Parashat Shemini ~ Kashrut's many voices

Our triennial cycle focuses on the list of permitted and forbidden animals.

~ According to the text, why do we have these laws?

~ What are your beliefs about kashrut? How do your Jewish values or practices influence your eating?

~ In your opinion, is there space to see kashrut as a an expression of "food ethics"? How so?

~ Do you have "food ethics"? Do they influence your Jewish practices of kashrut?

Jonathan Safran Foer

It wasn’t until I became a parent that I understood my grandmother’s cooking. The greatest chef who ever lived wasn’t preparing food, but humans. I’m thinking of those Saturday afternoons at her kitchen table, just the two of us — black bread in the glowing toaster, a humming refrigerator that couldn’t be seen through its veil of family photographs. Over pumpernickel ends and Coke, she would tell me about her escape from Europe, the foods she had to eat and those she wouldn’t. It was the story of her life — “Listen to me,” she would plead — and I knew a vital lesson was being transmitted, even if I didn’t know, as a child, what that lesson was. I know, now, what it was.

“We weren’t rich, but we always had enough. Thursday we baked bread, and challah and rolls, and they lasted the whole week. Friday we had pancakes. Shabbat we always had a chicken, and soup with noodles. You would go to the butcher and ask for a little more fat. The fattiest piece was the best piece. It wasn’t like now. We didn’t have refrigerators, but we had milk and cheese. We didn’t have every kind of vegetable, but we had enough. The things that you have here and take for granted. . . . But we were happy. We didn’t know any better. And we took what we had for granted, too.

“Then it all changed. During the war it was hell on earth, and I had nothing. I left my family, you know. I was always running, day and night, because the Germans were always right behind me. If you stopped, you died. There was never enough food. I became sicker and sicker from not eating, and I’m not just talking about being skin and bones. I had sores all over my body. It became difficult to move. I wasn’t too good to eat from a garbage can. I ate the parts others wouldn’t eat. If you helped yourself, you could survive. I took whatever I could find. I ate things I wouldn’t tell you about.

“Even at the worst times, there were good people, too. Someone taught me to tie the ends of my pants so I could fill the legs with any potatoes I was able to steal. I walked miles and miles like that, because you never knew when you would be lucky again. Someone gave me a little rice, once, and I traveled two days to a market and traded it for some soap, and then traveled to another market and traded the soap for some beans. You had to have luck and intuition.

“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”

“He saved your life.”

“I didn’t eat it.”

“You didn’t eat it?”

“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”


“What do you mean why?”

“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”

“Of course.”

“But not even to save your life?”

“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

[Jonathan Safran Foer, Against Meat,]

Blu Greenberg

I believe that the purpose of kashrut is to make eating a special experience and to serve as a reminder of a Jew's ethical conscience as well as of the other unique teachings of Judaism. To me, distinctiveness and not separation is the Jew's calling. This feeling is possible in the presence of non-observant Jews and of non-Jews. The values of friendship, human solidarity, and socializing are highly esteemed Jewish values; making a living and exchanging professional service (sometimes performed over a meal) also are respected in Jewish culture. One of the great qualities of the Jewish tradition is its ability to balance contradictions- idealism and realism, Jewish particularism and unusual concern for humanity. Similarly, in the act of eating, one can strike that balance between fidelity to one's own principles and shared friendship and respectful contact with others.

... To be sure, there have been a dozen times in my life when I had a passion to eat something I wasn't permitted to have - marshmallows, as a child growing up in Seattle... well, I can't always say that kosher is the best thing in the world. Yet... kashrut is like a portable faith, perhaps more so to a woman than to a man, who has religious paraphernalia to remind himself and others who he is.

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, p. 117-118

R. Haskel Lookstein and R. Yitz Greenberg
Q: In 1971, you were the only Orthodox rabbis to declare that non-union lettuce and grapes should be regarded as non-kosher and you urged Jews to boycott them. What is the basis in Judaism for that position?
R. Greenberg: We were both students of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. From him we learned the idea that Halacha is not just a list of ritual dos and don'ts, but a comprehensive worldview that applies to everything that happens around us. The Torah prohibits the exploitation of workers- so why shouldn't that apply to migrant farm workers picking lettuce or grapes? They were being mistreated, so it was natural for us to apply the principle of non-exploitation to their situation, too. It seemed obvious. But not everyone in my shul was enthusiastic about it. There were some who felt that Jewish involvement in liberal causes was never reciprocated - they felt the Jewish community had been burned when the New Left and black militants began spouting anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic rhetoric. On the other hand, the Orthodox college students with whom I worked in those days loved the idea of Jews boycotting non-union lettuce.
R. Lookstein: The young couples in my congregation were also very enthusiastic about the lettuce boycott idea. In general, one can say that there are some people in the Jewish community who have gone to one extreme, embracing universalism to the point of ignoring Jewish concerns. And then there are others who have gone to the other extreme, cutting themselves off from the world. Yitz and I have always looked for that middle path, standing up for Jewish causes but also taking an interest in what goes on in the rest of the world.
["These Olympics Are Not Kosher" ~ Jerusalem Post Interview with R. Haskel Lookstein and R. Yitz Greenberg, May 1 2008;]
R. Zalman Shachter-Shalomi
I invented the word eco-kosher, to say that something is ecologically kosher. I'll give you an example of eco-kosher. The regular kosher way is about the dishes that mustn't be contaminated, etc. If I pick up 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 my drinking in a styrofoam, I'd much rather make the other choice...that's eco-kosher. [Teaching at the Naropa Institute, late 1970's]

R. Goldie Milgram

Why, according to the Torah, do we keep kosher? In Leviticus, after the enumeration of permitted and prohibited animals, the text concludes: "For I am the Eternal your God; sanctify yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am holy." We keep kosher to be holy, as God is holy. This concept of holiness is associated more frequently and strongly with the dietary laws than with any of the other 613 biblical commandments. ...

What does it mean to be holy, to be godlike? Partly, it means living ethically, for God is associated throughout the Torah with justice, compassion, and mercy. But holiness is more than ethical living; it involves an underlying religious attitude from which ethics and other humanistic systems are built. ...

Several important lines of Jewish ethical thought and biblical precept converge in a consideration of establishing a rationale and standards for eco-kosher foods, drugs and practices.

1. Bal Tashchit, do not destroy or waste. ... For many foods the largest production element today is packing. Reduction in energy use and destruction of trees must become serious considerations in the Kosher-certification system.

2. Tzaar Baalei Chayyim, the prohibition against cruelty to animals. ... Some eighteen different laws of the Torah call upon us to live in awareness of the fact that God's creatures require our care and deserve our attention.

3. Shmirat Haguf is the mitzvah to treat your body as sacred space. ... this leads to asking about the role of insecticides and hormones in the growing of vegetables and raising of animals.

4. Oshek and halanat sachar, those are mitzvot regarding the treatment of Laborers, oppression and paying on time. Considerations of labor standards are an essential ethical complement to matters of keeping kosher.

[Read the entire piece at:]

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady

The great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the "Ari", 1534-1572) taught that every created thing possesses a "spark" of divine energy that constitutes its essence and soul. When a person utilizes something toward a G-dly end, he brings to light this divine spark, manifesting and realizing the purpose for which it was created.

In all physical substances, a material "husk" (kelipah) encases and conceals the divine spark at its core, necessitating great effort on the part of man to access the spark without becoming enmeshed in the surface materiality.

No existence is devoid of a divine spark -- indeed, nothing can exist without the pinpoint of G-dliness that imbues it with being and purpose. But not every spark can be actualized. There are certain "impregnable" elements whose sparks are inaccessible to us. The fact that something is forbidden by the Torah means that its husk cannot be penetrated, so that its spark remains locked within it and cannot be elevated.

Thus, one who eats a piece of kosher meat and then uses the energy gained from it to perform a mitzvah, thereby elevates the spark of divinity that is the essence of the meat, freeing it of its mundane incarnation and raising it to a state of fulfilled spirituality. However, if one would do the same with a piece of non-kosher meat, no such "elevation" would take place. Even if he applied the energy to positive and G-dly ends, this would not constitute a realization of the divine purpose in the meat’s creation, since the consumption of the meat was an express violation of the divine will.

This is the deeper significance of the Hebrew terms assur and mutar employed by Torah law for the forbidden and the permissible. Assur, commonly translated as "forbidden," literally means "bound", implying that these are things whose sparks the Torah has deemed bound and imprisoned in a shell of negativity and proscription. Mutar ("permitted"), which literally means "unbound," is the term for those sparks which the Torah has empowered us to extricate from their mundane embodiment and actively involve in our positive endeavors.

The "bound" elements of creation also have a role in the realization of the divine purpose outlined by the Torah. But theirs is a "negative" role-they exist so that we should achieve a conquest of self by resisting them. There is no Torah-authorized way in which they can actively be involved in our development of creation, no way in which they may themselves become part of the "dwelling for G-d" that we is charged to make of our world. Of these elements it is said, "Their breaking is their rectification." They exist to be rejected and defeated, and it is in their defeat and exclusion from our lives that their raison detre is realized.

(Based on Tanya chapters 7-8)

Final discussion ~ R. Arthur Waskow

For different Jews do maintain different answers to the question, "Is this food kosher?" For example, some will only accept certain types of Rabbinical certification on packaged goods, while others are satisfied with reading labels to verify ingredients as kosher.

Some people will drink only kosher wine, while others believe this category is no longer relevant.

Some keep "Biblical kashrut," only abstaining from Biblically forbidden foods.

Some are willing to eat non-kosher foods in restaurants and in other people's homes, others are willing only to eat intrinsically kosher foods such as fish and vegetables on non-kosher utensils when they are away from home, while still others do not eat any cooked foods away from home.
A new kashrut that drew on the ethical strands of Torah would also demand that people make choices about how to observe. For example: Some might treat the principle of oshek (not oppressing workers) as paramount, and choose to use only products that are grown or made without any oppression of food workers (food, for example, from one's own backyard or neighborhood garden, or from a kibbutz where all workers are also co-owners and co-managers).

Others might make the principle of bal tashchit (protection of the environment) paramount, and put oshek in a secondary place -- perhaps applying it only when specifically asked to do so by workers who are protesting their plight.
But there might also be some important differences in the way choices will work in an ethical kashrut, from the way choices work in traditional kashrut. In the new approach, there might be so many ethical values to weigh that it would be rare to face a black-and-white choice in a particular product.
This one is grown by union workers, that one with special care for the earth and water, another . . . .
So choices would depend more on a balancing and synthesizing of the underlying values than on an absolute sense of Good and Bad. More on a sense of Both/And than of Either/Or.