Over the last decade, the concept of mindful eating has spread through communities across the country. Most Americans now understand that there is an ethical way to eat, and that our food choices have a wide-ranging impact. And with a farmer’s market offering local, sustainable, cruelty-free foodstuffs seemingly on every doorstep, it’s easier than ever to eat the “right” way. For many Jews, keeping kosher doesn’t seem as important as making responsible choices. Does kashrut still have relevance for us in the era of sustainability?
For my family, what keeping kosher really boils down to is this: the limitation of and sanctification of eating meat as part of the Jewish emphasis on the celebration of life. The kashrut laws are designed to make us aware of the enormous responsibility that we hold as caretakers of animals and of the earth. We venerate life through the practice of kashrut every time we prepare and consume food.
Jewish tradition holds that in the Garden of Eden, humans and animals lived in harmony, eating only plants. The Torah describes both humans and animals as “nefesh chaya,” or living souls, all part of G-d’s precious creation. After the fall from Eden, G-d establishes an eternal covenant with both humans and animals. G-d allows animal sacrifice and from that, meat consumption, as part of the violence, disorder, and passion that have entered the world and the human personality. The Torah lays out restrictions on meat consumption: a ban on blood, the prohibition of almost all animals as food, a commandment to slaughter only in a way that honors life, and the separation of life (mother’s milk) from death. From these edicts the rabbis elaborated the laws of kashrut that we practice today, which permit death only if we practice a system of slaughter and consumption that continually push us to honor life.
In this way, the everyday practice of kashrut elevates eating to an individual commitment to loving kindness and peace. When we only buy meat from a few select types of healthy animals that have been carefully slaughtered and kashered, when we think about each meal and if it contains life-giving (milk) or life-ending (meat) elements, and make all our decisions about the meal, down to the silverware, and when we bear in mind the Torah’s emphasis on the needs of animals and earth and ensure that our food consumption follows these laws — these constant reminders of G-d’s presence help us to further the work of tikkun olam every day.
Jewish tradition also enriches the practice of kashrut through the concepts of kindness to animals, or tsaar baalei chayim, and sustainable living, or bal tashchit. In addition to forbidding cruel treatment to animals, the Torah and the Talmud instruct us to honor animals’ natural eating and resting patterns, not to impose an unreasonable workload (including allowing animals to rest on Shabbat!), and to respect animals’ emotional bond with their young. Such commandments reinforce the holy status of animals as “nefesh chaya” and lay out the reciprocal nature of the human/animal relationship. In considering all of creation as holy, Jewish tradition also holds us to the highest standard in protecting the earth. We are forbidden to waste or wantonly destroy, for such actions are spiritually ruinous for ourselves and for the world.
Unfortunately, over the past couple of centuries our society has managed to industrialize kosher meat production, despite the fact that Jewish law surrounding agriculture and slaughter clearly favors small, local operations. With industrialization came a lack of transparency and a disrespect for animals that are incompatible with Torah values. For this reason I became involved in local kosher meat production on a farm here in Massachusetts, using methods I felt were faithful to the principles of kashrut. As more Jews recognize the discrepancy between mainstream kosher meat and their own Jewish values, small-scale kosher meat producers sensitive to their concerns are making other options available.
Through my work in meat production and my experience in keeping kosher, I have seen how our ancient system serves as a solid framework for making ethical food choices in the modern world. Kashrut is perhaps more important now than it has ever been. Treating animals, the earth, and our bodies the right way is time-consuming, expensive, and complicated; it is difficult for the consumer to navigate the complexities of modern agriculture alone. Emphases both on individual responsibility and skilled professionalism are built into the structure of kashrut, creating a balance that protects animals and encourages awareness of where our food comes from. While the current food trends of sustainability and localism are admirable, kashrut provides a deeper, lifelong foundation for ethical personal choices and spiritual connection.
Marion Menzin has been working with farmers and shochtim for several years to provide local, sustainably raised kosher meat in the Boston area, and she leads educational workshops on shechita and kashrut. Find out more at www.lokomeat.com