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A Purim Letter

The approaching holiday of Purim is a merry celebration which reveals hidden truths. The following letter was written in the spirit of Purim:

Confessions of a "Reform" Vegetarian

Dear Friends,

I know that this will be a shock to many of you, but I am now ready to publicly confess that I am "Reform" - that is, I am a Reform vegetarian. We Reform vegetarians will occasionally eat fish and even meat, especially around the holidays. We are not like the Conservative vegetarians who eat fish, but no meat, nor are we like the Modern Orthodox vegetarians who never eat fish and meat, but who eat dairy products and eggs. And we are not like the Chareidi (Fervently Orthodox) vegetarians who adhere to a vegan diet which does not allow dairy products, eggs, or honey. Now before any Orthodox vegetarian accuses me of abandoning all the principles of the vegetarian heritage, I want to mention that on those special occasions when I buy kosher meat, I try to get organic kosher meat from animals which were raised under healthier and more humane conditions.

Yes, from the perspective of the Orthodox vegetarians, I am still violating some of the sacred laws of the vegetarian code which was revealed on the Mountain. Our Reform movement, however, values the autonomy of the individual, thus, many of our members feel that each individual is free to choose which laws he or she wishes to obey. I must add, however, that there is much discussion and debate within our movement regarding these ideas. In fact, there are a growing number of Reform vegetarians who are developing a more traditional approach. For example, the noted Reform leader, Rabbi Richard Tofuberg, said:

"Standing at the Mountain, we heard the Creator reveal the Torah of Vegetarianism. Through study, we become aware of God's healthy commandments that call to us even though we live in meat-eating modernity. In the worldview of the founders of our Reform movement, modernity was the center, the scale on which we measured what was valuable and enduring in vegetarian practice and belief. Looking back at a century which has witnessed some of the greatest gifts and the most awful consequences of modernity, we proclaim that the precepts of the Divine Revelation are our center, and Vegetarianism is the scale by which we judge the modern world."

I find myself within the more traditional Reform camp of Rabbi Tofuberg. I am uncomfortable with the philosophy of moral relativism which I believe contributes to the meat-eating decadence and selfishness of our modern age. I am therefore concerned that our Reform approach will contribute to the spread of moral relativism, especially with regard to diet. This is why I feel some attraction to the Orthodox approach which emphasizes that there are eternal values and dietary laws which are anchored in the Divine truth.

Nevertheless, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the Orthodox vegetarian diet does not work for everyone. In fact, many of us who have tried the Modern Orthodox or the Chareidi version of the diet discovered that we were not getting enough strength. We consulted with vegetarian rebbes who were experts in nutrition and vegetarian law, but nothing seemed to help. This caused us to conclude that there needed to be an alternative approach, and we consulted with noted nutritionists who advised us to add some animal protein to our diet.

I want to reassure my Orthodox vegetarian friends that I am not among those Reform vegetarians who engage in "Orthodox-bashing." In addition, I am not among those Reform activists who like to focus on the weaknesses within the traditional vegetarian community, while ignoring the weaknesses within our Reform vegetarian community. On the contrary, I have the greatest respect for the passionate commitment of my Orthodox friends to classical vegetarianism; moreover, I am glad that their numbers are growing. All I ask from my Orthodox vegetarian friends is that they show tolerance and understanding for those of us who have a need for a modified vegetarian diet.

In the spirit of vegetarian unity, I subscribe to the e-mail lessons of the noted Chareidi teacher, Rabbi Yussel Sprout. Although he follows the Chareidi path of veganism, he attracts people from the entire spectrum of the vegetarian community; moreover, he even attracts people who have no commitment to any form of vegetarianism. He stresses the unifying vegetarian vision, and the following excerpts from one of his recent letters convey the essence of his message:

"We need to develop understanding for all vegetarians, regardless of the level of their observance. After all, many of us were raised in meat-eating homes; thus, we did not receive a proper vegetarian education. In addition, we Chareidi vegetarians need to ask ourselves if we are keeping all the vegetarian laws in the proper spirit. For example, do we always eat with the consciousness that we are eating in order to have strength to serve our Creator? Do we always say our blessings before and after eating with sincere feelings of gratitude to our Creator? And is all the produce in our homes organic?

"In our modern age, we find various vegetarian movements, each with its own philosophy and approach, for as the old saying goes, 'When you have two vegetarians, you have three diets!' We need to remember, however, that on the deepest level, there are no Chareidi, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Havurah, Renewal, or Reform vegetarians. We are one community with one heritage, and this heritage provides us with a path of precepts which enable us to climb the ladder to health and holiness. We Orthodox vegetarians recognize that each rung on the ladder causes us to go higher; thus, we encourage everyone to climb the full ladder, rung by rung, at their own pace."

Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
And a Happy Purim,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen