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Embracing Ethical Kosher #574

About ten years ago, a dispute engulfed the Jewish community which ultimately helped redefine what Judaism means by “kosher.”

You be the judge.

In the late 2000’s, investigators descended upon America’s largest kosher slaughter house, and by the time the matter was resolved, the Iowa company was convicted of multiple offenses involving child labor, the environment, labor codes and animal cruelty.

Clearly, it was not Judaism’s finest hour.

But what the controversy did accomplish was to broaden the debate of what exactly kosher means — both literally and philosophically.

It expanded the discussion of “kosher” beyond “pork and lobster.”

Some Jews did not see the problem with the company’s conduct. They argued that the Torah does not mention labor practices when it comes to ritual slaughter.

For others, it launched a heartfelt debate regarding the true meaning of the world “kosher” — that is “pure” or “proper.”

Or as one account summarized the debate, ”the controversies split Jewish communities, raised questions of Jewish ethics, and brought about a new consciousness for a Jewish way of eating beyond fulfilling the technical requirements of kashrut.”

A family member tells the story of her rabbi some years ago entering the synagogue kitchen, and observing a wedding caterer cussing his cooks and servers.

The rabbi ultimately banned the caterer, declaring his food “unkosher.”

Do you agree?

In our congregation, even though there is no Biblical requirement to do so, veal, and goose and duck liver are deemed “unkosher” at public events, as I echo concerns expressed by many fellow rabbis over the treatment of these animals prior to slaughter.

Do you agree?

The issue of kashrut comes up in this week’s Torah portion, titled Sh’mini. It describes on the eight day after the construction of the Israelites’ travelling sanctuary, the initiation of formal worship.

It also includes a long list of foods which are both kosher and non-kosher.

As a child, I always enjoyed this Torah portion because it included all kinds of bugs and birds which according to the Torah are forbidden to eat.

The list of bad birds includes vultures, eagles, bats, owls and herons.   And if you’re currently feeling peckish, unfortunately you’ll have to bypass “winged swarming things,” but you can indulge in most kinds of locust, crickets and grasshoppers.

There is a trend here when we consider it. We are forbidden from consuming birds which prey on the flesh of other birds or animals. Simple insects pose no problem.

And so the Torah introduces to humanity the concept of “you are what you eat.”

We’re not totally sure why the Torah forbids us from eating swine and shellfish, although there are many health reasons why this would make sense.

We’ll leave the reasons to your intuition, or to your tradition, but perhaps in addition to these standard definitions, we need to communally consider what it truly means today to be “kosher” or “pure.”

In particular, where does it say in the Torah that the well-being or feelings of animals needs to be respected?

The answer is literally, “in the beginning.”

In the second Parashah of the Torah, as Noah and his family exit the ark, God declares seven commandments for all humanity.

They are known as the Seven Noahide Laws. One of them forbids the “eating of flesh torn from a living animal.” Indeed, the Torah confirms at one of its earliest points, that we must protect animals from abuse.

By extension, it can be argued that we need to include ethical considerations in that which we consume.

For even though only about twenty percent of American Jews keep kosher, I would argue that almost all Jewish people, along with our Christian cousins, place a high value on child labor laws, the environment, labor standards and laws of animal protection.

And if that be the case, I would argue that the vast majority of Jews and Christians are kosher conscious.

In recent years, a new insignia has appeared on products — from food to laundry soap. It is known as the “hechsher tzedek” — loosely translated as the “justice logo.”

It means that consumers can be confident that these certified products have been routed along an ethical path.

So while this week’s Parashah spends time speaking about the technicalities of which animals, birds, fish or insects we can eat, there is more to consider.

I had a mentor who taught me that if we do not see the moral lesson of every story and commandment of the Torah — then we are missing the point.

Superficially, does God truly want us to obsess over the technicalities of what we eat, or is it more important to reflect upon the ethical roots which form the basis of these laws?

Indeed, kosher today must be more than physical rules and regulations, it is more importantly a reflection of the holiness we carry in our hearts.

Are products produced by child labor ethical? Are items packaged within countless layers of plastic acceptable? It is permissible to eat a piece of chicken produced by a company which does not follow the basic laws of our society?

You be the judge.

In addition to its technicalities, the concept of kashrutopens the door to assume a moral stand on the products we produce and consume.

As with many aspects of modern Judaism, it’s time to reconsider. It’s time we uplift what “pure” and “proper” mean in 2019.

If “we are what we eat,” are we duly considering the conduct of those who produce what we consume?

What energy are we sending into the world based on the products and companies we endorse?

Does it matter? The Torah says “yes.”

More importantly, based on an uplifted and expanded view of Judaism — how can kosher or proper — truly be defined today?

Indeed, what does kosher truly mean to each of us?

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Sat, July 4 2020 12 Tammuz 5780