‘Eco-Kashrut’: A ‘Kashrut’ for Our Times

Kashrut is a complex and mysterious term having the same Hebrew root as “kosher.” Simply translated, it means “proper” or “correct.” Kashrut is synonymous with how Jews determine their relationship to the food they eat. All of the so-called “kosher laws” are an extrapolation of simple proclamations in the Torah that were refined and expanded over the 2,000 years following Rabbinic Judaism’s replacement of the priesthood. For many, following the myriad rules provides a connection to their upbringing; for some, it is an indication of their relationship with God; and for still others, it’s a way of feeling Jewish.

I became particularly interested in this topic seven years ago when my daughter began planning her wedding to a young man from an Orthodox Jewish family. As was their family’s custom, they asked that the wedding be kosher. Although I had been raised in a family that sometimes kept kosher, primarily during Passover, and I understood my Russian-born grandmother’s adherence to eating kosher meat as her traditional practice, I truly hadn’t given much thought to it in many years. I attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate and recall that the dining-hall charter prohibited shellfish and pork, with kosher food available for those who desired it.

I’ve attended many Jewish retreats in the past 20-plus years where the food was vegetarian, pescatarian or kosher (meat) to accommodate those who wished to observe traditional kashrut. When attending retreats at Jewish conference centers, I unhappily noticed that they didn’t serve real butter at dinner and would serve desserts containing chemical-laden dairy substitutes. Around 20 years ago, this practice was adopted by most Jewish institutions in my community. The underlying assumption was that in doing so, the highest standards were being upheld so that “everyone could partake.” Two things were notable: first, traditional (kashrut) observance had unquestionably become the ubiquitous Jewish communal standard; and most alarming to me, this had occurred without any regard to the backstory of the food being served. Nor did this practice look at the larger question of our obligation as Jews to “care for the Earth and its inhabitants.”

Around the same time, I was becoming increasingly concerned about pesticides and other contaminants in the food supply. There was a complete neglect of the healthiness of what was being consumed; it was trumped by whether or not the food had a hekhsher (kosher certification). Reading “Postville” (Stephen Bloom, 2000), which spelled out in horrific detail abuses of the animals and workers in the Postville kosher meat-packing plant in Iowa, only reinforced my belief that there was something very wrong here.

Personally, I’d long been going in and out of a vegetarian diet due to a concern for healthy eating. And when I became a parent, I served my family organic food for health reasons. As my environmental awareness increased, I insisted that the new home my husband and I were building be as “green” as possible, thus achieving the status of Platinum LEED — the first such residence in San Diego and one of the first in California and the United States. I wanted to set an example for others to follow.

What does this have to do with kashrut? There is a widespread — and unquestioned — belief in the Jewish world that the label “Glatt Kosher” denotes food that is sourced, produced and prepared to the highest possible standard. At communal Jewish events, the notation that “dietary laws (are) observed” implicitly assumes that the food served satisfies and honors Jewish ethical values. But is this really true? It is my belief that the traditional concept of kashrut should be questioned by serious Jews. Here’s why.

Early on in Bereishit, the book of Genesis, we are enjoined to honor the Earth, to treat animals with kindness and to honor our bodies as sacred vessels. In the traditional blessings we recite before and after eating, we acknowledge that food nourishes our bodies and our souls. We give thanks to God for providing sustenance as a reminder of our dependence on nature and the need to care for our world in order to receive its bounty. The ethical Jewish imperative is clear. I believe that it is time to acknowledge contemporary environmental realities and to reflect them in a kashrut for this new millennium.

In biblical times, animals grazed on grasses and plants that were cultivated naturally; waters were clean and plentiful. Not so now. The land, air and waters of our planet are in peril. Biodiversity of plants and animals is a growing concern as species are increasingly threatened with habitat loss due to deforestation and exploitation of natural resources. Our mainstream food supply is contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals, preservatives and pesticides. The industrialized production of animals for food is anything but “humane.” In addition to documented scandals at kosher meat-packing facilities, feed requirements and methane emissions of cattle contribute significantly to environmental degradation.

Considering these contemporary realities, isn’t it time to question our assumptions about what is really kosher? Should we be consuming food certified as “kosher” when it contains substances known to be detrimental to our health or derives from animals whose lives have not been sanctified? Right now, only the manner in which animals are slaughtered is seen as important.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is credited with coining the term “eco-kashrut[CMS3] ” in the 1970s, thus beginning a conversation about broadening kashrut to include ecological and ethical concerns. In 2011, Conservative Rabbi Morris Allen introduced the idea of Magen Tzedek or Hekhsher Tzedek certification as an ethical complement to conventional kosher certification, partially in reaction to the scandal at the Postville plant. Nathan Schumer followed with a piece in The Forward (https://forward.com/food/144962/can-food-justice-be-as-simple-as-a-label/), but there has been uniform opposition from the Orthodox community and thus far, despite independent financial support, the effort has been unsuccessful.

Over the past 30-plus years, many entities have sprung up marrying Jewish values with environmental justice, sustainability concerns and ethical food production. Hazon (https://hazon.org/) is dedicated to addressing all areas of sustainability and has subsumed several organizations, including Teva, the Isabella Freedman Camp and Retreat Center, Elat Chayyim, and Teva Learning Center. Jewish Community Farming (https://www.jewishcommunityfarming.org/) has outposts around the United States and is successfully putting Jewish values into practice while ethically producing delicious fruits and vegetables. They employ and teach traditional methods of farming that help sequester carbon and heal the Earth. And by supporting the use of regenerative agricultural methods, we can literally reverse the environmental degradation that threatens the health and survival of the planet. For a graphic and powerful demonstration of this, I highly recommend the documentary film, “Kiss the Ground” https://kisstheground.com/.

The eco-kashrut movement is an attempt to marry the values embodied in Torah with an awareness of the challenging realities of our time. By consuming plants and animals grown and raised organically, and fishes caught ethically and sustainably, we can eat in a way that truly honors our bodies and the fragile planet that sustains us. In this new millennium, I believe that these considerations are of paramount concern because they will help to determine the world we leave for our children and their children, giving new meaning to l’dor v’dor (“from generation to generation”). By nourishing ourselves in this way, we are honoring ethical Jewish values and serving the Divine directive to care for the Earth and all of its inhabitants.

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