Keeping Kosher

Everyone has their own reasons for choosing a good, clean, and fair diet; worker’s rights, morality, ethics, health concerns, local economies, taste, and traditions are all among the commonly-invoked refrains. One motivation that doesn’t get much attention, however, is religion. And yet, it’s not a new phenomenon to find religious imperatives behind agriculture or eating. Agrarian writer Wendell Berry has long suffused his writings with Christian themes, while sustainable ag poster-farmer Joel Salatin frames his practice in terms of safekeeping God’s creation. The Unitarian Universalist Association offers an “Ethical Eating” guide, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) runs its own Food and Faith initiative to confront fair treatment of workers, sustainable agriculture and hunger issues.

But, to me, some of the most interesting intersections of food and faith arise from the religious proscriptions on diet. Last week, the Los Angeles Times ran an article on the growing convergences between Jewish kosher practice and ethical eating, profiling some of the growing number of Jews who are interpreting kosher law, or kashrut, as an imperative for sustainable food systems. These individuals are now joining together to share farmer’s market sabbath meals and to organize farm-delivery CSAs though their synagogues. Hazon, the Jewish sustainability organization, has helped to coalesce this movement through their food program group, which organizes an annual food conference and publishes curriculum guides on kosher eating. Additionally, Hazon’s food blog, The Jew and the Carrot, has served as a community hub for sharing food safety and policy news, while also discussing the obstacles to eating more sustainably.

The LA Times article brought to mind a piece on kosher meat that ran in last year’s New York Times Magazine. In May of 2008, Agriprocessors, Inc. – the largest kosher meat supplier in the US – was raided for immigration violations, leading many Jews to question the standards for which they assumed the kosher laws had stood (Agriprocessors had also been the subject of a 2006 raid and a 2004 animal rights exposé by PETA). Interestingly enough, it wasn’t just Jewish consumers who were shocked by the animal and human rights violations: “Perhaps surprisingly, more than 70 percent of kosher-food consumers in the United States are not observant Jews; they choose kosher products because they view them as safer or rely on the strict ingredient labeling for their food allergies or other religious concerns.”  For many, “kosher” had come to symbolize high standards, but, in practice, was already by-and-large a part of our industrial food system. In response to these lagging standards, rabbinical groups around the country have championed the development of new ethical labeling standards (such as Magen Tzedek) to inform kosher consumers of additional considerations being made for worker’s symbols

The New York Times story also followed a young rabbinical student named Andy Kastner as he set about reviving the study of ritual slaughter or shechita. For him, “kosher” encapsulated a broad set of ethical and moral considerations regarding the foods we consume. As Kastner explained:

“The core of kashrut is the idea of limiting oneself, that not everything that we can consume should be consumed. I wouldn’t buy a ham sandwich, and I would also refrain from buying an exotic mangosteen imported from China, which wastes fossil fuels and is grown with pesticides.”

Kastner’s statements frame a belief that we all need to be more conscious of our eating habits, a belief that was echoed by many individuals in the LA Times story. In that article, Nigel Savage, Hazon’s executive director, argued that”Jewish tradition has a lot to say about the use of land, the treatment of animals and workers. […] Jewish tradition should heighten our awareness of the choices we are making.”

At one time, kashrut was a home-based practice that blended into the daily routines of preparing meals and feeding your family, much like the many other heritage foodways that have been abandoned for the conveniences of modern life. However, these “eco-kosher” Jews are attempting to re-forge a food system that is inherently deliberate and in-line with their traditions and values. As Nadya Strizhevskaya told the LA Times, “When we go through this very long process of preparation, we become more at one with the creation all around us. We stop taking God’s gifts for granted. For me, that’s what Judaism is all about.” And, in many ways, it is exactly what Slow Food is all about: creating a more conscious way of eating.

Thanks for sharing

  1. Liz Schwartz
    Liz Schwartz05-21-2009

    Thanks for bringing the Jewish community’s growing interest in sustainable food issues to the attention of the Slow Food community here. I recently produced a radio program for KBOO’s Yiddish Hour which was devoted to the subject of Jews, Food and Ethics. I interviewed Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a main proponent of the eco-kosher movement, as well as Rabbi Morris Allen, who founded the Heksher Tzedek Initiative, which determines which foods will be awarded the Magen Tzedek mentioned in your post. I also interviewed two of Portland’s Jewish organic farmers; they talked about how their Judaism informs their farming practices and shapes their connection to their land and sustainable growing practices. This program is available for downloading at the Website listed above.

  2. Liz Schwartz
    Liz Schwartz05-21-2009

    I also wanted to mention the program Tuv Ha’Aretz, which is administered by Hazon. Tuv Ha’Aretz translates as “Good for the land” and also “Best of the land.” It’s the first Jewish CSA program in America. Portland recently started a Tuv Ha’Aretz chapter, which partners with Sauvie Island Organics’ CSA. Portland Tuv Ha’Aretz also offers other programs and opportunities, separate from CSA membership, for Jews to connect to sustainable agriculture. For more information, go to