Parshat Shemini is loaded with menu tips for your next dinner party: It famously includes the foundational laws of kashrut. The Rabbis enlarged upon them. The medievalists debated whether there was a purpose behind them. Now, in the 21st century, particularly when some see fit to expend enormous amounts of time and energy worrying about tiny and microscopic organisms (see and ), but ignoring the imposing of pain and suffering on animals, the exploitation of human beings, and the despoliation of our planet in the pursuit of food to please the palate, it is time to ask: Are the standards of kashrut morally appropriate?
To arrive at a place where we can explore that question, we begin with Parshat Shemini, which stipulates which animals the Israelites may consume and which are forbidden. Mammals must both be ruminants and have split hooves. (Torah even provides examples of species that have one attribute but not the other: the hare chews its cud but lacks split hooves; the pig has split hooves but is not a ruminant—both are forbidden.) Fish must have fins and scales. Birds go according the list in Leviticus 11:13-19. Winged insects that walk on four legs are impermissible with the exception of those with jointed legs that can leap or hop; hence locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers are permissible. Torah then provides a laundry list of forbidden species: moles, mice, lizards, crocodiles, chameleons. Even physical contact with these species imparts ritual impurity to a person, wooden utensil, and cloth or skin container. Any animal of any species that has died is also forbidden and its carcass imparts impurity.
In addition, the Rabbis developed laws of shechitah (slaughter), and expanded the prohibition against “boiling a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; and Deuteronomy 14:21) to include cooking, eating, and deriving benefit from the combination (BT Chullin 113b and 115b), mandating a far greater separation of meat and dairy than we find in Torah.
In addition, people have long asked what the purpose of the laws of kashrut is. Traditional holds that the mitzvot concerning dietary restrictions in Parshat Shemini are chukkim, commandments promulgated without any reason we can discern, and we are meant to follow them. Nonetheless, in the eleventh century, Moses Maimonides asserted that the laws of kashrut promote health and hygiene. (Rambam was a physician, so perhaps this should not surprise us.) Don Isaac Abravanel, living four centuries later, recognized the problem implicit in Rambam’s claim that there are cogent rational reasons behind the laws of kashrut: If they can be demonstrated not to serve the purposes people claim for them, then may we jettison them? Abravanel asserted that the laws of kashrut are about spiritual health, not physical health.
Both views have value. With Abravanel, we can affirm that the dietary laws are a powerful agent of Jewish identity, causing us to stop and consider “the Jewish way” to carry out arguably the most basic aspects of living — multiple times each day. The need to “eat Jewishly,” day in and day out, reinforces our sense of belonging to the Jewish community and our commitment to Jewish tradition on a continual basis.
With Rambam, we can affirm that there can, and ought to be, underlying reasons for at least some of the dietary rules. We can and should ask: Are the laws of kashrut sufficient to promote Jewish values we hold dear? The answer will make many people squirm with discomfort: probably not. If I’m to be entirely honest: definitely not. Now, in the 21st century, with the advent of factory farming and its affect on animals, people, and the environment, it is time to move beyond Rambam’s concern for our physical health and incorporate our highest moral values into the package we call kashrut. From field to plate, our food entails a wide variety of activities that impact the lives of human beings, animals, and the environment and sadly often subvert justice, compassion, and the sustenance of our biosphere.
If we are to be God’s steward’s of the earth, to protect and preserve life, and consider the pain and suffering of people and animals—all of which our tradition calls us to do—it is no longer possible to claim with integrity that the traditional standards of kashrut fulfill these sacred obligations. For example, the environmental impact of cattle is a triple-whammy: It requires inordinate amounts of grain and water to produce each ounce of protein; with so many undernourished people in the world, should we be devoting so much grain and water to livestock that feed the wealthiest? Second, cattle emit enormous amounts of greenhouse gases into the environment; shockingly, livestock emissions outstrip all the cars and trucks on the planet. Third, cattle severely damage the land they trample as they graze (70% of all agricultural land is devoted to rearing livestock). Third, factory farming is a cruel way to treat any living creature. Similarly, chickens have a miserable existence. The terms “cage-free,” “grass fed,” or “free range” may console us, but we need to know that they rarely translate to significantly more humane treatment nor mitigate the environmental concerns. The Jewish ethical imperative of tzar ba’alei chaim (prohibiting inflicting suffering on a living creature) is routinely violated in the pursuit of kosher meat; the uncomfortable truth is that shekhitah (kosher slaughter) as it is practiced does not reach that ethical standard. (And I haven’t yet mentioned genetically modified organisms (GMOs), whose long-term effects on human health are entirely unknown, yet they are increasingly pervasive in our food supply.)
There is more—far more—that needs our attention. Justice and safety for workers should be of paramount importance. When the ethical violations at Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa that came to light in 2008, including “substandard wages, inadequate safety measures, horrific accidents, routine short-changing of pay, bribe-taking by shift supervisors and more,” as well as egregious abuse perpetrated on animals, it became clear that the “letter of the law” in kashrut was sorely insufficient. Consider also the predicament of the Immokalee tomato pickers. Ninety percent of the nation’s tomatoes are grown in Immokalee, Florida. They are harvested by immigrants and migrant workers who live in destitute poverty and are debt slaves. Senator Bernie Saunders proclaimed in a U.S. Senate hearing: “”In America today we are seeing a race to the bottom, the middle class is collapsing, poverty is increasing. What I saw in Immokalee is the bottom in the race to the bottom.” I have heard horrifying descriptions from two colleagues who visited Immokalee. Consider this description:
If you are very unlucky you could be one of those workers held in debt slavery in a farm camp run by contractors known as crew leaders. It starts off by having to pay a transportation fee for the ride to Florida. Workers are told they can work off their debt over time but cannot leave until their debt is paid off. Workers are then over charged for food, rent, alcohol and cigarettes. In many cases workers have been held against their will under the supervision of armed guards. Workers have been pistol whipped, raped and threatened with death if they try to leave the camp. Many camps are surround by fences topped by barbed wire. Over a thousand men and women have been freed from slave camps in the last fifteen years in Florida.
of the Conservative Movement came into being to make the standards of justice and decency cherished by our tradition normative kashrut requirements. The Commission describes their commendable and increasingly necessary work this way:
The Magen Tzedek Commission has developed a food certification program that combines the rabbinic tradition of Torah with Jewish values of social justice, assuring consumers and retailers that kosher food products have been produced in keeping with exemplary Jewish ethics in the area of labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity.The cornerstone of the program is the Magen Tzedek Standard, a proprietary set of standards that meet or exceed industry best practices for treatment of workers, animals, and the Earth; and delineates the criteria a food manufacturer must meet to achieve certification. Upon successful certification, the Magen Tzedek Commission will award its Shield of Justice seal which can be displayed on food packaging.
It is time for tzedek (justice) to become a central concern of kashrut certification. We need to put a stop to disasters like Agriprocessors and Immokalee.
Anna Lappe, in Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It, explains in detail and depth the food life-cycle and its connection to global climate change, which interpenetrates every sector of our economy. Lapp offers us a useful set of goals and guidelines that comport with Jewish ethical values, delineated as “seven principles of a climate friendly diet.” They are non-technical, easy to comprehend, and straightforward to apply:
1. Reach for real food [avoid processed foods]
2. Put plants on your plate [eat more vegetables; less meat and dairy]
3. Don’t panic, go organic [organic and sustainable agriculture]
4. Lean toward local [reduce transportation-related emissions and lower pesticide and herbicide usage]
5. Finish your peas…the ice caps are melting [reduce waste, and compost]
6. Send packaging packing [avoid products with extensive packaging of styrofoam, plastic, cardboard; bring your own bags to the supermarket, and stop buying bottled water!]
7. Get ourselves back to the kitchen [avoid unhealthful fast foods and processed foods; prepare “real food”]
We need kashrut now more than ever to remind us that there is a chain of events that brings food to our plates, and it sometimes entails injustice, abuse, suffering, and the degradation of the environment that will continue especially if we shut our eyes. We need to broaden our understanding of kashrut to include a range of Jewish moral concerns for animals, workers, human health, and the environment. Parshat Shemini provides the framework: It teaches us to think before we pick up a fork, and to consider what we should be eating and whether our actions are in concert with our understanding of God’s will.
New menu tips from a more expansive view of what makes food kosher:
• No animals were abused or suffered.
• No people were abused, enslaved, or denied justice and decent, safe working conditions.
• The needs of the global environment (which sustains us all) were given priority.
• The food is healthful and nutritious, not just delicious.
Recipes to follow.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
Rambam wrote: “I maintain that food forbidden by the Torah is unwholesome. There is nothing among the forbidden foods whose injurious character is doubted except pork and fat. Yet, also in these cases, doubt is unjustified; for pork contains more moisture than necessary for human food, and too much of superfluous matter. The principle reason why the Torah forbids swine flesh is to be found in the circumstances that its habits and its foods are very dirty and loathsome…the fat of the intestines makes us full, interrupts our digestion, and produces cold and thick blood…it is more fit for fuel than for food.” (Moreh Nevuchim III:48)
Commenting on this week’s parashah, Abravanel wrote: “God forbid that I should believe that the reason for forbidden foods is medicinal! For were that so, then the books of God’s Laws would be in the same class as any of the minor and brief medical books…Furthermore, our own eyes see that the people who eat pork and insects and such…are alive and healthy to this very day…moreover the more dangerous animals… are not even mentioned at all in the list of prohibited ones. And there are many poisonous herbs known to physicians which the Torah does not mention at all. All of which points to the conclusion that the Torah of God did not come to heal bodies and seek their material welfare, but to seek the health of the soul, the cure of its illness.”