Our relationship with eating is one of our most intimate experiences of the earth. When we eat, we take another life into our own. We consume life in order to live. How do we do this with respect? How do we take life, and yet maintain our sensitivity to life?
Kashrut – rooted in the Bible, and developed by the Rabbis – is the Jewish tradition’s clearly delineated response to this challenge. Kashrut sets limits on what foods we can eat: for example, we can only eat certain (primarily domesticated) animals, and we must slaughter them in the least painful, most respectful way. The blood must be drained and buried, because the life is in the blood and must be returned to the earth. There are also prohibitions against eating shellfish, and the mixing of meat and milk products.
We felt a need to expand this traditional understanding of Kashrut to include global environmental and social issues which the Rabbis of two thousand years ago did not face. In conversation with Jewish people in many communities, we have developed the following tentative guidelines for a Kashrut which speaks to our planetary concerns.
1. We are concerned about the earth as a living being, including the soil, water, air and all the planet’s living systems. It is important to choose foods which are produced, transported and packaged in a way that is sustainable and not harmful to the earth. For us this means buying organic foods even when they cost more, and we also try to choose foods grown locally – or grow our own! This minimizes transportation and connects us to the earth’s natural cycles.
2. We are concerned not only with how animals are slaughtered, but also how they are raised. Animals are often treated as commodities, to be “manufactured” as efficiently as possible for maximum profit. The resulting “factory farms” are appalling places, filled with unspeakable suffering. Upon reading John Robbins’ description of them in Diet for A New America, we decided to avoid all animal products that have not been raised humanely and respectfully.
3. We are concerned about the health of our bodies. We are responsible for taking good care of the bodies that God has given to us. Too much food can be destructive to our systems – especially if it is full of fat and sugar. Tobacco, alcohol, caffeine and other drugs can also be harmful. We eat mostly whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes and nuts. We try to pay attention to how our bodies feel about the food we are eating and to make our meals as nourishing and pleasing as possible.
4. We are concerned about the people who produce and prepare our food. We have extended Kashrut to include concern for how the people who grow and harvest it are treated. We use our food dollars to support growers and producers who demonstrate concern for their workers (and we avoid, for example, commercially produced grapes in response to the United Farm Workers’ boycott). We also use the Council for Economic Priority’s guide Shopping For A Better World to identify and support socially responsible producers.
5. We are concerned that all people have enough to eat. This concern motivated both of us to become vegetarians years ago. We learned from Frances Moore Lappé’s book, Diet for A Small Planet, that animals are an extremely wasteful source of protein: more food would be available for everyone if people ate much less meat. The increasing production of nonessential foods for export from many Third World countries also contributes to the lack of basic foods for their inhabitants, so we try to avoid specialty items such as coffee and summer fruits out of season.
6. We are concerned that our dietary practice should not separate us from other people. While our system of Kashrut is very important to us, so are our connections with people. We try to balance our commitment to keeping kosher with an openness to breaking bread with others. There are some foods we aren’t willing to eat, like meat – but we try to remain flexible for the sake of community. We communicate our guidelines to people who invite us into their homes, and we enjoy sharing the meaning of our dietary practices with people who come into ours.
Traditional Kashrut offers people clear and consistent rules to live by. Today, however, we are not in a position to formulate rules for a planetary Kashrut. Instead we need to articulate the questions to be asked, the issues to be considered. These questions do not always lead to clear answers – in the real world, we must often weigh one concern against another. But asking questions and making conscious choices about the food we eat leads to an awareness of our relationship to the life around us. Our practice of Kashrut continues to teach us much about our ties to the living world, and the sanctity of all life.
Nahum is the Rabbi of Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, CA. Shelley is a health educator and serves on the Board of Directors of Shomrei Adamah (Guardians of the Earth, a national Jewish environmental organization).