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Mira Sucharov

Kashrut and Jewish Values Redux

By Mira Sucharov, February 22, 2011

In my community involvements, I am often faced with the question of whether Jewish values and everyday values are congruent. Back in 2008, I wrote a column in The Ottawa Jewish Bulletin about the fundamental conflict I see between kashrut and most everything else I believe in when it comes to the ethics of food. I ended on an optimistic note, as I let readers know about a then-new intitative called Magen Tzedeck (literally seal of justice), a stamp that the Conservative movement was developing to indicate that a kosher product also fulfills ethical labour, environmental and animal-welfare standards, standards that the founders of Magen Tzedeck believe are indeed embedded in halakha.

But now I find myself more frustrated. While the Magen Tzedeck initiative boasts a shiny new website, and I wholeheartedly applaud their efforts, it still has yet to have certified its first product. (The site declares that it expects to do so this year.) And it is far from a household word. Similarly, eco-kashrut doesn’t seem to have caught on much beyond New York -- where anything Jewish remains possible.

Of course it’s not for me to necessarily point out the awful mess that fills many grocery carts across the continent. I leave that to pathbreaking writers and tastemakers like food journalist and author Michael Pollan.

But what I do think we should give some serious thought to is the ethical food standards by which we require our community events to operate. Some weeks ago I attended a Jewish communal fundraising event. It was a wonderful evening: tasteful, inspiring, and inculcating a fantastic spirit of volunteerism. But we couldn’t eat from the ceramic plates that the venue had in stock; though spotlessly clean and empty of any treif, they would not be deemed “kosher” by the strictest standards. Instead, we ate our brief meal on a giant pile of styrofoam while the china dishes sat undisturbed on the shelf next to us.

I certainly think we should be inclusive and considerate of the dining requirements of all members of our community. But I do think that we need to reevaluate the values that guide us when it comes to food. Tradition wonderfully serves to gird a community and give meaning to new generations who can see themselves as links in a long chain of history. But when it come to global food issues, we’re no longer at the point where being kosher simply means forgoing the convenience of KFC. Food politics has become too important to be left to tradition alone.

Should all of our community-wide activities be automatically kosher to the strictest degree, even if this means the use of styrofoam and plastic, and the ingestion of trans fats and antibiotic-addled beef? (And how many frighteningly unpronounceable ingredients are there in the pareve cakes we serve at community celebrations?) Could we figure out some new standard that would allow individuals who choose to keep strictly kosher to be accommodated under an umbrella that respects tradition and other ethical concerns?

Which brings me to my struggle over the concept of values. Beyond adherence to halakha, what is the actual content of Jewish values? And when we say values, do we really mean values, or do we mean practices? This is the test I put to you today: if kashrut is actually a value (rather than simply a set of practices), how would you meaningfully describe the value beyond simply saying “thus God commanded?”

I certainly wish a high degree of Jewish literacy for my kids. I want them to be able to discuss Jewish law and standards from a position of knowledge. But I also want them to have a deep respect for animals, workers, their own bodies, and of the earth. And, sadly, we know that in 21st century North America, eating kosher often (though not always) forces us to bracket these other values.

Our God-fearing ancestors would have faced almost none of these tradeoffs. For them, “local,” “seasonal,” and “organic” would have been the norm. Industrial farming, pesticides, soda pop, and transfats would have been unimaginable artifacts of the future.

Apparently there is a new kosher section at Walmart in west Ottawa. I am happy for my friends who keep kosher. But I cannot ultimately find myself feeling spiritually elevated by the thought that more imported, factory-farmed beef will be filling Ottawa’s Jewish plates. Much more excited would I be if I learned that our community events were going to be serving local, organic grass-fed beef or free-range chicken (with a kosher certification, sure). For me, that would be truly spiritual; that would be tikkun olam; that would feel to me like a deli-sized portion of the kind of Jewish -- and universal -- values that I truly care about.

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