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Ethics of Eating and Shopping #672

04/09/2021 04:00:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Shemini
"These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures that move in water, and all creatures that swarm on earth." (Leviticus 11:46)
Ethics of Eating and Shopping

About 45 years ago, I left my home and my family in suburban Montreal to chase my dream of becoming a newspaper reporter — in the northern Canadian community of Fort McMurray.

To that point, I had lived only in a kosher Orthodox household. It was the only way I knew how to eat.

One day, renting a room in the basement of a home that also housed several oil workers, someone suggested that the following Sunday we all venture into the woods and hunt for deer or moose.

The idea was appealing. After all, until then I really had no personal contact with the food I consumed. I had never held a gun. I shopped at the local supermarket and ordered meat from a kosher butcher 275 miles away.

Hunting for my own food seemed to be a link with personal responsibility. It also was an opportunity to bond with my housemates, who didn’t consider being a newspaper reporter “real” work.

So, I called my father for advice. “Dad,” I asked. “Some of the guys are going out hunting this weekend. Is there a kosher way to kill a moose?”

There was a long silence on the phone. And then a response:

“Jewish boys shouldn’t live far away from kosher butchers,” he said. “Come home.”

I never did go hunting that day, but the idea of meat and how it is procured, prepared, packaged and purchased remained on my mind.

These days, we are far removed from our food sources. We gather meat packages from grocery store aisles. Yet, it rarely occurs to us that these packages contain parts of a once living and breathing creatures of God.

This week’s Torah portion asks us to pause and reflect about what the food we eat reveals about us.

We are told not to eat predators such as the vulture, the raven, the falcon or the eagle. The Torah perhaps is telling us that there is no place at our table the “mini alter” from which our body is nurtured for birds that flourish upon the demise of others.

In a world so desperately searching for spiritual meaning, does the idea of paying attention to the basic habits and identity of what we eat make sense?

I believe it does. For we incorporate food into our body. 

Some rabbis even posit that we take on the characteristics of the animal or other food we eat. Others caution us against consuming that which “spiritually blocks the soul.”

In ancient times, long before the mass production of food, men and women enjoyed a direct relationship with the animals they raised. Therefore, consuming a lamb, calf or chicken was in some way personal.

But not today. We are completely detached from the identity of what we eat and, therefore, from the traditional Jewish food laws.

Yet, so many within Judaism are not only looking to observe the laws of kashrut, but to expand them as well. And, it’s not just how animals are slaughtered.

My aunt once told me how her rabbi declared one of the synagogue’s caterers “unkosher” because of the rude and verbally abusive manner in which cooks and servers were treated.

One kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa faced state and federal charges relating to labor, environment and animal cruelty laws. Was the meat produced there kosher? Not in our home.

Within our synagogue, I don’t permit veal, duck liver or goose liver to be served, because of abusive practices pursued by some breeders.

Indeed, the nature of food being “kosher,” meaning “proper,” is changing.

It also extends to the material products we purchase from dollar stores or other large consumer chains.

We should be researching how much the worker on that Asian assembly line makes per hour, and what labor practices are followed in order that we can purchase that cheap set of headphones or that toilet plunger.

Perhaps in this world of disposable consumer items, microwavable meals, fast food and hot dogs made from questionable animal parts, we need to expand the idea of “proper” ritual slaughter as it relates to ethical conduct, content and spirituality.

We can intuit that pig is prohibited because of its unclean habits. Shellfish dwell and eat from what is deposited on the ocean floor.

Perhaps we are forbidden from mixing milk and meat because the Torah saw the immorality of cooking a baby goat in the milk of its own mother. 

Maybe that was how the pagans did it but we don’t.

The laws of kashrut remind us to consider the character of what we eat and consume. It builds humility within us — and the ability to ethically and spirituality “discern.”

And, as was the case during this recent Passover week, dietary restrictions remind us that as entitled consumers we cannot consume anything, anytime, anywhere we want.

Perhaps we need to renew our focus on sacred eating and expand our practices toward a more holistic approach. If that is what you believe, then you are not alone.

There is an ethical kashrut movement gathering steam within Judaism. A “hechsher tzedek,” a seal of “proper ethical practices” now appears on many edible and non-edible products.

During Covid, where the number of family meals and our focus on healthy eating has increased, there has been more time to ask more questions regarding which food and products are actually “kosher.”

We need to continue that momentum.

Humane and proper slaughter, yes but also an eye to the path that food, or for that matter all that we purchase takes enroute to our homes.

And, may it be for all of us. Indeed, kosher is not a restriction, rather it is a gateway toward a more ethical, spiritual and centered life.

It is grounded within an incredibly enlightened path the Torah laid out thousands of years ago, and it must continue with an expanded understanding of what “proper” truly means in 2021.

Indeed, as philosophers have shared over many centuries, “We are what we eat.” 

But in addition, during these times of mass production, disposable products and personal entitlement, let us also remember, “We are what we buy.”

What does the food in fridge disclose about us? 

Moreover, what does a review of our monthly credit card statement reveal about who we really are both inside and out?

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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