Saturday night when I got home from Maariv services I turned on the computer to see this comment on Thursday’s guest post about the Gourmet Glatt mess written by Prof. Asher J. Matathias

Anonymous said… “It would help to invite for membership local Conservative rabbis who are known to maintain the Orthodox observance of the Vaad’s founders.”

That one line invalidates the entire letter. 1:27 PM

The comment threw me for a loop, after all I am a Conservative Jew, and Kashrut is as imporant to me as it is to that poster. I would put my conservative Rabbi up against that poster’s orthodox Rabbi on any Kasrut issue on any day of the week (except maybe shabbos when they both have to work). Then I looked a the time “1:27 PM” So while I was home taking my Shabbos nap, this supossed “defender of orthodoxy” was on my web site making snide remarks about Conservative Rabbis. I wonder if he realizes that that there were Conservative Rabbis among the founders of the founders of the Vaad.

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Thank G-d most of the people I meet from the differnt ‘flavors” of Judiasm are not like that “non Shomer Shabos” poster. Most would agree with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who said in his book “We Jews:”

The Bible calls the Jews “the House of Israel” or the “House of Jacob” meaning that the Jews are essentially and principally a family. This family began as the small group of the offspring of Abraham. With natural increase, we became a clan and then a tribe and ultimately a nation. But in spite of its extraordinary proliferation, this tribe, and eventually the nation remained what we have always been–a single family. We are not a religion or a nation; we are a single family.

Then later that night, as if Hashem wanted me to see an opposing view of that rude comment, I received an email from Asher. The email contained a sermon from one of his friends Rabbi that had a Shabbos sermon from Rabbi Mark B Greenspan of Oceanside Jewish Center, a Conservative Shul in New York. Since it has been posted elsewhere on the net, I am taking the liberty of sharing it with you here:

“Don’t Quarrel About the Way:”
Is Halacha a Source of Unity or Division?
Parshat Vayigash 5767 By Rabbi Mark B Greenspan

It’s no accident that when we talk about the Jewish tradition we often refer to it as “a way of life.” While belief is central to our religion, Judaism is not just a creed but a way of living and a practice to follow along life’s journey.

The word we use for Jewish law is a reflection of this. In Hebrew Jewish law is called Halacha. This word comes from the root halach which means ‘to go.’ Halacha, then, is ‘the way go’ in life; it’s the road we choose or the one that we’re supposed to follow.

Anyone who has ever gone on a road trip knows that it’s not always so obvious how we get from point A to point B. There is often more than one way to reach one’s destination. Of course, one can stop by the AAA office to get a triptik or you can turn on your computer and check map-quest. But the directions that they provide aren’t always the fastest or the best.

Usually the best way to reach one’s destination is to ask someone who has already made the journey. You can try navigating the trip on your own, but one never knows what one is going to encounter along the way. That’s true not only in geography but in spiritual matters as well. That’s why Judaism provides us with Halacha, a way to go in life.

Rabbis like to think that they know what’s best for others but that may not always be the case. We tend to argue a lot. We tend to think we have the answer. I believe that’s what Rashi had in mind when he tries to understand what Joseph’s told his brothers. At long last Joseph reveals his true identity. With the words, “I am your brother, Joseph,” he comforts his family by assuring them that all that has transpired was God’s will. Joseph then instructs his brothers to return home and bring their father and families back to Egypt to live out the duration of the famine. As they prepare to leave, he says to them, “Do not be quarrelsome along the way!”

What did Joseph have in mind when he told his brothers not to be quarrelsome? Rashi offers two explanations for this statement, one that’s obvious and one that’s not so obvious. The obvious explanation is that the brothers should not be reduced to blame and recriminations as they return home. It would have been so easy for each to blame the other for what happened. Joseph tells his brothers to let bygones be bygones and to focus on the future rather than the past.

Rashi also offers a second explanation that, at first glance, is a little surprising and odd. He interprets the words “al tirgazu baderech” to mean, “Don’t argue about matters of Halacha on your way home.” Rashi understands the word baderech, literally “along the way,” to mean, “Don’t argue ‘about the way.’” In other words don’t argue about Halacha, about our way of life. For Rashi, Joseph and his brothers were Torah scholars just as he and his contemporaries were. He imagines them arguing about matters of law and loosing their way as they returned home to Canaan. Joseph imagined them being so caught up in some matter of Halacha that they would miss the turn off to Canaan! Joseph wanted them to return quickly to Canaan and not to get distracted by the minutia of Jewish law.

While Rashi may not have been offering us a literal explanation of this verse, I believe he was trying to teach us a lesson. Too often Halacha is a source of contention and disunity rather than a unifying force that brings us together. We seem to get lost “along the way” while we are trying to do what is right in the eyes of God. It is so easy to say “You’re wrong,” and “You’re wrong” or “This is the only right way” of interpreting what God asks of us… As much as Halacha and tradition can be a blessing too often it’s a source of disunity and friction.

This past week I found myself struggling with this issue, particularly with regard to matters of Kashrut. What could be more basic or fundamental to traditional Judaism than our dietary laws? Kashrut teaches us how to live a life of holiness and to show reverence for all life. For traditional Jews Kashrut serves as a defining characteristic that separates the Jewish people from others. Because we eat differently we live differently. Of course we struggle with this practice – we want to live in the larger world of American society but we also understand the need to maintain boundaries which define us as a community. And Kashrut does this more effectively than any other aspect of the Jewish tradition. Of course not all Jews follow the practices of Kashrut and many follow some aspects of Kashrut but not others. Kashrut has become more of a continuum of practice rather than a black and white set of rules for many traditional Jews.

For those of us who are serious about the practice of Kashrut, however, we find ourselves dismayed if not downright confused by the varieties of practice and controversies in the Jewish community today that Kashrut seems to cause. Rather than making it easier Rabbis seem to be making it harder to keep kosher. And I think that is wrong.

Consider the recent Kashrut controversy in the Five Towns. Glatt Gourmet, a well respected grocery store found itself at odds with the Five Towns Va’ad Hakashrut. About two months ago a group of local orthodox rabbis from the surrounding communities issued a statement condemning the store for hiring a separate Mashgiach to supervise the store. They argued that Glatt Kosher was undermining the Va’ad’s credibility. This week it was announced that the family that has owned the store had chosen to sell the business after years of service to the community. Now I don’t live in the Five Towns and I don’t know all the ins and outs of the community there. But I have to believe that something is amiss.

What exactly did the owners of Glatt Gourmet do that roused the ire of the Va’ad Hakashrut? What- ever it was, the Va’ad would not say. This week in a letter criticizing the Va’ad Hakashrut, Asher Mattathias wrote that: After setting up a false, transparent issue with a local business enterprise, sowing division in its wake, our vaunted Five Towns continues on a seemingly irreversible downslide…the Va’ad’s actions precipitated a round of layoffs among the Gourmet’s most vulnerable personnel… and even the speculation of eventual, if not imminent bankruptcy, of this Cedarhurst institution.

In a word what is happening in the five towns is a chilul hashem – a desecration of God’s name. Kashrut has become a blunt instrument for settling scores. It is hard to convince people to practice Kashrut when those who are vouchsafed with preserving this practice seem hell-bent on making it harder and even less savory to keep kosher – and I don’t mean taste.

The truth is it didn’t start yesterday. The problem of Kashrut in America started with Glatt Kosher meat. How a Hungarian custom became an American Jewish standard of Kashrut is beyond me. Frankly it has little to do with Kashrut.

Here in Oceanside I found myself wrestling with my own Kashrut issues. We Conservative Rabbis have basically opted out of the Kashrut supervision business locally – this is seen as the domain of the Orthodox. And yet orthodox rabbis do not seem to be of one accord in making such decisions. When a local business approached me with a request for my approval, I found myself caught between two orthodox rabbis, one who I consider too strict and the other too lenient! So despite the statement that appeared in last weeks newspaper, I have not given my approval to any local business yet, and I won’t do so until certain issues are resolved. Kashrut is more than just food – it must also take into consideration of Shabbat observance. And unfortunately many of our Kosher facilities locally don’t. I hope in the coming weeks to be able to come back with a definitive conclusion on this issue.

As Conservative Jews we are committed to Kashrut, but I’m not sure we are doing ourselves, or the Jewish community a service by making it appear that we don’t have a stake in encouraging and promoting not only the proper practice of Kashrut but a moral practice of Kashrut as well. Instead we have allowed the quarrelling within the orthodox community and the abuses within this community to undermine one of our most sacred practices. We often forget that Kashrut means proper or fit. Kashrut ought to be determined not only by the rituals but by moral standards as well.

Recently the Rabbinical Assembly set up a commission to establish a special certification called Tzedek Heksher, literally righteous supervision, for meat processors which would review not only the ritual practices of the plants but the social and legal standards of Kashrut as well. Those who produce kosher food need to treat their workers properly, to practice ritual slaughter in ways that address the suffering of the animals and they need to provide for the safety and the rights of the workers. I think this is a wonderful first step – it is a way of showing that for us as Conservative Jews – Kashrut is important not only as Halacha, as a ritual practice, but as a moral practice as well.

I guess Jews are destined to argue along the way. We simply can’t avoid it. But at the very least maybe we can learn to have a little humility and respect for one another and to realize that just because we aren’t all on the same page doesn’t mean we don’t care about tradition. I am happy to say that when I spoke with Rabbi Muskat at Young Israel, he very respectfully said that while he understood that the religious needs of our communities are different from one another, he appreciated our attempt to encourage the practice of Kashrut even if it is not exactly the same as his.

Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai almost always disagreed in matters of Halacha. But the rabbis chose to record both of their opinions. So why does the law follow Beit Hillel over Shammai in most cases? The Talmud says that even though both opinions were valid, the disciples of Beit Hillel were kindly and humble; they taught their own rulings as well as those of the school of Shammai. In the end, then, Halacha was decided not by who was right but by those who were humble…. Let us argue but let us be humble enough to listen to one another. And let us remember that spirituality is more than just the sharpness of a knife or the smoothness of a lung. It is in the intent and the respect we show one another.

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Mark B Greenspan