Divrei Torah Blogs

Cheese Pizza, anyone?


A few weeks ago, the Conservative movement released a survey, which was mostly intended to explore attitudes toward the recent decision to permit ordaining gay clergy, and also explored issues of observance of halacha among clergy and lay leadership in the Conservative Movement.
The official press release (click here to read it) focused on the gay issue, and the strong support across the movement for ordaining gays and lesbians.  However, the survey addressed a lot of other questions of observance — including the dining habits of Conservative clergy and lay leaders.
An article in this week’s The Jewish Week quotes the survey as saying 80% of Conservative clergy eat hot dairy foods out.  The article, “Warning To Conservative Jews: Don’t Eat That Pizza!” by Stewart Ain, pits me against Rabbi Paul Plotkin in a debate about what should be done about our eating habits.  To read the article click here.
Rabbi Plotkin says we shouldn’t be eating out.
“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.”
I respectfully disagree with Rabbi Plotkin’s conclusions.  The article quotes me,
But Rabbi Barry Leff, of Toledo, Ohio, said that although he agrees with Rabbi Plotkin’s conclusion (that the Conservative Movement is not just about finding leniencies), 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.
The author contacted me because he found the teshuva I wrote “Eating Dairy Meals at Unsupervised Restaurants,” which you can read here.  I told the reporter that my teshuva had been put in the “inactive” file…he said, who knows, maybe his article will help nudge the Law Committee to consider it.  I doubt it.  But I think it would be a mistake to tell 80% of the clergy that they are sinners.
On the other hand, maybe there are more “sinners” among the clergy than many of us in the Conservative Movement would care to admit.  I was rather unpleasantly surprised by the following paragraph in Ain’s article:
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.
6% of the Conservative clergy go shopping on Shabbat?  Only 83% of our CLERGY pray three times a week?  Three times a week?  What happened to three times a day?  Hello??
And, as a post in Jew School points out, why is it in these surveys they only ask about ritual mitzvot?  Why don’t they also ask about things like giving tzedaka (charity)?  You’d think being observant had nothing to do with how we treat other people.
Lots of “food for thought” in all this!
Reb Barry


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

7 thoughts on “Cheese Pizza, anyone?

  • I took the survey and remember being very puzzled by the ‘3 times a week’. If the goal was to ask ‘do you pray regularly other than on shabbat and holidays?’, 4 times would have been a better choice. I daven 3 times a week virtually without fail – Friday evening, Shabbat morning and Shabbat afternoon/Motzei Shabbat, but I am not yet as good about attending weekday minyanim as I should be.

    The basic problem I have with your idea about adjusting the laws of kashrut to fit the practices of the commited conservative Jews is the fact that the committed Orthodox are able to meet a much higher standard while living in the same country at the same time.

    I used to live in a town where it was a 45 minute drive to the nearest kosher restaurant, and that consisted of a pizza joint and a chinese restaurant. That did not stop me from keeping kosher. What would have stopped me, in the long run, was the fact that of the 50 families in my C congregation there were 2 whose houses I could eat a hot meal at, and that only be stretching the rules. Even that might have been endurable except that the other 48 families were not interested in dining at our house since they could not reciprocate without what they considered to be ‘too much hassle’. But our reaction was not to give up kashrut, but to move. It is all a matter of what you choose to regard as important.

    There is a saying that the job of religion is to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. C Judaism has historically not merely been poor at the second half of that statement, but often seems to deny it is a valid mission. The question one must answer is whether Judaism is a way of life, or simply one of the many roles one plays in society. IME C Judaism makes it much easier to choose the second alternative.

  • Supplementary comment: As evidenced by your plans to make Aliyah, you are not an example of making Judaism simply one of the roles among many in your life.

  • Daniel

    I live in Santa Fe, NM, and I keep strictly kosher. Baruch HaShem, it is relatively easy to do so in modern day America, and although I love eating out, how could it be more important to someone than their relationship with the Ribbono shel olam?

    My question is this: if halacha should change with the times (not that I believe this, but l’didach) then should you advocate stricter kashrus observance today than 50 years ago? After all, the times have changed. 50 years ago there were no decent kosher restaurants, today there are many; then it was very hard to get many kosher products, today it’s trivial.

  • Larry, my reaction to the challenges of living an observant life in America is also to move…to Israel!

    Daniel, you raise a good point that one could argue that perhaps standards should be tightened up. I’m sure Santa Fe doesn’t have a lot of kosher restaurants. If you want to eat out with people which is a big part of social interaction, it’s very tough living in places like Santa Fe or Toledo.

    I’m making aliyah this summer, and when I’m in Israel I do not follow the leniency of eating in non-supervised restaurants (with an occasional exception for a place that is “kosher” except they don’t have a teudah because they are open on Shabbat). There’s no need.

    Have a great Shabbos!
    Reb Barry

  • Irene Stern Friedman

    I strongly suspect that Rabbi Plotkin lives in a city with at least several kosher restaurants. I thik he should move to the hinterlands where many Conservative Jews live without any kosher restaurants and live as we do for a full year–and bear the responsibility for preparing his own meals–before he tells us to cook all our own meals, or eat only cold salads.

    Eating fish or dairy meals in a restaurant is important to the mental well being of many Conservative Jewish families. That date night for the husband and wife, that restaurant prepared meal without the children, is very important.

    We ask scores of questions and we think about kashrut and being Jewish as we order and substitute.

    In this era of two oven, two dishwasher homes with double sinks, we need to remember that our pious ancestors had only one set of hands, one sink, and kept kosher.

    I don’t think we should try to make it harder than necessary to be an observant Jew.

    Preparing 21 meals a week for a family is a significant burden. Where there are no certified restaurants the solution which many of us have followed for years and which you advocate is cherished and important.

    Irene Stern Friedman
    Tucson, Arizona

  • Ilana

    “In this era of two oven, two dishwasher homes with double sinks, we need to remember that our pious ancestors had only one set of hands, one sink, and kept kosher.”

    Yes, our ancestors did have one set of everything and kept kosher! They also did so without the luxary of ANY RESTAURANTS, dishwashers, food processors, pre-packaged KOSHER food, etc. How can it be that in our current time period, we are finding excuses to eat out in any restaurant that our mouths and stomaches desire when all of the generations before us kept kosher in much harsher conditions than in what we live today?

    “Eating fish or dairy meals in a restaurant is important to the mental well being of many Conservative Jewish families. That date night for the husband and wife, that restaurant prepared meal without the children, is very important.”

    What about the importance of our marriage to God? After the amazing marriage ceremony of the Jewish People to Hashem on Mt. Sinai (Parashat Yitro), we just read in last week’s portion (Mishpatim) that the Jewish People declared “Na’aseh v’nishmah! – We will do and we will listen!” indicating a complete trust in Hashem to do what he asks of us, just like one spouce will trust another. God has created a system by which we can live our lives and attain the greatest levels of spirituality. We need to trust that whatever He has detailed for us (and whatever rabbinic practices that were put in place to safeguard these Torah laws – remember there is a Torah obligation to enact ordinances that will protect the Torah laws) are there for our own benefit. To list excuses for why we no longer need to follow these guidelines is minimizing the Torah to be no more than an advice section in an outdated magazine.

  • Shoshi

    It is not true to say that there were no restaurants in previous times. Even in the Talmud and historic halachic writings we find discussions of how and what to eat and drink at non-Jewish establishments.


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