When you have always eaten kosher, it might sound odd to ask: is kosher always enough? I recently transitioned from 20 years of veganism to eating a kosher omnivore diet. Previously on this blog, I shared thoughts about eco-kashrut which considered whether simply being certified kosher was really enough in terms of the ethical standards of food production. Now that I am eating kosher animal products, I wanted to learn more about this issue to help me make food choices.
Melissa Hoffman is the Director of the Jewish Initiative for Animals. My goal in interviewing Melissa is to go deeper into the intersections of Jewish values and food choices, and to learn some actionable tips we can all apply to make our kosher choices more kosher!
Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your personal experience/connection to Judaism, and how does this relate to your work in animal welfare and Jewish food justice?
I am privileged to have developed a long and evolving relationship with Judaism. I grew up surrounded by traditional observance and halachic understandings of Jewish life–this was truly influential in shaping my own experience and knowledge of tradition. This was also very different from the kind of identity (and community) I attach to today–one that is more informed by fundamental Jewish values, including openness and inclusivity. I also grew up fascinated with the natural world, and everyone who knows me knows I have a deep respect for more-than-human animals.
I tend to turn to Jewish ethics as my first port of call for thinking about any issue or struggle, and this was true when I first learned about our food system, which, on the whole, is designed to deplete instead of nourish.
Woven throughout tradition is wisdom about approaching the natural world from a place of shared obligation, rather than ownership and entitlement. We are repeatedly taught to care for those most vulnerable to exploitation, including marginalized groups of people, and animals. Jewish teaching projects the ideal that in a truly just food system, everyone is satiated, and the land is farmed regeneratively. This gives me a framework from which to learn, teach, and inspire change.
Tell us about the work you do and why it is important.
I direct the Jewish Initiative for Animals (JIFA), which supports Jewish communities to align their food practices with their Jewish values. We develop curriculum, work on supply chain development, and help Jewish institutions create policies that center animal welfare as a core Jewish value. The initiative is focused on animals out of a Jewish and moral concern for animal suffering, and out of an understanding that when we improve conditions for farmed animals, we change aspects of those farms that fundamentally benefit workers, the environment, and eaters (all of us!).
There’s a broadening awareness that all these values—community access to healthy food, reducing pandemic risk, and supporting laborers, environmental and climate justice, and farmed animal welfare—are interconnected. Every Jewish community can agree that these are ideals we should strive for, especially around food production and consumption, which is so central to our lives and our culture. Whether or not our communities keep kosher, the idea that some foods are fit to eat and that some are not is deeply ingrained in us. I’ve found that Jewish communities are quick to latch on to the idea of committing to buy food that’s produced in more ethical ways, provided we’re given the resources to do so.
We’ve consulted with dozens of communities on how to improve their food sourcing and we’re proud to recognize those that publicly commit to fewer and better animal products. This can be part of their food justice, communal health, and/or sustainability efforts–or simply as part of their communal goal to support kinder, safer, and healthier food choices.
How do you understand the kosher laws, and what makes them important today?
Each Jewish community’s kosher practice will depend on their own interpretation of kosher laws, but the strictest adherents will purchase only processed foods (including animal products) stamped by what they consider a reputable certifier. I grew up with a practice similar to this, except my family was more lenient in buying “kosher by ingredient” for processed dairy or pareve foods in our own home-cooking. We bought only kosher meat, had separate meat and milk dishes, and brought only kosher-certified foods into my Jewish day school.
Now, kosher as a concept resonates for me when it’s inflected through a cluster of other Jewish food meta-values:
- protecting all creatures from unnecessary suffering (tza’ar ba’alei chayim)
- avoiding worker exploitation (oshek)
- and protecting our planet and our bodies (shmirat ha’adamah, shmirat haguf)
- and others.
Some have described this as “ethical” or “eco-”kashrut, which, in effect, means I and other Jews are yearning for production practices and supervision mechanisms that truly ensure ethical practices beyond what certification ensures today. We are looking at our original ideal of kasher as “fit,” and remembering that kashrut as a practice helps people to sanctify the act of eating–to elevate consumption from a mundane to a holy act. It should cause all of us to question, is a kosher certification on factory farmed products functioning to ensure that when we nourish ourselves, we are participating in something holy? How might we most closely embody and enact the original intent behind the “fitness” that our ancestors prescribed?
What are some of the ways that the application of kosher laws today falls short of people’s expectations?
One of the hurdles to doing the work we do at JIFA is the misperception among Jewish communities that the products they buy already align with their values–when it comes to kosher certification, this misperception is widespread.
Kosher labels deceive consumers in two ways. We already know that US citizens buy kosher products because they think it means the food is better quality, healthier, and safer. Just a few months ago, we conducted national research showing that many shoppers, including Jewish, think that kosher means more humane treatment toward animals during their lives. Unfortunately, this is always untrue for animal products in grocery stores in the US and any country where factory farming dominates the food system.
In the US, kosher-certified meat and dairy companies also use humane-washing claims that are used throughout the nonkosher industry–like “humane,” “humanely raised,” “natural,” “raised without antibiotics”– trying to appeal to conscientious consumers. So shoppers are falling for the “halo effect” that a kosher certification lends an animal product, and they may also be deceived by the meaningless claims that companies purposely add to attract well-meaning buyers.
Why is it important to work to improve our food habits, both in our homes and in our community?
Every act we do as individuals and as communities is powerful!
As individuals, we can make sure we buy and eat mostly plants. Eating fewer, or no animal products produced on factory farms, lowers our contribution to climate change, food waste, and injustices that exist across much of the food system in industrialized countries. If you live near farmers whose practices you know well and which align with your personal values and kashrut observance, support them directly.
While sourcing food communally will often have different logistical and cultural parameters, I think eating as a community in this way also influences our individual habits and supports our personal commitments. Judaism isn’t meant to be practiced only at home or only in community–it’s both/and, and this applies to our food behaviors. It’s often shocking for people to hear that fast food chains like McDonald’s have more meaningful animal welfare policies when it comes to their food sourcing than most synagogues (which, admittedly, still isn’t saying much). Every family should absolutely make choices that support a better food system, but only when we walk the walk as communities, organizations, and institutions are we doing much more to build a better food system. Eating far fewer animal products, and no products produced on factory farms, is particularly important for those of us with the choices and resources to do so.
Just as keeping kosher is a daily, radical choice for our time, communities must exercise a level of awareness and dedication to eating in alignment with their values. But it is indeed possible for most, given the will, and that means Jewish communities can play a pivotal role in ending factory farming.
The JIFA website lists ways that people can get involved. Can you describe how individuals and organizations can partner with and learn from JIFA’s work?
- Read articles and blogs, watch videos, and listen to expert speakers on our website and social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter).
- Work with us to align your food community’s food choices with its Jewish values by joining JIFA’s Leadership Circle or adopting DefaultVeg–all institutions receive our consultation free of charge.
- For clergy and leaders of Jewish organizations, sign the leaders’ pledge urging Jewish communities, organizations, and events to adopt food sourcing practices that reflect our broadly held moral and religious values.
- Take advantage of our free Community Resources hub, which includes materials for youth, b’nai mitzvah, adults, Jewish farms, communal/household holiday celebrations, and more.
- Commit to alternatives to factory farming and share the commitment with friends and family.
- Reach out to us to inquire about developing resources specific to your organization or community!
Find the Jewish Initiative for Animals on Social Media:
Facebook: Jewish Initiative for Animals
Twitter at @JIFAnimals
Read more about these issues:
What do you think?
Has reading Melissa’s interview changed the way you think about kosher foods? Was there any part that surprised you, or resonated with your own experience?
For me, it’s been interesting to reflect on and be honest with myself about how I interpret the meaning of the kosher stamp on food products.
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!