Q & A… Rabbi Mary Zamore: Restoring the Jewish “power of the fork”

By Cindy Mindell ~
WESTPORT — In the Pittsburgh Platform, the 1885 document adopted by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, American Reform rabbis encouraged their followers to embrace a modern approach to the practice of their religion, rejecting “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.”

Rabbi Mary Zamore

More than 125 years after the Pittsburgh Platform, the conversation around Judaism and food has ripened into what is referred to as the “New Jewish Food Movement.” Led by Jewish organizations like Hazon, Adamah, Yiddish Farm, and countless chefs and food writers, Jews of all denominations have entered the conversation, bringing modern-day questions of environmental health, animal welfare, and workers’ rights into our 3,000-year relationship with kashrut.
This new look at the intersection of Judaism and food is the inspiration of “The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic” (CCAR Press, 2011), an anthology of essays edited by Rabbi Mary Zamore. The writers present a diverse range of opinions and options around kashrut, exploring it as a multifaceted Jewish relationship with food and its production that integrates ethics, community, and spirituality into Jewish dietary practice.
Zamore will discuss “The Sacred Table” at Congregation B’nai Israel on Friday, Mar. 2. A former rabbinic intern at B’nai Israel and currently associate rabbi at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, N.J., Zamore spoke with the Ledger about the communal conversation behind “The Sacred Table” and the New Jewish Food Movement.


Q:  How did you become interested in the connections between Judaism and food?
A: I’ve always had a strong interest in food and the spirituality of food. During my own Jewish development or journey, I came to be kosher and put a lot of thought into that. About 15 years ago, at the beginning of my rabbinate, I was asked to oversee a bakery for kashrut in New Jersey. I didn’t know a lot about overseeing kashrut at a bakery and I put a lot of thought and study and time into figuring out how to do it appropriately. It continued to deepen my thoughts on the subject; the thoughts I was having about kashrut were intersecting with my other passion – environmentalism and ethics. Soon after that experience, I was invited to meetings of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; the organization was bringing together experts on food because they were starting to talk and think about the topic. As I sat in on the meetings, I began to see a very different vision of kashrut for the liberal Jewish world. I discovered that the talks about food in the Jewish community were “siloed”: those passionate about vegetarianism were only speaking to others who had the same interest; those passionate about ritual kashrut were only speaking to one another in another silo, etc. That gave birth to the idea of “The Sacred Table” as a rich buffet of choices and to help others realize that, for both liberal and halachic Jews, these conversations could be very rich and varied and full of different voices.

Q: Describe “The Sacred Table.”
A: “The Sacred Table” reflects two simultaneous trends within the Reform movement coming together. For a long time, as several authors write in the book, Reform Jews have been more and more open to exploring traditional Jewish ritual. However, when Reform Jews explore traditional ritual, they transform it at the same time that they take it on. It’s not that Reform Jews are becoming Conservative or Orthodox Jews, but rather, we’re revisiting and reforming parts of traditional Judaism. There’s a beautiful openness to traditional Judaism, a curiosity about and exploration of traditional ritual kashrut in the Reform movement. A second trend deepening around the food movement is figuring out how to incorporate our Jewish ethical roots. The Reform movement has always had a deep passion for social action and the religious ethical imperative. While some Jews have more of emphasis on one of these trends over the other, the two come together around food. “The Sacred Table” is an attempt to bring everybody around the same table. The book offers suggestions about how to synthesize and navigate the many choices we have so as to make educated choices — but ultimately, leaves those decisions up to the individual Jew.

Q:  Obviously, Judaism has fostered and lived by a food ethic for millennia – kashrut. Explain the subtitle of your book, “Creating a Jewish Food Ethic.”
A: What is new has to do with perception. As “The Sacred Table” explores, all ethics discussed have deep Jewish roots; many of the deep Jewish ethics integral to Judaism and the discussions we’re having today are innate to ritual kashrut. So, for the Jew who does keep kosher, the modern discussion has to say, How are we doing ethically? Are we really applying these Jewish morals and ethics that should be integral to ritual kashrut? For the Jew who doesn’t keep ritual kashrut or who keeps partly kosher, there’s a spectrum to this discussion: it allows them to be who they are and, at the same time, opens the door for them to explore more. It allows them to deepen their commitment to the ethical values that can be learned from ethical and ritual Judaism, and to apply them to food and its production.
In traditional Jewish communities, we’d be watching our neighbor, the shochet, slaughter our meat. The way the food chain has developed for America and for broad parts of the Western world has very much distanced the consumer from the food chain and from the spirituality of food. It’s a dangerous thing – for our own personal health and for the health of the environment, animals, and food workers. What I’m inviting the Jewish community to do is to restore the “power of the fork.” Ritual kashrut teaches us so much about intentionality, to think before we buy food, think before we prepare it, and think before we eat it. I’m trying to restore that lesson.

Rabbi Mary Zamore will speak on Friday, Mar. 2, 8:15 p.m. at Congregation B’nai Israel, 2710 Park Ave., Bridgeport. For information call (203) 336-1858 or visit www.congregationbnaiisrael.org.

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