The Dietary Laws: Fitness for a Life Well-Lived



The dietary laws presented in the Book of Leviticus are intended to draw us closer to God. But even I, as a rabbi, sometimes have difficulty understanding how the Torah intends for this to happen.

The second part of Sh’mini (Leviticus 10:12-11:47) takes up the subject of food. Everything from taboos to general permissions are commanded forming the foundation of later, Talmudic, legal interpretations on what is kosher (fit for consumption) and what is t’reif (unfit). Reform Judaism has gone around the block on the subject of kashrut. Notwithstanding biblical and Talmudic rules, and laws about what is “fit” for personal consumption, Reform Judaism has sought an authentic response to expectations for kashrut that would meet individual and contemporary norms.

The earliest Reform response was inscribed in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, the first declaration of Reform Jewish principals. First, the Platform placed Mosaic legislation (Biblical Law) into a new context for contemporary life. Not devoid of significance, but surely far from contemporary life, only those laws that elevated life in modernity would hold sway over the Reform Jewish experience:

“We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” (CCAR 1885 Pittsburgh Platform)1

Second, regarding kashrut laws, the 1885 Platform was unequivocal about its opinion:

“We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”2

In the next iteration of Reform Jewish principals, the 1937 Columbus Platform, there was less emphasis on obstruction of spiritual elevation and more regard for adaptation of spiritual ideals in each generation.

“Being products of historical processes, certain of its laws have lost their binding force with the passing of the conditions that called them forth. But as a depository of permanent spiritual ideals, the Torah remains the dynamic source of the life of Israel. Each age has the obligation to adapt the teachings of the Torah to its basic needs in consonance with the genius of Judaism.”3

Since then, Reform Jews in synagogues, organizations, and at home, have taken responsibility to define for themselves what the standards for kashrut would be. In the last twenty years, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) applied a standard for its affiliates and, in particular, its summer camps, to avoid pork and shellfish, and to separate milk and meat. Likewise, many Reform synagogues adopted this as a standard baseline, though some would choose to do more or less. The latest significant publication on the matter is the book The Sacred Table, 4 which collected opinion pieces from rabbinic and other Jewish authorities for discerning progressive Jews (non-Orthodox) who seek to transform the mundane task of eating into a sacred duty, a mitzvah.

As an expression of social justice that flowed from one’s personal or communal social conscience, The Sacred Table illuminates ways to meet one’s Jewish obligation by not rejecting laws of kashrut wholesale, but by identifying ways to be true to Jewish and modern realities about food. The Religious Action Center (RAC), an arm of the URJ, assembled a discussion guide and action items to lead Reform Jews in their quest for meaningful responses to contemporary food choices. Chief among the questions are these:

  1. To what extent is dietary practice a useful measure of religious observance and of ethnic identity?
  2. What aspects of eating connect us to God or make us more aware of the world around us?
  3. What Jewish values would be important for you to include in the creation of a food ethic?
  4. How do you think Reform synagogues should respond to the challenge of ethical eating?

Judaism is a religion of action; therefore, it’s imperative that actions follow ideas on principles that shape our lives. The RAC suggests that we might do the following:

  1. Shop local! Find a farmer’s market in your neighborhood. Talk to your local supermarket managers about the food they stock.
  2. Make new conscious eating choices, such as moderation over excess, and more sustainable and eco-conscious
  3. Choose foods and quantities that reflect your concern for the environment, justice, health, and so on.
  4. Revisit your synagogue food policy.

Reform Judaism makes no fewer demands on its adherents than other Jewish movements do on theirs. Ours is not to reject, but to educate ourselves and to choose. The 14th-century rabbi and commentator, Bachya ben Asher, wrote about the benefits that accrue to those who, by means of intelligence, overcome competing interests in the world that — unfortunately– are in great supply. His wisdom is timeless. He taught:

“Sanctify yourself through the practice of the commandments and thus you will become holy. Such observance will help you to gain self-control so that your intelligence can govern your appetites. For our intelligence is doubly handicapped in this struggle: We have the appetites from birth, while intelligence develops slowly; and, our environment encourages us to yield to urges, whereas intelligence is a lonely stranger in the world.”5

  1. CCAR 1885 Pittsburgh Platform: The full text can be found at
  2. Ibid.
  3. CCAR 1937 Columbus Platform: The full text can be found at
  4. Mary Zamore, ed., The Sacred Table (NY: CCAR Press, 2011)
  5. W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. (NY: URJ Press, 2005), p.727

Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on