Rabbi Adam Chalom, rabbi at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in the Chicago area and dean of the U.S. division of IISHJ, posted this entry about the Jewishness of food as well as fasting. As I “turn[ed] it and turn[ed] it” (Pirke Avot 5:22) in my head, as well as other Humanistic Jewish writing about the status of issues of food and kashrut, I was reminded of a discussion I had in graduate school with one of my professors about the effect of the laws of kashrut on non-Jews. This conversation stuck with me, and I’m going to reflect on that and the ethical problems associated with maintaining kashrut.
(For my more traditionally-oriented Jewish readers: by now, you must have figured out I’m more or less a raging apikoros; I’d have to be to cite Torah and Talmud to reach the results I do. You won’t like what’s after the jump; I think you need to hear it, but you’ll likely disagree. I’m not picking a fight; it simply is what it is.)
First, the background. As a master’s student in religion, I was at least nominally on a biblical studies/early Judaism/early Christianity track. But I was always at least a little curious about other issues–anything to avoid doing more Greek, I suppose!–and so I took a number of philosophy and ethics classes that were offered in our department. Eventually, after reading Kant, I did an individual tutorial/independent study with one of the main ethics professors in the department where we read a translation of Hermann Cohen’s Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism, which was a neo-Kantian approach to Judaism as an essentially Kantian, rational form of religion. Cohen’s approach to his subject attempted to salvage, among other things, observance of the dietary laws. (Cohen himself maintained the dietary laws.)
As I discussed this with the ethics professor, he observed that one of his friends in the department (my advisor) kept kosher at home, and that not being able to bring food to the home was problematic as a matter of etiquette. This had not (as a then twenty-one-year-old) occurred to me. But the purpose of my graduate studies at the time was to prepare me to attend a Conservative movement rabbinical school (this never ended up happening), and so I filed that objection away as interesting but explicable and justifiable.
As I’ve reconsidered my Jewish commitments over the years, I remember that discussion and rethink it from time to time. Mrs. Secular Jew and I attempted, once or twice, to keep kosher, but it never took and never made sense to us. It never made sense to her because it always seemed just absurd on its face, and I just lacked the ideological disposition, personal discipline, and resources to keep it up. (It’s Indiana, after all, and at the time we were living in downtown Indianapolis, outside the nucleus of the halakhically-observant portions Jewish community).
Over time, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that my ethics professor had reached: insisting on kashrut is counterproductive to existing, even Jewishly, among non-Jews. But I’ve reached something past that; I think it’s actively unethical to keep kosher in most modern contexts. Interactions with those who do keep kosher have (ironically?) had the effect of putting me and Mrs. Secular Jew in the outsider’s position, which has driven me to the conclusion I’ve reached.
Before moving forward, I want to make clear what ground I’m staking out. I don’t have concerns with, say, Jewish community organizations maintaining kashrut requirements in their facilities, or with Orthodox Jews who won’t have non-Jews visiting (e.g., most haredi Jews) doing so. (I have separate ethical concerns about the very practice of haredi-style Judaism, and those concerns necessarily wrap the issue of kashrut up into them, but that’s a separate question.)
I’m also not staking out ground that claims it is ethically wrong to insist on vegetarianism or veganism–or celiac-friendly, or shellfish-free, or what have you–in one’s home. These sets of restrictions are, I think, of a different sort than kashrut, and are ethically defensible (though not mandatory) in cases where kashrut is not, broadly speaking, ethically defensible. (In fact, I’ll be arguing that in a bit.)
Ethically, then, why not kashrut? First, let’s dispense with the silliness of kosher eating being ethical eating. In and of itself, it’s not. The videos from the kosher slaughterhouses show that shechitah–the process by which an animal is slaughtered in compliance with halakhah–is not necessarily any less cruel (i.e., more ethical) than any other form of slaughter. Kashrut does not win from an ethical perspective that seeks to minimize cruelty.
The crux of my ethical concerns with kashrut lies in the anti-humanistic values that come from the selection of kashrut as a boundary. Rabbinical traditions acknowledge that the laws of kashrut are like “mountains hanging from a hair,” and thus we’re left without rational explanations for the specific reasons for the laws. The Torah’s text does provides us with some reasons; one may not eat something that “died or was torn by beasts, thereby becoming unclean.” (Lev. 22:8, New JPS translation) Why? “I am the Lord.” (Id.) Why not something with a blemish? Because such animals are unsuitable for sacrifice, and “I am the Lord.” (Lev. 22:21-30) “You shall not eat anything that has died a natural death; give it to the stranger in your community to eat, or sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” (Deut. 14:26)
These are the biblical restrictions that give rise to rabbinic restrictions on the condition of meat, its proper slaughter and preparation, and what foods can be eaten together. More remote from the biblical proscriptions are the rabbinic prohibitions on consuming wine, the preparation of which has not been supervised by Sabbath-observant Jews–and certainly no wine offered as libations to idols, etc.
Why do I bring these up? Because the laws of kashrut (along with other laws, like the laws concerning the eruv for Shabbat and holidays) serve the function–indeed, have as their aim–of separating Jews from non-Jews. They are rooted in traditional notions of chosen-ness, the idea that a universal deity has made a special arrangement with a very particular people, upon whose shoulders the fate of the world at least partially rides.
And then, we go out into the world but bizarrely try to keep it at bay, claiming special privilege to do so because we are chosen. And even when we claim to be the “choosing” people–people who choose to keep the Torah, who chose the Torah at Sinai, or whatever liberal Jewish permutation we come up with–we are choosing to keep our friends at bay.
In short, we act in a manner that possesses in spite and one-upmanship what it lacks in empathy. When for so long we were rejected from the world, we turn the tables and say, “Thank you for admission to society. But your wine is not good enough. Your food is not good enough. Because we are consecrated to God. We are a nation of priests, thankyouverymuch.”
The traditional Jewish approach treats the very basics of life as subject to and instruments of separation and distinction. That, in turn, carries over to facets of Jewish life that cease to be only about celebration and turn into divisiveness. As Rabbi Chalom notes, we often talk about holidays as “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat!” But then, as on Pesach, our tradition commemorates freedom with celebration of the spilling of blood and the expropriation of another’s wealth, or with calls for divine wrath to fall upon non-Jews. (Indeed, the last of these is a routine part of daily synagogue services in the Aleinu prayer.)
The remedy, I think, is to be universal–to be broadly ethical–in our basic, daily living habits.
This does not mean “go eat pork!” Unless you want to, I mean, and if you do so in a mindful manner (more on that in a moment). But it does demand that we ask, “What is it to eat ethically, whether from a traditional Jewish perspective or a humanist perspective–or both?”
From a humanist perspective, as Rabbi Sherwin Wine noted, we recognize other dietary rules–ones that are salutary to human health, not merely ethnic health. It means that, as we are all that we can be sure are mindful of this world–and we are certainly dependent upon it–making choices that are in our interests and in the interests of the planet that supports us.
It also means dropping the notion of command, code, failure, and guilt that comes with traditional Jewish modes of eating. Can one eat a cheeseburger and still express solidarity with the Jewish people on Pesach? Apparently so, although I have to say I’m not sure how well matzo holds up to a burger patty. It was never possible to eat perfectly kosher; the rabbis recognized as much, and complex rules concerning unknown amounts of treyf or “cross-contamination” of dairy into meat and vice versa arose.
But when we recognize that our obligations are to one another, how we address those issues necessarily changes. We must, I think, remain mindful, but that mindfulness takes on a different focus.
So, should we be vegetarian or vegan? To the extent we can lessen the harm done to our environment by growing the food we need to survive, it may well be a wise choice. But ethics in the humanist vein–in the vein that recognizes the imperfection of the world and of ourselves–does not, I think call for a hard line. We may deviate at times, whether because of what we might term “weakness,” or necessity, or availability. The key to ethical eating in the humanist vein is, I think, mindful eating with an aim toward minimizing harm under the circumstances.
Can one eat kosher ethically? Yes, in the appropriate setting. But as a broader human question we should not draw almost-tribal lines between ourselves and others. Such lines are not, I think, ethical in the broader contexts of American life and of liberal American Jewish life. And where humanity’s needs start, Jewish “needs” must at least at times yield.
I don’t mean here to gainsay the difficulties involved with knowing when the need to bend may arise. The complexities in discerning that–in knowing when, why, and how to vary on ethical grounds–are considerable. It may be, as Peter Singer has long insisted, that any consumption of animals as food is wrong. He would have a sort of fellow-traveler in Isaac Bashevis Singer and the character of Jacob in Singer’s novel, The Slave. And though we find it uncomfortable in the Jewish world to acknowledge such models, let alone to embrace them, the dispute in early Christianity about eating non-kosher food and drink, and the role of that and so many other practices as a divider in the early church, should at least give us pause to consider whether continued kashrut in liberal Judaism might not regularly do more harm than good.
There are Jewish reasons to yield. There are Jewish precedents for doing so. Failure to yield when required–failure to yield when unacceptable barriers among people is the inevitable result–is when, I think, kashrut becomes unethical.
Sometimes what is on your plate may show what is in your heart. It’s a lesson I learned sixteen years ago, though I did not know it at the time. Would that I had consciously learned it sooner.