supervision—how to get, for example, a pizzeria to produce a set of kosher pies prior to starting their regular line, with all of the pork and other issues.”

“This teshuvah seemed to me to create an unworkable solution,” he added. “I agreed with the motivation, but not the mechanism.”

Rabbi Wernick said he voted against the paper because it simply is “impractical in terms of its application.”

“Theoretically Paul did a great job in analyzing the issues,” he told The Jewish Week. “But when one has to make a series of steps — it’s not practical and I don’t think it will have widespread use. There is a principle in halacha [Jewish law] that you don’t create halacha that people are not going to follow. Intellectually I got it, but halacha is not just an intellectual exercise.”

Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, said he applauds Rabbi Plotkin’s research “but the impact on Conservative Judaism is going to be negligible. I think it trivializes Jewish law. It’s as ridiculous as trying to define God … I think everyone was comfortable with the way it was since 1952, that’s why not one has written anything about it since.”

In his teshuvah, Rabbi Plotkin said there is a “history of misunderstanding about what the current halachic rulings in the Conservative movement actually are as they pertain to eating hot dairy from a non-kosher source. A surprising number of Conservative Jews believe it is permitted to eat hot dairy foods from non-kosher sources...”

In fact, a 1997 survey of Conservative clergy found that more than 80 percent eat cooked fish in non-kosher restaurants. Another survey in the fall of 2003 that was answered by more than 110 North American Conservative rabbis found that only 4 percent said they eat only in restaurants under kosher supervision. It found that 71 percent eat hot dairy meals in restaurants without kosher supervision and that another 4 percent eat only broiled fish and steamed vegetables in non-supervised restaurants. In addition, 92 percent eat hot dairy meals in vegetarian, but not kosher certified, restaurants and 90 percent eat cold food in non-supervised eateries.

Rabbi Plotkin stressed that his paper makes clear that the institutions of the Conservative movement must not indiscriminately hold functions at non-kosher establishments. He said the paper had initially been written to cover individuals as well but “the consensus at this point is that we would be better served focusing on the arms of the movement.”

In a “cautionary note” in his teshuvah, Rabbi Plotkin said that “while it is very much in vogue in today’s Orthodox world to find new restrictions in many areas, adding chumrot (stringencies) that were not observed in the past so as to preserve a higher standard of kashruth, this teshuvah will travel in the opposite direction … with the express desire to see how we can legitimately eat a slice of pizza from a non-kosher pizzeria.”

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chairman of the Law Committee, said he would not be surprised if this teshuvah prompts those who take kashrut seriously to “rethink their own personal practices. ... On the other hand, it would also not surprise me if rabbis and lay Jews who take kashrut seriously decide to define their kosher practice as allowing the eating of vegetarian pizza in a non-kosher restaurant in order to be able to have a social life, especially in places where there is a paucity of kosher restaurants.”

Rabbi Wernick said he believes those tasks the new ruling requires for deeming hot dairy food kosher are “too onerous; that’s why I voted against it.”

Asked what will become of the teshuvah, he replied:

“The committee creates benchmarks, but every rabbi maintains his or her own authority for his synagogue and will examine whether or not to follow it. Even though I voted against it, I shared this teshuvah with my staff and we are going to discuss its potential application because we are taking it seriously. As the largest constituent organization of Conservative Judaism, I may have disagreements with it but that does not mean it is not valid or something that is not worthy of discussion.” 

Last Update:

07/10/2013 - 15:23

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Could a link to the actual document be provided?

I hope that the discussion on kashrut by the Conservative movement’s leaders continues; so that the Conservative movement can claim a standard of tradition that realistically addresses the need for peaceful interactions with others at non-supervised restaurants and the homes of people who do not observes kashrut at all. A job interview can lead to an unplanned meal or a date can lead to a surprise meal at a convert’s parents. It seems that the biggest difference between Rabbi Plotkin and Rabbi Edward Feld for a standard relates to the fence around residual flavor in pots, cooking utensils, and ovens. Perhaps some creativity, some history (such as the work of David Kraemer), and some modern food chemistry can help bridge that gap. Is it actually true that a person can taste meat flavor in vegetarian soup cooked previously in a clean pot? Of course, the standards for food on a USY trip or at a person’s own home can more easily be stricter. Conservative Judaism is not on a ladder with Orthodox perfectionism and segregation on the top. It can serve its role in the middle using the best of Jewish tradition and allowing Jews to function peacefully in today’s world.

As a teenager in Brooklyn 60 years ago I had very few choices for eating out, so my friends and I ate at home. I was fired from my first summer job in a "kosher delicatessen" at age 12 (they thought I was (16) for complaining that the hot dog buns were made with milk. Fish fillet often substitutes catfish for more expensive varieties. Keeping G-d's word isn't easy.. but don't fool yourself.

So what about the people who don't live in areas where there are very many or any kosher restaurants. Like DC. And in some places where there are kosher restaurants they are so disgusting that you wouldn't want to support them, but they are the only option in town. If Kashrut matters and you have been eating out, then you know the kinds of questions to ask. Most often restaurants are actually accommodating (especially in a time of severe allergies).

Rabbi Plotkin certainly is an expert in halacha on kashrut. But perhaps better would be a practical guide to the kinds of questions to ask when eating out. Most people ask if something is vegetarian. But you need to ask if the sauce has meat in it. If you eat pasta out, you need to ask if it was cooked in a chicken stock (which often it is). There are a ton of questions to ask, but it's really not that hard and often you can ask those questions.

There's a chapter on kashrut in The Observant Life [full disclosure: I wrote it], with a section on eating in restaurants. It is not a teshuvah discussing synagogue practice, it focuses on individual practice.

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