I grew up in a traditional Jewish home, where keeping kosher was foundational to my family’s Jewish life. Now a father with a young child, my wife and I are rethinking our kashrut policies, specifically as it relates to kosher meat. We both feel increasingly compelled to eat local, organic, and ethically raised animals. This seems like the most profound expression of conscious and conscientious eating we can think of. While it is possible to order “eco-kosher” meat from a company in another state, it certainly would not be local and it is very expensive. What do you recommend we do?
Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman says…
Yours is a sacred struggle: How, in nourishing my family, might I fulfill my purpose as a human being and a Jew to honor creation and make it holy? Both of the values you articulate, kashrut and local ethical behavior, are central to sacred eating, and your question is about the purity of your family’s practice. The kashrut industry does not always fulfill your standards – in how producers treat the animals we might eat or (for me, more importantly) the workers who prepare our food. We need better, and you are one of the people who can make that happen.
We Jews who care about kashrut and about ethics can transform not only the food we bring to our own tables, but the practices of an industry that is ripe for transformation. Members of my shul (Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, MN) are organic farmers. All summer, my family eats their delicious vegetables, and they bless our shul kiddush with their bounty. They raise chickens for eggs and would like to be able to slaughter them to meet kashrut and food safety standards. These are local producers who don’t yet have the skills, but are full of desire to bring kosher meat into the world. It is our responsibility to support their efforts. Our community isn’t unique. There are local organic farmers all over this country who, with encouragement and training, will produce meat that meets both your family’s values on a scale to feed communities.
It’ll only happen if you stay in the game. Befriend your local producers. Help them get the skills and certification they need to allow your whole community to eat local, ethical, kosher meat. In the meantime, eat more lentils. A diet where meat is for special occasions is better for our planet.
Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman, ordained by Hebrew College, is Assistant Rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, MN.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow says…
Five years ago, your dilemma was even sharper: There were only two kinds of meat available: eco-responsive but not halakhically kosher, and halakhically kosher but not eco-responsive. Gevalt! Now, as you mention, there is eco-kosher meat available — though for you it’s not local and is more expensive. That it exists at all is a big step forward, and the result of conscious organizing to meet strongly expressed desires. I very much hope the Jewish community as a whole, those who have and those who have not kept kosher, will become committed to eco-kashrut — in food, and beyond.
How to resolve the dilemma? If you resolve it by simply buying meat from the local non-kosher, pro-Earth farm, that won’t have any effect on the Jewish world. In fact, it won’t even resolve your dilemma, but side-step it — leaving part of you an orphan.
But if you turn yourself into an “organically connected “ Jewish organizer (“organic” in both literal and metaphoric senses) Jews, kosher or not, are more likely to pay attention. You could take the next step in the kind of organizing that produced the eco-kosher outfit that you already know about.
That means becoming as familiar as you can with the eco-kosher butcher and then scouting your own locale for people who can learn to emulate it. Perhaps some Jews near your neighborhood will learn to do shechita (or perhaps someone who is already a shochet will be drawn in) S/he might then arrange with your nearby eco-sensitive (but not-kosher) farms to do shechita for them. Or perhaps you will find some Jews who are hungry to create an eco-kosher organic farm near you.
I also want to echo Emma’s suggestion that real eco-kashrut moves toward reducing our eating meat, for the sake of our planet. Even chicken and fish do less damage than huge herds of cows.
Finally, when Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi coined the word “eco-kosher” about forty years ago, he didn’t have just food in mind. He pointed out that when we were farmers and shepherds, cultivating a sacred relationship with Earth mean shaping a sacred code for eating. But today we “eat” coal, oil, uranium, plastics. How do you decide whether and how to “eat” them? For this we need a broader code — and you can help to shape it!
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., director, The Shalom Center; T’ruah’s first Lifetime Achievement Award as “Human Rights Hero”; newest books of 22, rev. ed. Seasons of Our Joy (JPS, 2012) & Freedom Journeys: Exodus & Wilderness Across Millennia, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman (Jewish Lts, 2011); newest arrest of 22, in interfaith climate action at White House pre-Passover & Palm Sunday 2013. See also Waskow, “Jewish Environmental Ethics: Adam and Adamah,” in Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality (Dorff & Crane, eds.; Oxford Univ. Press, 2013).
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz says…
I am inspired by Emma’s charge to be proactive: “Befriend your local producers. Help them get the skills and certification they need to allow your whole community to eat local, ethical, kosher meat. In the meantime, eat more lentils.” And also by Arthur’s charge to actively bring worlds together: “For this we need a broader code — and you can help to shape it!” We all need to be an active part of the solution of advancing our broken food system.
Kashrut has kept the Jewish people spiritually alive and is a sacred responsibility and blessing for every Jew. Today, similar to the non-kosher factory farms, kashrut is not operating at its ethical and spiritual potential. There is so much to consider such as the impact on the worker, animal, environment, trade systems, our health, etc. Your inclination to look for alternatives to the current system is noble and crucial. I believe that Jewish values urge us to move with incremental change toward meat reductionism, vegetarianism and ultimately toward veganism. The pleasant taste of meat is not worth the cruelty to animals, destruction of the environment, and the abuse to the human body.
Not long ago, being vegan or vegetarian required enormous sacrifice. Today, however, it has become quite accessible and rewarding. I think we can all take baby steps (and sometimes faithful leaps) in the direction of not benefiting from animal products.
These choices are not easy and unfortunately there is a very judgmental culture around food. I wish you strength and inspiration in your journey to finding the convictions you and your family can sustain and enjoy.
Rabbi Dr Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America”
Now, what do YOU say?
What’s a “good” pastrami sandwich for you? Tasty? Kosher? Humane? Local? If it can’t be all of the above, then how do you rank those choices?
And of course, if you have a dilemma you’d like us to address in the Ethical Jam, send it to EthicalJam@timesofisrael.com
Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism of Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, which is working to create a rich pluralistic discourse on issues of vital concern to the Jewish community and to the world at large.