Rabbi Dr. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
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
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
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
Bal tash-hit – Tolerate no wanton destruction of the planet (Deuteronomy
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
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
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
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
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
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
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