Adamah Farm at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut. (Courtesy of Hazon)

What Is “Ethical” Kashrut?

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, halacha (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 first decade of the 21st century, a growing movement 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.

Organizations on the Ground in Israel and America

A number of Jewish groups are working to expand kashrut beyond the letter of the law.
Hazon, a Jewish non-profit inspired “to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community,” has spearheaded efforts to promote issues such environmentalism, spiritual consumption, good animal treatment, and labor concerns. They also host conferences promoting thoughtful food consumption.

Hazon’s community supported agriculture (CSA) groups (known as Tuv Haaretz) are receiving increased orders from Jewish community members who are interested in the eco-friendly consumption practices of local produce.

Jewish environmental groups such as Canfei Nesharim and COEJL, have argued for “eco-kashrut,” a framing of the values of kashrut around the sustainability of our earth and body.

Another constituency is primarily concerned with the mistreatment of animals. Due to the poor conditions in many factories that mass-produce meat, some consumers support only the strictest vegan products. Others are content with vegetarianism.

A growing movement, however, wishes to continue to consume meat, but only if the animals are treated properly. Small procurers of meat, such as Kol Foods, who are committed to free-range animal living while maintaining their status of glatt kosher (strictest slaughtering standards), are slowly emerging as a force in the contemporary market.

A more recent fast-growing grassroots movement has emerged to secure the rights of the workers that produce and prepare kosher food. In 2004 B’Maagalei Tzedek, an Israeli non-governmental organization, launched the Tav Chevrati (the Social Seal) to ensure that workers in restaurants are treated according to the minimum standard required by Israeli law. They have certified more than 350 restaurants in Israel with their seal. About 250 of those restaurants are certified as kosher.

In the United States, a similar project was spearheaded by Uri L?Tzedek, an Orthodox Jewish social justice organization that I co-founded, which launched the Tav HaYosher (the Ethical Seal) in the spring of 2009. The seal aims to secure workers’ rights to fair pay, fair time, and safe working conditions in kosher restaurants. A Conservative Movement initiative, Magen Tzedek is planning to certify kosher factories which have quality labor practices. Both organizations have argued that the laws of kashrut are not to be confused with Jewish ethics but that they can be intertwined in a significant way with our perception of our consumer responsibilities. In short, “ethical” does not redefine “kashrut.” Rather it is complementary and distinct.

Self Development or Just Society?

To be sure, a large portion of the Jewish community is not asking these ethical questions. Rather their primary concerns when it comes to food purchases relate to health and finances. But a growing number of Jews, of all denominations and lifestyles, are gaining inspiration from the notion that kashrut can help create a society committed to justice.

Some ask why food, among a host of other options, should be at the center of this emerging discourse around ethics. Why not focus on sneakers made in sweatshops or the automotive industry? Proponents of ethical kashrut have argued that food must come first for a few reasons:

1.The Jewish community has already demonstrated immense success using money and power to build the kosher certification system. This infrastructure and model can just as easily be used for ethical certification and awareness.

2. As Jews, we have ownership and responsibility over the kashrut industry.

3. The laws of kashrut have a unique charge to pursue holiness.

Still, some authorities and communities have explicitly rejected ethical kashrut. For example, Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesperson for Agudath Israel, believes that while the ethical treatment of animals and workers may be ideal, the lack thereof has absolutely no consequences for kashrut. Speaking metaphorically in response to this issue, Rabbi Shafran has said: “A great poet might opt to not shower, but that bad habit does not necessarily affect the quality of his writing.”

I personally believe that Jewish tradition demands more.

Rabbi Yisroel Salantar, the founder of the Mussar movement once said: “Another person’s physical concerns are my spiritual concerns.” The physical conditions of the workers that produce meat are at the center of Jewish spiritual and law. The choices of Jewish consumers regarding the treatment of workers, animals, and the earth, had and will continue to have a strong foothold in shaping our understanding of kashrut and holiness.

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