Weekly Chinuch Article, Kashrut by Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris
The levitical text gives no explanation for the laws of kashrut; the laws are simply stated and we are expected to follow them. Many of us may be familiar with the ‘pigs carry tricnosis’ theory or the ‘seafood went off easily in the mediterrean heat’ theory or the ‘to ensure that Jews have to eat separately from other peoples’ theory, but the reality is that Leviticus 11 only describes the do’s and don’t’s of kashrut, not the whys or the why nots. And that is it. The Bible gives no deeper explanations.
Which surely is the problem. We no longer look at food with the same eyes that the original readers of the Bible did. We, modern Jews living in the developed first world, have a far different set of concerns about food than the peoples of the ancient world did. One need only pick up any newspaper to see what issues concern us about our food – childhood obesity, food miles, environmental degradadtion and destruction, GM crops, giant agribusinesses, food additives, chemical pesticides and other polluntants entering the food chain, collapse of fishing stocks, battery farming, treatment of agricultural workers, the farming of monocrops, and more.
What is a consumer to do? A person could crave the simplicity of the biblical system – no to ostrich, yes to chicken – no disctinction between free range, organic chickens and battery chickens, just chickens are fine. The kind of chicken is really left up to you, largely, one imagines, because the biblical author could not conceive of a world where chickens were anything other than free range and what else did you feed your chickens on if it wasn’t organic?
Maybe this is why so many commentators have sought to look for reason in the text of the Bible. If only an overriding principle, especially for us progressive Jews, some moral or ethical overriding principle, could be established, it would make things easier. The Bible isn’t trying to tell us something specific about commorants or falcons; the Bible is really trying to tell us about…. what? That’s the problem. What is it that we want the Bible to be telling us?
Sure, I’d like to tell you, as some rabbis would argue, that the Bible tells us to only eat free range, organic chickens reared in small flocks managed by small local farmers who only distribute within a 50 mile radius of the farm delivered by fully electric vehicles whose electricity was powered locally by the wind turbine erected at the back of the farm so that their energy needs would be fully self-sufficient. But I cannot tell you that the Bible says so or even that these presumptions are the underlying principles in the system of kashrut or that kashrut as a system of food production and comsumption is particularly more or less ethical than any other posited.
Actually, when I peruse the variety of products with kosher hechshers, I generally despair. Kosher food is often overpackaged, relying on the heavy use of chemical additives. It often travels many food miles per packet of kosher food and lacks an emphasis on fresh ingredients locally produced typified by the fear of insects lurking in the lettuce, for example.
So where does that leave us? My colleague, Rabbi Neil Amswych, has preached on this subject – suggesting that foods produced with MSG (owing to the health risks associated with it) or with palm oil (owing to its lack of tracibility and the current overwhelming risk to Indonesian rainforests and its orangutan population) should not be kosher. I commend Rabbi Amswych’s convinctions, his thoughtfulness and his challenge to his community. I agree with his ultimate aims, after all we are both on the side of the orangutans and the wider environment even if we arrive at our decisions from slightly different angles.But I wonder if kashrut is really the right rubric to use when discussing these issues.
I am fully prepared to accept that there are moral and ethical imperatives, many of them based on sound Jewish values, that require me to consider again the ways in which I and my family obtain and consume food. I am simply not prepared to accept that these imperatives have anything at all to do with kashrut. We, as progressive Jews, are often relcutant to accept that the biblical text rarely gives explanations for its behavioural laws; we insist on considering all the angles and then making up our own minds. That is the way of our community, which I employ myself. But sometimes we have to accept that there is little to cogitate upon – we either accept that ostrich is not kosher and agree to that binding principle or we say that though we understand the biblical requirement we have no intention of living by it.
As for eating MSG or palm oil or farmed salmon or conventially produced fruit and veg or anything overpackaged and airfreighted etc., it seems to me that we need to look to the wide variety of Jewish legal ethics upon which we might draw. For example, a person is forbidden, under Jewish law, from knowingly doing something that might harm them. This rule is the one under which the banning of smoking usally comes; why not also the comsumption of a wide range of comsumables that we know to have heath problems, transfatty acids, for example. What about drawing on the Jewish people’s deep relation with the land in order to create some clear ethical boundaries about what sorts of foods we produce at what cost to the environment? I could find many other examples.
The reason I do is simply this. If we insist that everything that comes under the rubric of food must somehow refer back to a handful of verses in Leviticus (and one or two elsewhere in Torah), then we restrict the wealth of possibilities for ethical and moral engagement from which we can draw on our Judaism; we needlessly circumscribe ourselves and belittle our own arguments to the larger Jewish community. At the end of the day, ostriches are not kosher because the Bible says so. Palm oil sourced from palm plantations, which thus are rapidly decreasing the rainforests of Borneo, should also be forbidden, but not because anything in Leviticus chapter 11 tells us so explicitly, but rather because when the last wild orangutan vanishes from the earth, we will have failed in our divinely ordained role as stewards of the world. And when the last wild cod swims free, we will have failed again. And when we knowingly endanger our health through the consumption of transfatty acids in our margarine or our biscuits, we damage the bodies that God has loaned to us. And when we do anything of these things and more, we are doing nothing more than slapping God in the face.
Changing our behaviour will not be easy and we will transgress on accassion. But we must try, not really for the sake of Leviticus and a set of arcane kashrut rules, but more urgently for the sake of what may be one of the greatest moral imperatives of our generation.
Chinuch articles do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of Liberal Judaism or LJY-Netzer.