Do you keep kosher?
It’s the mother of all wedge issues for Jews.
It’s the issue that split Judaism into the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform denominations we know today, and it’s all because of a single dinner.
The landmark dinner took place in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1883.
It was held to celebrate the first graduating class of the Hebrew Union College, America’ first rabbinical seminary. At the time there little differentiation between Jewish denominations in America; they were all just Jews. But there was a widening schism between the pious traditionalists and the more assimilated American-born religious modernists who were struggling with the role of religion in American life.
The Jewish dietary laws were at the heart of the debate.
Some thought that the kosher rituals, preserving an unbroken chain of generations going back to Moses on Mount Sinai, were exactly the type of tradition that should be maintained. Others argued that kosher laws were just the sort of practice that should be jettisoned as an impediment to integration into American society.
It all came to a head at the ordination dinner that’s come to be known as the Treif Banquet.
Treif is the Hebrew word for ‘unclean,’ meaning any non-Kosher food that doesn’t conform to the Jewish dietary laws. The newly ordained rabbis deliberately loaded the banquet menu with treif foods to demonstrate their rejection of traditional ritual laws in favor of a dynamic moral code based in Jewish teachings but more in step with the modern realities of their adopted country.
It didn’t sit well with the Orthodox rabbis in attendance.
Some fled at the first sign of taboo shellfish. Those who stuck around past the appetizer of Little Neck clams on the half shell were treated to plenty of other traif delicacies. There were soft shell crabs, shrimp, frog legs, and a lobster bisque. The wines and meats weren’t kosher, and dairy products were mixed liberally with the meat courses prepared with butter and cream sauces, and a cheese course after.
The battle lines were drawn.
The dinner divided the Jewish community between the doctrinal dogmatism of Orthodoxy and the liberalism of the Reform wing. The two extremes left a lot of middle ground. There were plenty of assimilation-minded Jews chafing at Orthodoxy, and traditionalist Reform Jews who were offended by the radical ideology that the Hebrew Union College flaunted at the banquet. A new rabbinical college, the Jewish Theological Seminary, was established to occupy the middle ground, and it became the bastion of a new, purely American, Conservative Jewish Movement.
Today, about one in five American Jews keeps kosher.
The Orthodox Movement is the only purely observant group; members of the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Humanist movements can go either way, and most go the way of spareribs, shrimp cocktail, cheeseburgers, and BLT’s.
We have the brave rabbis of the Treif Banquet to thank for making America safe for bacon-loving Jews.