A Shankbone on the Seder Plate?

A shankbone on the seder plate? It’s not so easy to decide.

As a community we strive to incorporate progressive values into our Jewish practice. But it’s not always easy to agree on the issues! It’s also challenging to figure out the right balance between creative adaptations of Jewish ritual and traditions that have meaning because they are thousands of years old.

We have a growing number of vegetarians and vegans in our community, especially in the Shule. A vegan lifestyle, in particular, is often motivated by a philosophical objection to the inhumane treatment of animals as well as a deep commitment to changing an agricultural industry that causes global environmental and economic injustices. For some of our members, a shankbone on the seder plate is morally and personally offensive – so objectionable that they have decided not to attend the Boston Workmen’s Circle community seder in the past. (This year's seder is coming up on March 31).

At the same time, other members of our community feel a strong emotional connection to the traditional Passover symbols and rituals. As rituals with which they and generations before them grew up, these elements of Jewish practice stir a deep sense of peoplehood. Today’s parents want to pass holiday rituals and symbols on to the next generation, not just through their Jewish practice at home, but through the Jewish community in which they have chosen to raise their children.

On February 5, we hosted a  kumzitz program for the community to discuss our differences on the issue of animal ethics. For starters, we learned that there is passionate disagreement about the shankbone on the seder plate. We also came to realize that we need to work to make sure that the views and needs of our vegan members, as well as all who care about food justice, are represented at communal gatherings involving food. It is possible that the Boston Workmen’s Circle Board will, at some point, consider community-wide policies on animal ethics and perhaps food justice in general.

In the short-term, the kumzitz discussion inspired a solution for this year’s seder: Shule students will make a clay shankbone for each plate and we will have a red beet on the plate. The associated Haggadah reading will address the symbolism of the shankbone, concerns for the compassionate treatment of animals, and the importance of struggling for food justice in its broadest sense.

In the long run, we will continue to have community discussions about food justice and about how to balance contemporary values and Jewish tradition. This spring, at the June Annual Meeting, all will be invited to join a broader community discussion about the relationship between spirituality and secularism in our Jewish rituals. Stay tuned for details.

A statement on the issue was disseminated at our 25th annual community seder on March 31, 2012. You can find it and the 2012 Haggadah (and other holiday documents) here.