"Do you eat dairy out?"
It's one of those phrases that only makes sense to a select group of people, in this case, Jews with some traditional background. The question refers to the relatively common practice of keeping a strict separation between meat and dairy at home while eating non-meat products at non-kosher restaurants, even though such establishments obviously do not use separate meat and dairy utensils. For the most part, the practice has persisted as a folk custom without rabbinic endorsement. In the mid-twentieth century, when kosher restaurants were few and far between, some Conservative rabbis and a few liberal Orthodox rabbis found ways to make limited exceptions, but for the most part, those who considered themselves bound by traditional halakhah were forced to concede that food prepared at non-kosher establishments was not kosher. Mordecai Kaplan, the spiritiual father of the Reconstructionist movement, endorsed the practice of keeping kosher at home while "eating out" as a way to maintain Jewish culture while allowing Jews to experience the modern world and interact freely with their gentile neighbors. This position was based on sociological considerations, however; Kaplan had no interest in preserving the traditional halakhic system.
It is not surprising that many Conservative Jews (as well as some nominally Orthodox Jews) continue to eat dairy out. People aren't entirely consistent by nature, and not everyone who keeps kosher does so for strictly halakhic reasons. Nor is it surprising that many Conservative rabbis eat out, as many are essentially Reconstructionist in theology. What continues to amazing me is how many Conservative Jews, including so-called rabbis, seem to think that "eating dairy out" is a coherent halakhic position. Many, in fact, seem to think that it is the only coherent halakhic position, and that anyone who doesn't eat at non-kosher restaurants is a religious fanatic, while anyone who doesn't keep separate utensils at home is "non-observant."
According to an article in the New York Jewish Week, a recent survey found that 71% of Conservative rabbis eat hot dairy food in non-kosher restaurants, while 92% eat hot food in vegetarian restaurants lacking rabbinic supervision. This has prompted Rabbi Paul Plotkin to begin to compose a teshuvah opposing the practice. The word teshuvah means "answer." Traditionally, teshuvot responded to specific questions, which means that they usually expressed halakhic positions that weren't maddeningly obvious. Unfortunately, the Conservative movement has apparently reached a point at which its rabbis can't appreciate what would be apparent to any outsider who gave it a moment's thought.
I fell into the Conservative movement more or less by default. For a while, I found its peculiar foibles amusing, but lately, it's really started to piss me off. I'm thinking of starting my own Deconstructionist community. Any takers?
(Cross-posted to the Kosher Blog)