By Lily Hoffman Simon
Have you ever sat in an empty Chinese restaurant on Christmas day feeling like you are the only person in the whole country not congregating around a tree? For those who keep kosher, resisting the temptation to order shrimp for their fried rice sometimes seems like just one more thing that sets Jews apart. Sometimes, one can’t help but wonder: What’s the point?
This question comes into starker light when considering that traditional kashrut inadequately addresses contemporary ethical issues of the gastronomic variety. For example, if you type ‘agriprocessors’ into Google, you will be bombarded with information about the ethical misconduct of one of America’s biggest kosher meat producers, including cruel animal abuse, refusal to recognize its workers’ union, questionable environmental behavior and charges for breaching child labour laws. How can these practices in good conscience be considered “Kosher”?
‘Kashrut’ comes from the Hebrew root meaning “fit” or “proper,” and denotes guidelines for appropriate eating and consumption. The animal being consumed must be slaughtered in a way that ensures little physical discomfort for the animal. An animal must not be eaten with its mother’s milk, to signify the separation between its death and its source of life. A mother and child animal must not be killed on the same day. All of these rules, and others, are intended to create a social, ethical consciousness surrounding the food we eat, as well as promote a spiritual relationship to food. But are these rules enough to ensure an ethical food industry?
The limitations of traditional kashrut have sparked critical analysis of the dietary laws. Proponents of kashrut reform advocate for changes in the standards of kashrut to follow suit with the changing food industry and the new ethical dilemmas its presents. A simple hechsher (the symbol of kashrut certification) no longer seems to be enough to ensure ethical food.
At the forefront of addressing these questions stands the Eco-kashrut movement, which emphasizes the environmental impact of the globalized food industry, which values efficient mass production over environmental consciousness. Advocates of eco-kashrut encourage environmental and animal-friendly ideas about food, such as organic farming, free-range livestock and sustainability, as a contemporary means to maintain an ethical conscious. Eco-kashrut also connotes a lifestyle outside of the realm of food, providing commentary on the environmental and spiritual implications of issues such as plastic production, energy consumption and general sustainability. With Hanukkah just around the corner, the Shalom Centre’s Green Menorah Project provides an interesting example of the key role environmentalism plays in the holiday.
Spiritually speaking, eating with an ethical understanding can unite food consumption with nature and God. The Conservative Movement of Judaism has gone so far as to develop its own eco-kosher hechser, called a hechsher tzedek (justice certificate), to supplement traditional kosher standards. Other initiatives to create “social hechshers,” which denote just worker-producer relations among other socially responsible considerations include Tav Chevrati, created by Bema’aglei Tzedek, and Magen Tzedek’s initiative to label food that is conscious of environmental implications, animal welfare, and labour relations.
So the next time you scan a package of meat for a hechsher, maybe think about all the other aspects of production that are not considered in the traditional kashrut certification process. After all, if kashrut is intended to provide an ethical guidance, it might as well be relevant to the ethical questions of today’s times.