Jewish Food and Humanistic Ethics

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.

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4 thoughts on “Jewish Food and Humanistic Ethics

  1. I keep complete kosher inside and outside of the home. Cholov yisrael, pas yisrael, uber strict on pesach, etc. Your argument about kashrut separating us (Jews) from the rest of society, I’m still trying to figure out why that is a bad thing. This country was founded in order to allow people to have religious freedom, not freedom from religion. While that may also be your “free” choice, not assimilating is in many ways very “American.” But why, as a Jew or any other religion or culture, would you want to forgo your ancestral ways and trade them in to be just like everyone else?

    • Ah, but what you said I’ve said is not quite what I said. And we’re not starting from the same places.

      I’m starting as a humanistic Jew. I don’t accept that revelation requires kashrut because I don’t accept that Judaism is the result of revelation; indeed, I don’t accept the notion of one Judaism, the diminution of which is problematic. I don’t accept that because the historical record does not bear out monolithic Jewish life, and because reason and evidence lead me to conclude that revelation didn’t happen.

      (The U.S. is arguably not founded for the purpose of free exercise of religion; the Puritans were perfectly happy to exclude everyone but themselves from the Massachusetts Bay Colony (else we would not have Rhode Island), and Maryland would not have been officially Catholic. That’s a separate issue, though, from the basic assertion that my position doesn’t otherwise make sense.)

      Things aren’t good simply because they’re old, or traditional; that is especially true of practices. And it is especially true of practices that do not conform to one’s ideology; practicing something inconsistent from what one believes and advocates is not meritorious, on my view. It would be hypocritical of me, however, to advocate a humanistic approach to Judaism–one that affirmatively values truth from whatever source, and that argues for a universal view of our obligations towards others (whatever their identity)–but to then keep strictly kosher as that set of practices is defined by whoever I would pick (and whom to pick?!) as a recognized halakhic authority. And how much more so is that the case when I know firsthand the effect upon others whom I value of a set of practices (here, kashrut) that is inconsistent with both what they and I believe?

      I think “assimilation” misses the point. It’s a reactive term and indicates a desire to build fences. If building fences is consistent with one’s thought, then the associated practices should be followed. If building fences is not consistent with one’s thought–particularly if one sets aside the notion of divine revelation or mandate behind the fences–then one arguably ought not build fences. (For what it’s worth, I think talk about assimilation in other liberal groups indicates what’s wrong in many areas of the liberal Jewish world–there’s an intellectual inconsistency in these groups that makes them, for lack of a less vulgar phrase at the moment, unable to “piss or get off the pot.”)

      I’m a humanistic Jew. Recognizing, appreciating, and identifying with the broad spectrum of Jewish life and culture, all of which is tempered with conclusions that the traditional approach to Torah is at the very least simply not normative in light of evidence and reason. And humanistic values require that accommodations be made. I understand that others don’t agree. I understand that and can live with that, however difficult it may make things for me, because personal integrity requires no less.

      But I also think it makes me no less Jewish. No one with whom I interact would think me not Jewish simply because I don’t keep kosher. History tells me that Jews have built Judaism, and that we must continue to do so if we wish it to flourish. That requires intentionality; each flavor of Judaism may have its own set of purposes, and it may find value in different texts or traditions, but it makes that flavor of Judaism no less Jewish.

  2. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, as you know. And I always have respected your flavor, brand, observance, whatever you want to call it, of Judaism that you practice. You and I are on complete polar opposites of the spectrum, but that’s why I like to read your blog, it gives a different side of things. Some times I agree with what you write, others I don’t and choose not to comment because it doesn’t matter.

    I chose to comment today because I’ve been seeing things pop up all over the internet about Jews and kashrut – or lack thereof – recently.

    When I keep kosher, yes, it does keep me out of non-kosher restaurants. I do do things that are within a more Jewish setting. But, as a Jew, I know that we have an obligation to not only light the lamps of Jews, but also of the non-Jews. And to think that kashrut is building a wall around me so that I become so insular I forget about the obligation to also light the lamps of non-Jews or unaffiliated Jews, that’s not what I’m seeing.

    I’m glad that you practice Judaism in the way that you want to practice it. However, to make a blanket statement that keeping kosher is, in essence, building a wall between the observer and the rest of the world, I beg to differ.

    As for the straight out ethics of shechita, personally, I will only Wise Farms meat. It’s an organic brand that I stand by the practices of the shochtim and also the way the animals are raised. I don’t eat other meat. I was vegan until a few months ago. Vegan and stictly kosher. Does this mean that others choices are wrong? Well, in the end, the animal’s soul is elevated for a higher purpose, so I guess, in the end, the animal also wins.

    Of course I realize we are both coming from different places. That’s what creates a debate. It’s just interesting to hear all of these Jews recently saying, “Why can’t we just have pork with milk?! If we do it ethically, it’s Jewish.” And for someone to argue that they don’t believe in revelation but to claim Judaism in another aspect is also very interesting to me.

    I don’t mean to be rude in any of my writing. I just think that we all see this one issue in vastly different ways, in ways that also hurt my soul. I thank you for sharing your thoughts and for allowing others to share theirs also.

    • Oh, I don’t think it rude at all; please don’t think that. We do start from very different premises and have very different commitments, but these are premises and commitments reached with intention. To some extent, they’ll be incommensurable; that’s just kind of how the epistemic cookie crumbles. My point is less to inform or affect those who have made a decision with intention (that category of people would include you, Chana), and more to prompt those who don’t give it much thought. Which is, I think, a goodly number of Jews. And I recognize there’s a lot of slipperiness associated with what’s Jewish; but that’s historically always been true–Hamantaschen started as German cookies called mohntaschen, after all, and so much of what we call Jewish food is food that was adopted from our non-Jewish neighbors throughout the world.

      (Note: what follows is VERY long. I didn’t reply right away because I wanted to give this some thought. I’ve tried to be as clear and coherent as possible, because your thoughtful comments require thoughtful responses. Also, this thing has been edited off and on over a number of days, so I can’t claim it will be entirely coherent. Yay for the Web?)

      I should probably have qualified both my initial post and my comment a bit more clearly to say that I’m approaching the matter from a humanistic Jewish perspective. That perspective starts from the idea that all of Torah is constructed, not revealed, and ethics are not grounded in Torah, but in the interests of the happiness of the world at large. I know, of course, that the traditional response is that the Torah has those interests, but an ethical system that differentiates duties toward and restrictions as to treatment of Jews from non-Jews isn’t really what we mean in humanistic Jewish ethics. The traditional view of Torah is as a redemptive process that centers on the Jewish people; we’re more universalist than that, and look to the foreseeable consequences of conduct that has an ethical effect. If the consequences are problematic, the conduct is problematic.

      As to Judaism without revelation, we’ve got nearly 150 years of history of liberal and secular Jewish movements that show it can be done. (David Ben-Gurion openly avowed himself basically a humanist, and interestingly his political foil, Menachem Begin, thought similarly on many things.) And it’s problematic for people to claim Einstein, Bashevis-Singer, Begin, Ben-Gurion, etc., as Jewish, but then say that Jewishness is a matter of halakhah only. (Not that you have done so, Chana–you haven’t, of course. But in trying to articulate something internally consistent, I want to make sure I at least nod to the problems that come from being inconsistent on a thing for other readers.)

      Setting aside the counterexample bit, historically we see many different Jewish approaches to the nature and content of revelation–from literal dictation of texts, to selection of only certain texts, to some modern approaches that say fuzzy things like scripture reflecting peoples’ experience of the world and the record of their wrestling with its broader meaning, where that force of reason and nature is what they meant by “God.” That last bit, of course, is hardly what one would credibly call revelation, and makes it not too far to say, “no revelation, this is the product of the genius of the varieties of Jewish people and cultures over 3,000 years”–which is the humanistic (and, for that matter, also pretty Reconstructionist) Jewish approach. That approach makes us accountable for what Jewish life and Judaism become; a lot of liberal forms of Judaism pay this lip service but fall short otherwise, sometimes going so far as to acknowledge that they are deviating as an accomodation to the modern world (this is how Conservative Judaism got people to be able to drive on Shabbat–it was an “emergency” decree of sorts; the Conservative movement remains kind of fuzzy on what is or isn’t in-bounds on interpreting halakhah).

      To the other bits. (What follows, then, is a kind of unpacking of what came before–though, ironically, the unpacking may be more dense than the original packaging. Philosophy is funny like that.) I don’t think the Hasidic understanding of the commandments and of conduct makes sense without a particular notion of what revelation is about, what Torah observance “actually” does, etc. I simply don’t share that understanding because I don’t find it persuasive or proven. It’s not so much that I mean to bunny-stomp on others’ impressions, but I think it’s important for people who haven’t considered a choice or acted with intention (this, of course, is so in not your case, Chana) to have a clear (if perhaps somewhat blunt) view of the calculus at work.

      For example, I cannot conclude that I have a sufficient basis in reason or evidence to state that kosher slaughter of an animal for consumption is elevating its soul for a higher purpose; it’s the slaughter of one thing to sustain another. I’m unable to accept a view with significant personal and normative consequences that I can’t see as having been proved, and I don’t think it’s intellectually honest to fill in gaps where I don’t know a thing with, “It must be the result of divine action.” That assessment is a consequence of a philosophical approach (by which I mean “real” philosophy, not the slippery “my personal view on life” we sometimes mean when we say the word, philosophy). I think it’s up for grabs whether and when consuming an animal is an ethically appropriate thing, but I also realize I am not perfect and, even if I do conclude that it’s not ethically appropriate (and I need appropriate criteria to reach that conclusion), I may not meet my own expectations. (For the record, I think it’s ethically problematic from an environmental perspective, but realize the difficulties associated with foregoing meat in my diet. I also think the ethics of animal slaughter are problematic, but again, there are challenges with that. Which doesn’t mean I ought not bother to try–just that I won’t succeed in every case, or perhaps even in most cases.)

      I think all of these are about making (sometimes painful) choices; sometimes a boundary is built as a consequence of those choices. I used to think it did not, but I am convinced by experience, empathy, and reason that I was mistaken. It isn’t necessarily comfortable to say it that way. But to say, “I won’t ______ because _______” when others present the opportunity is to make a choice. To the extent declining an opportunity means that we create divisions or distinctions among persons, that decision draws a boundary; that is true in any context, and our comfort level with the idea simply has to yield. It is what it is.

      Does keeping kosher at home and out erect boundaries? I think that’s unavoidably the case; when one says “No, because,” that person still erects a boundary, whether or not it appears that way from the individual’s perspective. But it’s also unavoidably the case that my choice not to keep kosher erects boundaries towards others; I freely recognize that my decisions draw boundaries. As a humanistic Jew, I erect a the boundaries in different places. That doesn’t mean they aren’t boundaries, however I might seek to defend them.

      How I defend those boundaries restst on a humanistic ethic that stands without recognition of revelation. It generally is a consequentialist or utilitarian ethical tradition that seeks to maximize happiness, where happiness is not “Yay, I’m happy!,” but is that state which most encourages the development of human potential. In that setting, where are the greatest number of synergies going to come from the increase happiness–from keeping kosher, or not? Jews don’t mind if I keep kosher, and I’m fine with Jews keeping kosher so far as these things operate within my interactions with other Jews. But turning away a friend because I keep kosher does not tend to maximize happiness; the unique situation in my original post was that the friends were scholars of religion who were able to (relatively) dispassionately discuss what was happening and what it meant. Nevertheless, one was hurt; the other did not change and did not actually credit the harm as having been inflicted.

      That does not mean that kashrut is unethical in all circumstances. But there are many more contexts in most Jews’ lives where insistence upon kashrut is harmful to human happiness, and the demands of a smaller number of Jews upon the larger number of Jews may not be sufficient to tilt that balance because the larger number of Jewish live an essentially secular life. And since many of the smaller number of Jews wouldn’t eat in the larger number of Jews’ homes anyway, what is the point of strict kashrut that affects the larger numbers’ relationships in the broader world? If the point is that it’s a marker of Jewish identity, then why that marker versus others? If the point is that it’s halakhically mandated, why those halakhic requirements? A secularly-minded–and especially a humanistic–Jew making choices like this should make them intentionally, with their consequences in mind, and be willing to accept the consequences of those choices upon themselves and, importantly for an ethical determination, be able to articulate an at-least reasonable justification for those choices as they affect others.

      For someone who is halakhically observant, the ethics of this is very different because it’s not a consequentialist/utilitarian ethic; it’s a divine command ethic. But, again, it’s not that it doesn’t create boundaries; it does, and the text of the Torah acknowledges that the commandments create boundaries.

      But a halakhically-observant individual will have shifted many of their social boundaries into the Jewish community and away from much of the broader society, and will sometimes find functioning in broader society to be more challenging as a consequence of that shift. That’s entirely consistent with that person’s position, but it still creates problems that, to the extent they affect relationships with other people, have ethical ramifications. An “Orthodox” Jewish ethic will at some point have to give in, drop the reason-based ethics that are sometimes claimed, and say, ultimately, “This line we do not cross because we are commanded not to do so.” Or it can say, revealed or not, this choice is made because this is the thing that most enhances the happiness of those with whom I interact (which would skew very heavily Jewish anyway). But the consequent changes in patterns of personal associations will often have the effect of not affecting non-Jewish society too broadly–though, notably, even in the ancient world authors who were otherwise well-disposed toward Jews thought dietary restrictions odd and isolating. (Those who were unfriendly to Jews just characterized the dietary restrictions as bordering upon barbarous.)

      It’s not that this kind of ethics is inconsistent or irrational within itself; it’s not. It’s very reasoned in relation to its premises. But the premises are not themselves capable of rational or evidentiary proof, which is why humanist Jews don’t accept the premises or the rules that follow from them.

      But here’s what I just did–I slipped the frame of reference in my discussion by not marking what I meant by ethical. Because I begged the question, talking about liberal Jewish life, of what ethics consists of. I applied a consequentialist ethics that assumes the broadest possible measurable human happiness as the ultimate point of ethics. Note that this still works in marking kashrut as ethical in observant Jewish communities and in organizations whose primary function is Jewish life; the broadest measurable human happiness in those contexts is advanced by kashrut.

      But that simply is not the case in heavily non-Jewish contexts. One can hope that non-Jews will be affected or persuaded by Jewish observance, but I’m not convinced that is the case often enough for liberal Jews to do other than what they mostly do in non-Jewish company. And I think liberal Jews largely unconsciously–that is, without intention–find their way to that position. The lack of intention is its own problem; but that’s a problem for another day.

      So, I hope that clarifies some of where I was going. It is, at bottom, a result of some fundamental disagreements on reality. Those consequences are, I think, probably unavoidable. But it’s important to be able to talk about them–it doesn’t really happen much otherwise!

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