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What is Kosher to You? #741

08/26/2022 02:14:19 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Re'eh

What is Kosher to You?


When I enter a dollar store, I sometimes wonder if I am doing the right thing.

Of course, like many, I like to conserve resources. A Talmudic teaching says that the money we save by spending less is the extra money we can give toward tzedakah (charity) or investing in the education or the welfare of our families.

But sometimes I ask myself, “Is searching for a bargain at all costs “proper?”

For at the core of this week’s Torah portion, Re'eh (See) is a lengthy discussion regarding the essence of a word that makes many Jews cringe: kosher. But before we go any further, let's define the word.

Kosher means “fit” or “proper.” And that’s it.

Most of us know the rules. We don’t eat the blood of an animal; that is the animal’s “essence.”

There are prohibitions against shellfish — a shallow water fish — which, before plumbing was invented, inhabited areas where people would go to wash and for relief. Pig is an unclean animal.

Milk and meat are prohibited, perhaps — as many have speculated — because it is unethical to mix food that once was alive, with something a mother provides to sustain life.

The issue of kashrut (kosher) has alienated Jews for centuries. Never more than in modern times.

Recent statistics indicate that about 10 percent of Jews keep strictly kosher. About 30 percent restrict their eating in some ways.

Yet, as leaders are trying to bring people closer to the essence of Judaism — kindness, care and compassion, and dedicating ourselves to serve as God’s partner to repair this broken world — kashrut often becomes the little elephant in the room.

To be clear, our family maintains kashrut, but as I sit here writing this in the breakfast room of a small hotel in Kentucky — where I am participating in a family funeral — as I sip my coffee surrounded by the smells of local breakfast preparation — I ask myself: How should we look at the word “proper” in modern terms?

In 2008, a movement was formed to revisit — or rather expand — the definition of what exactly is “proper” in what we eat, and perhaps even more important, what we bring into our homes. It is called “hechsher tzekek” — designating what is ethically kosher.

About 20 years ago, many principals of one of the largest processors of kosher food based — based in the Midwest — were charged, sentenced, and fined for, among many offences, environmental, immigration, labor and animal rights violations.

Technically, the food produced, according to biblical law was kosher. But in my view, and the view of many Jewish leaders, it was not. The key word here is “proper.”

For how is it possible that we can eat food produced without regard for animals, proper labor practices, and environmental damage by companies that do not follow the laws of our country.

And although the company has restructured, the topic of what happened under the eye of the original firm continues to echo within the Jewish world.

So, before I make a purchase of food, clothing and, yes, even at the dollar store, I try to think: “What is the path that product took as it made its way to my home?”

Were items prepared in sweatshops? After the factory owners, shippers, wholesalers, and store owners take their cut of our dollar or two, how much did the worker really make?

And does the nobility of creating work for men and women in impoverished countries justify the working conditions many endure?

In a word, what is “proper?”

The purpose, therefore, of the hechsher tzedek movement was to provide a way for producers of food and other products to register and earn an insignia — a hechsher — to help us within the wildly competitive world to make educated choices — and choose the most “proper” item available.

For me eating kosher is important. It reminds me to make choices and discern what goes into my body. I think the Torah had that right.

But these days, "proper" may mean consuming fewer chemicals and preservatives, to eat healthier, to drink more water. It reminds us that our bodies are sacred gifts from God — and it is up to us to guard and nurture them — hopefully so we can do more good on this earth for longer.

How interesting that Israel is recognized as the vegan capital of the world. There are more vegan restaurants, and more vegan choices at restaurants. Israel leads the world in banning the use of animals to develop personal care and household items. 

How interesting that these food choices are most readily available in and around the Tel Aviv area, considered by some to be more secular than around Jerusalem and its surrounding communities.

I often wonder what God prefers more — biblical kosher or ethical kosher. I believe it is important to respect both, understanding that technical laws need to be merged with biblical values with the understanding that, “We are what we eat,” and, perhaps, “We are what we buy.”

It is one reason why within our congregation, I have deemed goose and duck liver and veal “unkosher” for caterers. In my view — and those of many other rabbis — practices to fatten or whiten animals are not “proper.”

As for my trips to the dollar store, they have decreased. In a pinch, I am comfortable with purchasing something discarded by other stores or gathered from the clearance vault of other businesses. Dollar stores make it affordable for some who are struggling during these challenging times.

But it does call upon us to consider the issue of the hows and whys of what we buy.

Indeed, part of Jewish living is to carry our values with us every day, manifested by our choices.

As we purchase a food item, or buy some product for our homes, let us take a moment to consider: “How did that item make it to my home?” “Is the lower price ‘proper’ when efforts should be focused to support better ethical, labor and animal rights standards throughout our country and the world?”

It’s a lot to think about as we are inspired this week to consider “What is kosher?” or more specifically “What is truly proper?” Can the consumer choices we make help to truly live our Judaism each day?

This topic should not be a source of distance from Judaism, but rather a launching point to apply the principles of Torah in new and expansive ways.

It begs us to ask — as we apply Judaism to our daily lives, as we consider this week.

“What is kosher to you, and how can that help make this world a better place?” 

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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