When we think of doing teshuva in the realm of kashrut, what typically comes to mind for already-observant Jews is taking on some additional stringency, such as Chalav Yisrael. I think, however, that we should be attempting something more radical and fundamental.
Those of us who are committed to keeping kosher can do teshuva by doing certain moral and spiritual work to elevate our meals — and to repair ethical and interpersonal damage that has occurred within the kosher-keeping community. It is easy for us to check for a favorite hechsher and feel we’ve ticked the box of keeping kosher and are doing something holy. But I believe we’re called to make our eating practices into something far greater that can inspire the world. Making these changes will not be easy; it will require embracing some level of discomfort. But, as Rav Soloveitchik taught, halacha is the floor, not the ceiling.
First of all, we have to consider the ethical failures in the production of kosher food. We all know that the hashgachot don’t engage with the treatment of workers and animals, the environmental impact of food production or the human health of consumers. One might suggest it’s a tragic assimilation of a Divine mandate into some of the worst sides of modern capitalism where one of the primary goals of kashrut is now about power and profits. At the very least, we should be finding and embracing ethical certifications for our food sources’ treatment of workers and animals.
Second, I find the Orthodox communal discourse around which kosher certifications are reliable to often be entirely missing the point. Folks share their opinions about the trustworthiness of certification when usually they haven’t done any of the work to actually understand their details. We disparage certifications as unreliable without having adequate information — and we think we’re doing a mitzvah here by adhering to what seem to be the strictest practices. We can’t ignore the moral component of the damage created here, to the reputation of the certifying rabbi, to that rabbi’s parnassah and to the income of the manufacturer or restaurant. We believe we’re honoring the traditions of kashrut while we hurt people all based on a WhatsApp-chat hearsay or a 20-second google search.
We should be careful to not pass judgments unless we’re doing the work and truly finding problems. We might ask ourselves what being “reliable” means and how we can engage in a more morally rigorous process of determining reliability. Further, kashrut is a business, susceptible to the ethical failings of any other business. We’re being naive if we don’t think larger organizations would love to damage the images of the smaller ones because they want to retain power.
Third, I believe we are neglecting to live up to the ideals of kashrut when we use it to create divisions between Jews. A primary benefit, from its early rabbinic innovative designs, of kosher-keeping is that it strives to keep Jews together, deepening familial and communal relationships. With such a small global Jewish community, there is nothing to be embarrassed about with a goal of preserving our heritage and peoplehood. However, now, it divides us more than ever. To be sure, kashrut has always required some divisions. Jews who care about keeping kosher are inherently separated some from those who don’t, or those who find kashrut meaningful but take the practice more lightly. These are more difficult divides to bridge than the ones just among those already fully committed to kashrut, but we should still try.
However, in a culture in which we are all obsessed with who is holding by what hechsher, refusing to eat at this restaurant or that community member’s house has become a badge of honor, when perhaps it’s actually hurting ourselves and others, morally and spiritually.
Fourth, we must return to the inherent spirituality of the eating experience. Our meals should ideally include words of Torah, acts of kindness and the inclusion of others. When our eating experience instead becomes solely about what foods and what people are excluded, we know we’ve lost the plot.
For these reasons, I’ve been thinking this Elul about how kashrut in America has failed. I say this not at all in order to be negative, dramatic or provocative. For me, kashrut, in its Divine origins, is beautiful, powerful and transformative and I’m fully committed. And so, I believe we must strengthen our commitments to make the practice of keeping kosher as ethically and spiritually meaningful as it is meant to be. A great test is whether Pesach prep is only exhausting or also uplifting because of how we raise up some of our most cherished values at that time. Similarly, we fast on Yom Kippur not because its an ideal for humans to not eat and drink but because we step back from eating to return to the process of consumption with more kedushah.
When we raise the simanim on Rosh Hashana night, there are 10 different foods. Here I propose we add a new siman. This Rosh Hashana, I will pick up one of my favorite foods for bringing family and friends together and say in English, “May it be your will, Hashem our God and God of our forefathers, that we restore kashrut back to the Garden of Eden in its moral and spiritual glory.”