In the grocery store this spring, you’ll likely come across some food items labeled “kosher for Passover.” A lot of us might be asking: What does that even mean? Don’t Jews keep kosher all year round? (Short answer: Many of us keep kosher all the time, but the eight days of Passover traditionally require more specific standards, to avoid eating leavened grains.)
As an Orthodox rabbi, I personally experience kashrut as a deep point of connection in my relationship with God. Mindful eating is recognized as a necessity by a wide diversity of the world’s religions: Catholics refrain from eating meat on certain days, Muslims have the kashrut-like laws of halal, and many Hindus and Buddhists are vegetarians. And even those who don’t identify with religion are more and more taking notice of the importance of the food they put into their bodies. Food-awareness is not just a Jewish law, but a human phenomenon.
Still, the association between holy eating and Judaism in the popular imagination remains prevalent. It is not uncommon for gentiles to seek out food with a kosher symbol, believing it to be of a higher standard. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case. All the kosher symbol indicates is that it has been certified to be made in accordance with Jewish dietary laws — not mixing milk and meat, not containing pork or shellfish, etc. As it currently exists today, the kosher symbol makes no additional meaningful impact on your milk, eggs or Oreos, beyond fulfilling the technical requirements of kashrut. And even with kosher meat, the animals are treated in a way that is virtually identical to the typical factory-farming experience. The main difference is the method of slaughter but the treatment of the animals from birth until slaughter is identical.
Personally, I find this to be a missed opportunity. Kashrut is sacred, but to keep it that way, we must continue to adapt the system of Jewish eating to the highest moral standards of our time. As a spiritual guide who tries to inspire people to keep kosher, it pains me to know that the bare minimum of traditional Jewish law does not meet the ethical demands of the world today. Eating correctly in 2023 means not just following certain laws, but also eating in a way that is inspired by principles of ethics and justice where the worker, animal, land and human health are also considered.
And so, I believe the fullest form of the kosher vision is one that everyone — Jewish and not — can get on board with, or at least support in theory: vegan should be the new kosher. I’m not, God forbid, saying it’s time for Jews to throw away our most cherished food rituals. I am saying the way to take them to the next level is to use kosher practices as a method of bringing the world toward peace and justice. Food should not just be about dos and don’ts. It should be a chance for all of us to inspire a nonviolent, healthy, environmentally friendly society.
As a Jew, I often find myself amazed by my people’s survival despite thousands of years of threats, both physical and ideological. I can only conclude that Jewish continuity has been enabled by our ability to evolve and adapt. When we lost the holy Temple in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago, we were quickly able to turn our oral traditions into a portable religion that relied on prayer services, not animal sacrifices. Today, in a world in which ritual observance of religion is threatened, I believe the move is to imbue our rituals with a sturdy sense of ethics.
Can you keep kosher without being a vegan? Absolutely. But we don’t want Judaism to become stale and irrelevant either. By applying Jewish ethical principles to the food laws that have long sustained us, I find it inevitable that kashrut and veganism will become, for many of us, inextricable.
Around our tables this Passover, Jews all over the world will of course be eating and singing — but we’ll also be meditating deeply on the journey from slavery to freedom, putting ourselves in the shoes of the slaves in the Book of Exodus. We do this every year because liberation is not merely a one-time event, but a process that we must replicate in our world over and over again, in every generation. Ethical eating is only one front in that fight, but it’s one we cannot ignore.