October 2008

Top Stories
• Sinister Ad Campaign
• Iron Wall That Was
• Moderate Muslim?
• McCain's Falsehood
• NOW Endorses Obama
• Fear and Loathing
• Letters to the Editor

In Their Own Words
• Sarah Palin
• Joe Biden
• Dennis Ross

Media Watch Post
• A Media Test

• Great Schlep

• Driving Miss Daisy

Raising A Mensch
• Protect your Children

Living Judaism
• Siddur for IPhone
• Kosher Debackle

Teen Voice
• At The Wheel & Beside

The Kosher Table
• An Easy Fast

Click for www.electoral-vote.com

Free Subscription

Past Issues


    Email This     About     Subscription     Donate     Contact     Links     Archives  

Rabbi Dr. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Living Judaism

The Kosher Debacle: Ethics, Shame and the Teshuvah of Our People

-- Rabbi Dr. Goldie Milgram

In a recent call, Michael Deheeger, Synagogue Organizer for the Chicago Jewish Council on Urban Affairs described the Postville scene to me. "The kosher meat processing workers and their families are lined up at the food bank operated by St. Brigit's Roman Catholic Church. Food just flies off the shelves and this is not just a holiday dilemma, these people need to feed their families, and make their mortgages for months to come until this matter is resolved. "Donations are best given directly on our website so we can conduit them directly to the food bank," he said. That website address is jcua.org. For those who wonder how to express ourselves about such a debacle, there is a saying attributed to a scholarly woman named Bruriah in the Talmud, when her husband sees thieves stealing in the street and wishes them struck down dead, she adjures him saying, "Wish not for their destruction, but rather for their transformation."

Jewish decisions are not always made by rabbis, scholars, or religious courts. The Talmud shows that a consensus of behavior emerging from within the Jewish people can also sometimes change the way the sages interpret or apply a practice, law or tradition, or can guide which mitzvah in a given generation trumps or synergizes with which. We are seeing a vivid example of this in the Agri-processors case. Just as with the education and enfranchisement of Jewish women, a sea-change in attitudes about the meaning and value of kashrut is coming by means of the evolution of Jewish ethics about respect and care for all sentient beings.

My first encounter with eco-kosher ideas was in the 1980's, in the teachings of Rabbi Dr. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. An archive of his works appears at rzlp.org. Reb Zalman wrote:

"The regular kosher way is about the dishes that mustn't be contaminated and so on. If I pick a cup to have coffee, Styrofoam would be the best thing to have. It hasn't been used before, and after I drink from it, I'll throw it away and nobody else will use it. From the usual kosher place that's the direction to go…but in comparison to what will happen to the planet by drinking from Styrofoam, I'd much rather make the other choice…eco-kosher."

Training in eco-kashrut supervision involves in-depth study of Jewish law and tradition combined with studies in what makes for authentically green practices in the raising, preparation, packaging and transportation of foods and treatment of workers. It was a thrill to instigate the Aleph.org training of individuals as mashgikhim, - those who do kashrut supervision - some half dozen years ago by speaking with two talented colleagues passionately committed to this ideal, Rabbi Dennis Beck-Berman who served in the military as rabbi and mashgiakh and the talented mashgiakh Rabbi Victor Gross. Graduates serve world-wide, offering eco-kosher supervision and kashering of institutional kitchens. I next leapt in the air at the New York Limmud Conference to hear the concept discussed indepth under the leadership of Hazon.org. How joyful to now applaud the recent decisions of the Conservative Movement to create a heksher tzedek, another great evolution in our people's walk beginning to match the deepest ethical convictions about people, animals, commerce and ethics so many of us hold dearly.

Watching the fall of the old interpretive model, that a change in understanding of Jewish law isn't likely to be accomplished if it compromises a Jewish owner's income stream, is truly a wondrous validation of the power of our people. So many report feeling so ashamed and sad that kashrut regarding meat was being so narrowly defined early-on as about the details about which kind of animal, and then kosher killing and effectively removing the blood, by the majority of one part of the Jewish spectrum of practice and interpretation. I recall a colleague from the seminary in Morristown, NJ with whom my team taught the Responsa literature at The Academy for Jewish Religion, telling about a mashgiakh in his family whose hand shook when he killed the animal and some in the community wanted him not to be allowed to practice his trade. The bet din's decision? His hand shook not from age, but from compassion for the animal, "his tears fell on his knife," was in their decision. What menschen served on that Jewish court! Made me proud to be a Jew.

I was shocked and saddened to visit family in Passaic within the past few weeks and see a copy of The Jewish Press discussing this issue referring to myself and colleagues across the spectrum of Jewish practice as "so-called Jewish leaders." Our whole people need each other to stretch and grow the revelation travelling across the generations,: the vision, views and voices of all of us. If we cannot reason together with respect, the mitzvah of ahavas(t) yisrael is for naught, and the hoped-for period of world peace, the so-called messianic time, will never transpire, or so our sages have written.

Take heart, headlines in the Forward tell us that once again the power of the people is having its impact, Jewish authorities of note across the full spectrum of Jewish practice seem to be finally reappraising the meaning of kashrut. What is the Jewish ground of being for this? There are at least six mitzvot that synergize when we contemplate what "eco-kosher" can mean as a Jewish update to our software of halachic, ethical and personal understanding. I hope learned readers will add even more to this list I'm writing hurriedly a few hours before yuntif. Ask yourself when shopping for food does it fulfill these mitzvot:

Bal tash-hit – Tolerate no wanton destruction of the planet (Deuteronomy 20:19-20).

Is the environment protected by the raising, preparation, packaging and transportation of foods of the companies from which you buy? If you buy in quantity for a group, keep in mind that it multiplies the good or damage to the environment. When synagogues own china, for example, then paper plates for hundreds are not sending extra trees to the landfill. Carpool to shul, it could be a bumper-sticker, no?

Tzaar baalei hayyim – Allow no unnecessary pain to sentient beings (Exodus 23:5).

Is the veal milk-fed? Was a baby animal confined in a tiny cell and force-fed for your eating pleasure? Do the animals only get a good death with a blessing or are they free range and did they get to have a life? Were dolphin safe-fishing practices utilized by the tuna fishing firms? How were the laborers in the food and sales chain treated in terms of wages, benefits, hours and working conditions? Where are they housed? Do they get sufficient health care? Are they spoken to with respect? Are their holy days honored?

Shmirat ha-guf – Care for your body as it is a precious gift (Deuteronomy 4:9)

Do you want bovine growth hormone or melamine in the milk your children drink? What about certain pesticides? Are you on a calorie-restricted diet? If you are to prepare a meal with your own health considerations in mind, what criteria need to be added to this list? The more we buy organic foods, the more volume to the organic growers and sellers and the lower the prices can be. This is the mitzvah of collective action, it's how the market works, we need to use our influence for personal and common good of all.

Lifnei iveyr lo titeyn mikshol – Put no stumbling block before the blind (Leviticus 19:14).

What are the dietary needs of those at your table; Is someone a diabetic? A heart patient? An alcoholic? It takes thought to prepare a meal that will bring pleasure to all while not tripping up those with serious health considerations.

Hachnassat orchim – Ensuring your guests feel truly welcome (Genesis 18:1-8).

While not all guests have medical problems, they may well have important dietary preferences, such as a vegetarian lifestyle; or they may observe the more technical practices of keeping kosher, such as not eating even the tiniest of insects hidden in a lettuce leaf. Often accommodating such dining difference is not as complex as it may sound-just ask your guests what would work for them and how to accomplish it.

Kashrut – Pay attention to what you choose to eat and how it is prepared (Leviticus 9:1-11:47).

Jewish tradition teaches the importance of making distinction through conscious eating. This vast system of separating milk from meat foods, dishes, utensils, and more stems in many ways from a verse in Exodus 23:19: "Do not seethe a kid in its mother's milk." Milk is the gift of life. Meat is life taken away. It is part of the mitzvah of keeping kosher, kashrut, to remember the gift and the sacrifice of the animal's life by keeping that which is dead separate from that which gives life. Does this idea touch you in any way? Free-range kosher products are becoming increasingly available and these multiply many times the mitzvah of kashrut.

The more of us who participate, the more affordable for all and the more kindness in the world – to animals, planet, workers and self. So let us do teshuvah for the planet and the people as this year, we do for creation part of what HaShem sent us here to do, to fully live a mitzvah-centered life.

L'shana tova tikateivu.

Rabbi Dr. Goldie Milgram resides in Mt. Airy and she directs ReclaimingJudaism.org and www.Bmitzvah.org, among her published works is Meaning & Mitzvah: Daily Practices for Reclaiming Judaism through Prayer, God, Torah, Hebrew, Mitzvot & Peoplehood (JewishLights.com) and Reclaiming Judaism as a Spiritual Practice: Holy Days and Shabbat (JewishLIghts.com).

To view previous editions of "Living Judaism", please click here.

Did you enjoy this article?

If so,

  • share it with your friends so they do not miss out on this article,
  • subscribe (free), so you do not miss out on the next issue,
  • donate (not quite free but greatly appreciated) to enable us to continue providing this free service.

If not,