Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Parshas Shemini: Kashrus and animal welfare

This week’s parsha, Parshas Shemini, covers a number of different topics. It speaks about the eighth day following the seven-day priestly inauguration of Aaron and his sons. As part of this inauguration, Moses and Aaron offer a blessing to all of the Jewish people. Sadly, two of Aaron’s sons,Nadab and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense into the Mishkan and are consumed by fire as a result. While we didn’t read the full parsha, the Maftir Aliyah did mention the extremely important concluding section of the parsha, which deals with the commandments of kashrus and ritual purity.

Of all these topics, kashrus seems to have the most direct relevance to our lives today. We do not live in an era bound by priestly sacrifices or temple rituals. We no longer have a Mishkan, an Ark, or a Temple in Jerusalem. Our priestly caste has long since diminished its role in importance within rabbinic Judaism. But something that has not theoretically changed at all is kashrus.

Our scripture is very descriptive of animals that are and are not kosher. You may eat animals with cloven hooves that are completely split into double hooves and that bring up their cud. But you may not eat those with one and not the other—those that do not bring up their cud but have cloven hooves, or those without cloven hooves but that do not bring up their cud are not Kosher. Therefore, the camel, the pig, the hyrax, and the hare are not kosher.

The text also specifies which creatures of the sea are and are not kosher. All water-dwelling creatures without fins or scales are not kosher. Among bugs, all—with the exception of four types of locusts—are considered unfit for consumption. All reptiles are unfit for consumption. Among birds, eagles, kite, osprey, kestrel, vultures, ravens, ostriches, owls, and bats are all specified as unfit to eat. Lastly, the parsha suggests that the purity of food may be tainted if kosher food or utensils come in direct contact with any of the specified impure animals during the food’s preparation.

Rabbinical commentaries further flesh out which animals are and are not kosher, but the simplest description comes directly from our scriptural tradition. From antiquity until today, Rabbis have argued over some animals.

Certifying if the animals described in scripture are the same animals farmed in 2020 can be difficult. As a result, opinions differ on whether locusts are kosher or if swordfish, which lose theirscales later in life, are kosher. A few rabbis have gone as far as to suggest that because industrial farming practices have a-mal-gam-ated new descriptive features to animals, the animals described as fit for consumption in the Torah are no longer the animals farmed for consumption today.

Ohr Sameach, an Orthodox yeshivah in Jerusalem catering to a large number of American trans-denominational Jews, issued a teshuvah, a Jewish legal responsum, in 2019 on the growing market for bison burgers. The study suggested that it is unclear if bison are kosher. The problem is that bison and cattle populations in the United States have been sometimes purposefully, other times accidentally, crossbred with one other. If we are to follow the letter of the law, the crossbreeding of bison and domesticated cattle jeopardizes their kashrus status. Are the offspring bison? Are they cattle? If one is kosher and the other is not, the flesh of the offspring cannot be both kosher and not at the same time. Problems like these have created enough reasons for doubt among some rabbinical authorities for them to take measures against questionably kosher animal consumption in their communities.

I have thought a lot about this subject. Formative to this experience was living and working in Vietnam for a summer in 2011. The experience was eye-opening for me. I saw people starving, beyond the stages of food insecurity. I saw the wet markets. I was horrified by what I saw. I saw animals being butchered and living in confined spaces. I saw dogs, snakes, and other reptiles together in cages. Many species that were endangered, being prepared for consumption in unsanitary conditions.

This made me put greater thought into what I actually eat. Although I had kept kosher all of my life, living in Vietnam resolved any outlying objections. Something about seeing the desperation of people and the exploitation of wildlife scared me into being more deliberate about what I choose to ingest. Although finding kosher food was nearly impossible, I resolved to subsist mostly on rice for my stay over a few months. Upon returning to the States, I began to seriously question eating meat all together.

The past couple of months have brought national attention to the cruelty of the operating practices at wet markets. It has also stirred up memories of my experiences in Vietnam. I am reminded of what I learned in Vietnam: that the practices of wet markets were born out of food insecurity and scarcity concerns. Today, the markets are beyond the cruel, unsustainable, inhumane, and unsanitary practices elsewhere. But the argument against wet markets mustn’t be structured as a purely ethical argument. It is also about sustainability, public health, and protecting endangered animals. These markets target specifically endangered animals. In the aftermath of the recent brush fires of Australia, Koala meat began to appear in wet markets at unprecedented prices.

It is clear that inhumane meat-consumption practices are not unique to Vietnam. They exist in other places in Asia, Europe, Africa, and even parts of America. But the horrors of the wet markets exist elsewhere. Even companies that claim to practice kashrus may treat animals cruelly and fail to practice proper hygienic procedures.

I hope and pray for a tomorrow without the abuse of animals in any market (industrial or small). The argument against wet markets should be structured on sustainability and the public health model. In wet markets, the sanitary conditions and proximity of so many different types of animals make them an unprecedented public health concern. The targeting of endangered animals at these markets makes them an unprecedented sustainability concern.

If it’s done correctly, kashrus can have the effect of overseeing better animal welfare and concerns for public health. If it is done correctly, it would be a better system for all. But often we fall short of following it correctly ourselves. Giving merely lip service to kashrut does not honor the law. Too often we hear of kashrus supervision falling short of our expectations. Health code violations and animal abuse concerns are not absent from all kosher supervision. I would like to suggest the supervision of kashrus needs to be done with complete kavana, with sincere intention. If done correctly, it should force us to reconcile many things before eating an animal. The type of animal, how it was killed, the life lost, and how it will be consumed are all important to consider.

I believe the message from Leviticus is something we need to move forward with in the many months ahead as we rebuild from the rubble left behind by COVID-19. We need to pay closer attention to animals, how they are prepared, and what we are eating. We should look to the wisdom of our Torah and think about how to shift from our current dangerous treatment of animals to a path more in accord with the teachings of our tradition, respecting animals and thinking about our role as stewards for our planet. The Torah calls us to be caretakers of our planet and the creatures in it, L’ovda u’l’Shomra—to serve and to protect. This is the message that we must take to our hearts from kashrus.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuel Polin is the Rabbi of Etz Chaim Congregation - Monroe Township Jewish Center on Monroe Township, New Jersey. A New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Subsequent to both of masters programs, Rabbi Polin graduated with a third Masters in Hebrew Letters and received his Semikhah (Rabbinic ordination) from the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations.