An Essential Guide to Ethical Kosher Today

As we start a new year, I want to share an essential guide to ethical kosher today and five simple ethical kosher actions each of us might implement these into our eating and food purchasing patterns this year.

In every­day life, it is hard to realize the power of our daily food choices and purchases. What we buy, eat, and throw away has a pow­er­ful impact on our envi­ron­ment and our health, for bet­ter or for worse. On top of that, we are more distant than ever from the processes of food production.

The food we consume today comes from ever-more industrialized production processes. In this context, some Jewish thought leaders suggest expanding our consideration of what “kosher” might mean in modern society. This means, not simply adhering to standard kashrut guidelines, but to a standard of ethics as well. This new approach is “ethical kosher”.

Traditional Jewish Kosher Laws Summarized

Ethical Kosher arises from the Jewish dietary laws given in the Torah and described further in the Talmud. 

The Kosher laws focus on:

  • which foods is it permissable to eat
  • which foods, and combinations of foods, mustn’t be eaten
  • the method of slaughter of kosher mammals and birds

Some highlights of kosher laws include:

  • Animals with cloven hooves cannot be eaten
  • Pork and shellfish are forbidden 
  • A trained ritual slaughterer must kill the animal
  • The slaughterer must use a knife with an extremely sharp, perfect blade, to cut the animal’s throat in one cut
  • One can never consume blood: draining, salting and soaking the meat in water removes the blood
  • Meat and dairy may never be combined in any form. Separate storage, preparation and cooking ensures they never combine.

Eco-Kashrut, Eco-Kosher and Ethical Kosher History Explained

The foundation to today’s conception of ethical kosher started in the late 1970s.  At that time, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, began using the term “eco-kashrut”. He proposed that eco-kashrut could expand traditional kosher laws to include new standards. These would take the human and environmental costs of food production and consumption into account.

An Eye Always on Tradition

Ethical kashrut is grounded in a deep wellspring of Jewish tradition. Proper treatment of humans, animals, and the earth have a rich history in Jewish texts. In the Torah, God commands us to steward the earth, to value the image of God in each human being, to not oppress workers and the poor, and to give animals dignity by providing them a Sabbath. 

“Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.” – Exodus 23:12

Nachmanides argued that while one is permitted to eat food that meets halakhic standards but wasn’t produced ethically, this ignores the ethical standards the kosher laws intended, and is therefore to be “despicable with the permission of Torah.”

Is Kosher Enough? 

Our community has engaged in dialogues about ethical kosher since the 1970s. If it was relevant then, it is urgent now. The scale of the environmental crisis is overwhelming.

“The overall problem is that we are not sustainable in the ways we are living and producing on the planet today,”

Lise Kingo, the executive director of the UN Global Compact

We are facing climate change and an increased global health risk of infectious pathogens “spilling over” from animals to humans into pandemics. Here is a video that explains how to stop the next pandemic. Many of the key causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics. Here is an article about Coronavirus, Climate Change, and the Environment from Harvard Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment.

When we think about the actions our governments need to take, we might feel frustrated or helpless. But when we think about the necessary actions we can all take, we have choices. One of the most simple and effective daily choices we have is what food we purchase and eat.

Ethical Kosher Today

Eco-Kashrut, also called the Eco-Kosher and Ethical-kosher movement, is a growing movement to extend the Kashrut system, or Jewish dietary laws, to address modern environmental, social, and ethical issues, and promote sustainability. 

The four main pillars of Ethical Kosher:

Environmental concerns

Food production and consumption impacts the environment. 

Modern farming techniques contribute to greenhouse gases, chemicals from fertilizers and pesticides seep into the earth, and the farming systems (including monoculture) that exist to feed animals raised for slaughter cause soil erosion.

Our food con­sump­tion impacts ani­mals and the envi­ron­ment. It is not com­mon knowl­edge that land use and emis­sions from large-scale meat and dairy pro­duc­tion con­tribute to cli­mate change.

In light of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic (and Ebo­la, Sars, and bird flu), main­stream media is start­ing to report sci­en­tif­ic research which reveals how our encroach­ment on nature is destroy­ing our planet’s bio­di­ver­si­ty and cre­ates the con­di­tions for virus­es to cross-over from ani­mals to humans.

David Quam­men, the author of Spillover: Ani­mal Infec­tions and the Next Pan­dem­ic, pub­lished  ​“We Made the Coro­n­avirus Epi­dem­ic” an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times to this point right after the COVID-19 infec­tion start­ed in Wuhan in late Jan­u­ary 2020.

We cut the trees; we kill the ani­mals or cage them and send them to mar­kets. We dis­rupt ecosys­tems, and we shake virus­es loose from their nat­ur­al hosts. When that hap­pens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

David Quammen

“This is the way of the pious and people of [proper] action – they love peace and are happy for the good of the creatures and bring them close to Torah, and they do not destroy even a grain of mustard in the world. And they are distressed by all loss and destruction that they see; and if they can prevent it, they will prevent any destruction with all of their strength.” – Sefer HaChinukh 529:2

2. Social Concerns

The food we put into our bodies affects our individual health and the overall burden on our respective national health systems. 

The modern American diet is killing many of us, making many people sick and is an extraordinary cost to society. As explained in detail in a New York Times article, despite all our scientific and medical advances, America seems determined to ignore the role of nutrition in human health. The result is a society where more than half of all adults are overweight or obese. Tens of thousands of lives are lost to preventable deaths each year. All this, while healthcare costs spiral ever higher. 
Research shows that plant-based diets are cost-effective, low-risk interventions with dramatic results. Eating foods which are closer to nature significantly improves nutrition and  BMI, as well as reduces blood pressure and brings cholesterol back into healthy ranges. By using the food we eat as a primary tool for human health, we can rely less on manufactured medications. Plant-based diets are a low-cost, high-impact treatment for doctors to recommend to patients with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.

“Seeing that the maintenance of the body in a healthy and sound condition is a God-chosen way, for, lo, it is impossible that one should understand or know aught of the divine knowledge concerning the Creator when he is sick, it is necessary for man to distance himself from things which destroy the body, and accustom himself in things which are healthful and life-imparting. These are: never shall man partake food save when hungry, nor drink save when thirsty.” – Mishneh Torah, Human Dispositions 4

3. Ethical Concerns

Our food production systems rely on putting livestock in cramped, unhealthy conditions and paying farm workers low wages.

The commandment “Tza’ar ba’alei chayim forbids us from causing unnecessary suffering to animals. Yet in today’s meat industry, animals are often kept in crowded, unhealthy indoor environments with no ability to move or graze. To make fatty hamburgers, cows are fed diets of corn. However, this is so damaging for their stomachs that, if they weren’t slaughtered, they would die a few months later anyway.

“If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.” – Deuteronomy 22:6-7

Reflecting on farm workers’ wages and working conditions, the commandment “K’vod hab’riyot” instructs us to ensure we give value to and protect human dignity.  With this in mind, we can seek to eliminate oshek (oppression), pay workers a living wage, and provide safe working conditions. 

“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land.” – Deuteronomy 24:14

4. Sustainability Concerns

Our modern farming practices, purchasing patterns, eating, and food waste put a huge burden on the environment. Packaging and waste end up in landfills, and toxic chemicals from fertilizers and pesticides seep into the environment, poisoning air, land, and water.
The Jewish commandment of bal tash­chit, which prohibits needless wasting or destroying of resources, is especially helpful here. It provides guidance on how humans should refrain from reckless overconsumption. Using and consuming too much is destructive to our bodies, our wellbeing, and our planet.

Five ethical kosher actions:

Here are five ethical kosher actions that allow us all to have a pow­er­ful impact on our envi­ron­ment. 

1. Use your money to support ethical products

As consumers, we can buy products that are locally or regionally grown and fairtrade.  We can buy organic, or products produced through reduced chemical farming. Buying local also means supporting sustainable farming practices that are organic and promote healthy foods and healthy animals.

We can also support restaurants and caterers focused on sustainability. You can support restaurants and catering companies that pay a living wage, and buy local, regional and organic food products.

Catering Companies

Red Clover is a kosher certified ethical farm-to-table catering and personal chef company in NYC run by Shayna B Finman, a chef and food justice educator based in NYC.

Duchez Catering has been serving greater Boston and the surrounding New England communities since 2003. It is kosher certified and uses local and mostly organic products. Yoel and Galit Konstantine specialize in Mediterranean, Jewish, French, and American cuisines.

2. Support pro-agricultural and agro-industry labor policies 

Waged agricultural and agro-industry workers (both male and female) all around the world are the heart and hands of the food production system. This workforce is socially vulnerable and often employed under poor safety, health, and environmental conditions.  For this reason, it is important to support enforcement of health and wage regulations for these workers. We need to explore additional production measures, particularly as they apply to large agricultural businesses. Here is an ILO (international labor organization) report about Agricultural Workers and Their Contribution to Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development.

3. Consume less

Less demand for animal meat and more sustainable animal husbandry could decrease emerging infectious disease risk and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Dr. Aaron Bernstein

While we can choose ethically produced meat and dairy, we can take it a step farther by reducing or eliminating our meat and dairy consumption. Likewise, we can decrease food and packaging waste by not buying more than we need or can reasonably eat.

If you choose to eat meat and dairy products, you have three good choices:

  • Buy ethically produced animal products that raise animals in humane environments and feed them healthy diets. Some advocates of ethical kashrut, such as Kol Foods, are comfortable including meat products in a kosher diet. This is on the condition that the animals were raised ethically (often free range).  
  • Reduce the quantity and number of animal and dairy products you eat. You might try crowding-out meat products, for example using half the amount of chicken and adding a can of beans to a stew.

Omit meat and dairy products from some parts of your daily or weekly diet. Try out Meatless Monday or try eating vegan before 6pm everyday.

4. Reduce consumption of highly processed foods 

Reducing consumption of highly processed foods automatically means you will be eating more min­i­mal­ly processed fruits, veg­eta­bles, starchy veg­eta­bles, roots/​tubers, intact whole grains and legumes. For all of us, whether strictly vegan or meat and dairy lovers (or somewhere in between), eating food that is closer to nature can only bring good to our per­son­al and envi­ron­men­tal health.

5. Reduce food waste and compost your food waste

Tragically, we waste a third of all food available for human consumption.

Food waste taken to landfill rots and releases methane into the environment, contributing to global warming. 

We can reduce the harm of food waste by:

  • Cooking and ordering enough food (rather than too much)
  • Eating leftovers 
  • Donating non-perishable and unspoiled items to food banks, soup kitchens and shelters

Some food waste is inevitable. In these cases, composting is a better alternative. It is basically feeding your food waste back into the land. Compost helps soil retain moisture, reduces the need for chemical fertilizer and can promote higher yields of agricultural crops. 

Organizations and ethical eating

Some Jewish organizations aim to inspire Jews to eat ethically by connecting today’s environmental and ethical values with the powerful weight of the Jewish tradition. Here are some organizations that are working at the forefront of this movement:

Hazon provides resources and programming that connect sustainability and the Jewish tradition. 

Shamayim is a nonprofit that runs programs, campaigns, and educational opportunities to teach the Jewish community about animal advocacy and veganism.

The Jewish Initiative for Animals (JIFA) is a leading sustainable food and animal welfare initiative to help communities align their food practices with their Jewish values. JIFA consults with Jewish organizations across the country to develop and implement ethical food practices, as well as curriculum and programs that spark inquiry into how Jewish tradition informs the way we treat animals.

Plant-based and Vegan Recipes You Will Love

If you are looking to add more plant-based and vegan meals onto your life, here are some cookbooks and online recipe resouces

Jewish Food Hero online recipes Some favorites include

Absolutely the Best Vegan Challah Recipe (+ Two Surprising Ingredients) 

Twice baked sweet potato Tzimmes

Vegan Nutty Chocolate Chip Cookies (Kosher-for-Passover)

Vegan “honey” cake

Jewish Food Hero Community Recipes – Vegan recipes created by you – and shared on the blog. Some favorites include:

Joan’s Vegan Challah Recipe

Joe’s Vegan Cholent Tacos

Eileen’s Hawaij Vegetable Soup

Leah’s Triple-Almond Biscochos Cookie recipe.  

How do you reflect on all this?

Consider these questions:

  • What does ethical kashrut mean to me today? 
  • How does Jewish tradition impact my choices of what I eat and how I purchase food?
  • Does this idea feel important to me?
  • What two small actions could I take today to start implementing ethical kosher ideas in my life?

Please comment below.

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