Shmuly Yanklowitz

Does your Jewish institution have an ethical food policy?

(Wikimedia Commons)

When eating just about anything outside the home, the first question for Jews throughout the centuries has primarily been: “Is this kosher?” While it makes sense for this ancient ritualistic consideration of kashrut to be a first religious and cultural thought, we also need to be aware of where our food comes from and the journey it goes through before reaching our plates. Was there any animal suffering? Was there any abuse of humans whether that be physical or verbal? Are those making our food being paid a living wage? Is the production of this food damaging to our environment? These are just a handful of the endless questions we can ask ourselves. 

Not only is it important to see if we can make an impact individually, but all Jewish institutions should ask themselves these questions. Following kashrut is not just about the food we are eating. What good is a kosher certification if a kosher establishment does not adhere to Torah values and treat its employees ethically and in a just manner? Jewish institutions like synagogues, schools, and even restaurants should have solidified ethical food policies and moral standards of what they will consume. It would be helpful for any institution to have stakeholders involved in creating this policy. The way institutions have harassment and inclusion policies, ethical food policies should be in effect as well. Going from no policy to any policy will inevitably lead to a higher standard than there currently is. 

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An example of how institutions can make an impact is through Shamayim, a Jewish animal advocacy organization. Shamayim, is advocating for the reduction of meat consumption, especially in synagogues. Shamayim has established “The Synagogue Vegan Challenge”. Synagogues that participate in this challenge receive grants to host events with vegan food, while also educating community members about ethical, environmental, and health reasons to eat plant-based foods. 

Shifting back to an individualistic approach, each and every one of us has the opportunity to make multiple ethical choices every day which show character. Yet, in this current polarized political climate, we allow the way we vote to be a determinant of our moral identities. How can we allow such a rare vote to encapsulate our moral identity? We should be evaluating our morals based on our decisions when it comes to the way we eat. As journalist Michael Pollan writes, “You can vote with your fork, and you can do it three times a day”. 

We are voting our values every time we eat. Whatever our politics may be, we cannot fully commit to any single cause or idea. Our tax money will most likely be directed to both issues that matter to us and issues that you we vehemently opposed to. If we withdraw our support, we will be in legal trouble. When it comes to food, we can decide to stop participating in a system that causes animals to suffer, humans to be abused, waterways to be polluted, or any other issues. The decision is ours to make. 

The importance of our food choices is on full display dating back to the first recorded act of food consumption. In Parshat Bereishit, Adam and Eve had the opportunity to eat from the eitz hada’at tov v’rah (The tree of the knowledge of the good and evil). As the story goes, they ate the forbidden fruit, ultimately leading to further punishment and their being exiled from Gan Eden (The Garden of Eden). Our food choices are moral in their very essence. 

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As consumers, we have a lot of power. As institutions that serve as consumers, we have even more power. We have the potential to impact markets with our decisions. For example, if enough people opt to buy pasture-raised eggs from hens that can roam in the field as opposed to eggs from laying hens that live a brief, torture-filled life, farmers are likely to raise fewer hens that live in the brutal conditions they have grown accustomed to living in. Although pasture-raised eggs are more expensive, as a consumer, one is decreasing the suffering of these hens, as well as improving one’s own health

The perfect should not be the enemy of the good. None of us will be able to master this. We must look at making smaller changes in our lives which have the potential to make significant impacts in the lives of others. These slight changes can come in many forms. Just to name a few, they can come in forms of reducing our intake of animal products, buying our produce locally, only hiring unionized food services for our semachot (celebrations), exclusively buying Fair Trade certified items, or only eating at restaurants with the Tav HaYosher Ethical Seal. No matter the size of the difference we make, we are making an impact. Any step in the right direction is consequential. 

Our Jewish communal institutions should operate by ideals that our communities can learn from. We know that by simply approving an organizational policy, the standard will be higher than by having no policy at all. How our agencies embrace kashrut, ethical kashrut, and other food just values will be indicative of how our communities at large can move to the forefront as changemakers on these crucial moral issues. 

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.
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