Bringing animal treatment, workers' conditions, and environmental issues to a kosher table.
The first act of food consumption in the Bible is also the Torah's first foray into ethics.
God instructed Adam and Eve to eat from any tree but the Tree of Knowledge. The human inability to restrain desire led to the possibility of sin. The first human beings ate the forbidden fruit, and the need for ethical standards was born.
Since then, halakhah (Jewish law) has functioned to make its adherents understand the spiritual potential that food can have in one's life. By legislating various practices such as making berakhot (blessings) before and after eating food, distinguishing between dairy and meat meals, separating dishes, and drinking wine and eating bread on holidays, Jewish law highlights the significance of food in life.
In the past 10 years, a growing movement has emerged focusing not only on ritual, but also on ethical kashrut. This movement emphasizes not only the traditional rules, but also takes into account issues such as animal treatment, workers conditions, and environmental impact, taking its cue from a number of supporting biblical sources:
The Torah prohibits the mistreatment of workers (Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:14), as all humans are created btzelim elokim (in the image of God). Specific prohibitions include oppressing workers (lo taashok) and delaying their payment.
The treatment of animals is also deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition. Tzar baalei haim (the mistreatment of animals) is explicitly forbidden by the Torah, and Jewish liturgy is full of praise for God's demonstrated mercy to all creatures. Animals are even given the Sabbath as a day of rest (Exodus 23:12).
Environmental values are found in the many agricultural mitzvot in the Torah, including the creation story, where God charges humans l'uvdah ul'shomra (to work and to guard the earth) (Genesis 2:15).
The Relationship Between New Kashrut and Old Kashrut
How do these new "rules" of ethical kashrut relate to the traditional rituals, blessings, and separation of dishes? Many of those who observe kashrut believe that the values of ethical kashrut may have been the original intention for how religious food consumption was prescribed in the Torah. For others, these values are a positive expansion or evolution from the traditional rules. For still others, the contemporary values of ethical kashrut can replace the old, harder-to-understand rituals.
The Torah and other Jewish literature lend support for ethical kashrut initiatives. Nahmanides, a 13th century Spanish rabbi, argued (Leviticus 19:1) that if people consume food that is technically kosher from a ritual perspective but do not embrace the ethics that come along with consumption then they are naval birshut haTorah (despicable with the permission of the Torah). They have broken no formal kashrut prohibitions but their act is shameful, and they have not lived by the moral and ethical intentions of the Torah. Nahmanides is referring to eating in moderation but his value certainly lends to broad extension. Simply put: permissible consumption does not necessarily mean good consumption.