Ethical Kashrut and Food Justice – Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

September 23rd, 2020


An introductory note from Jewish Food Hero:

I am excited to have Rabbi Dr. Shmuly  Yanklowitz share to guide us in understanding Ethical Kashrut and Food Justice.

Recently, I shared some thoughts about a movement towards Ethical Kashrut. Broadly speaking, this is about the meaning of Kashrut in the modern world – in the context of industrial farming, for example. Rabbi Dr. Shmuly is a Jewish leader who has been inspiring for me personally as I continue on my path as a Jewish vegan. He has shared his insights with our community before, focused on a Jewish understanding of animal welfarePlease respond to share your views in the comments!

Now, over to Rabbi. Dr Shmuly Yanklowitz:

Inspiration from our rituals

The laws of kashrut are, for some, the most spiritually powerful everyday Jewish rituals. For others, the system seems archaic and out of touch with their food choices. How might our Torah teachings on kashrut inspire a moral and spiritual revolution? Can this be compelling, both for those committed to traditional dietary laws and those who are not? 

To do what is yashar v’tov, what is right and good. 

In the depths of Jewish tradition, one refrain echoes through each and every story, each and every kosher law: to do what is yashar v’tov, what is right and good. For millennia, the purpose of living a Jewish life has been to uplift the soul to perform its heavenly duties here on earth and bring about positive change to a world occupied with conflict. 

Yet the contemporary reality of kashrut poses a pronounced difficulty for the Jewish people. 

Reframing Kashrut with Contemporary Moral Significance

A commitment to the timeless ritual of kashrut is a powerful vehicle for Jewish survival and continuity. However, the fact that food is kosher does not always mean that eating it is ethical, per se. For many, kashrut involves a commitment to a Torah tradition without any deeper moral relevance. But to me, we can reframe the spiritual enterprise of kashrut. By doing so, we can meet humanity’s ethical obligation to tend to the earth and the heavens. This includes tending to the virtues of workers’ dignity, animal welfare, environmental justice, and human health. 

An anecdote about Kashrut and dignity

At heart, kashrut is about dignity. An anecdote about a rabbinic ethicist helps us understand this concept. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter was the founder of Judaism’s modern character development movement: mussar. One spring, before Passover, he was called to certify the kosher status of a matzah factory. As he inspected the factory, he observed the conditions thoroughly. He saw that the matzah, the unleavened bread, was made according to the letter of halacha, law. Yet, after inspecting every aspect of the factory, Rabbi Salanter refused certification. Why?

Rabbi Salanter explained that he refused to certify the factory’s products because of the poor treatment of its workers. The women were overworked, their pay was insufficient, and their needs were ignored. Because his moral compass would not allow the consumption of products prepared unethically, Rabbi Salanter refused to certify the factory’s matzah as fit for use on the holiday when Jews tell the story of their ancestors’ release from enslavement. 

Kashrut and a Moral Compass

Many migrants work in restaurants. Do we notice them? Do we understand how easily they may be exploited for their work because they do not enjoy the rights and protections that citizens have? These are some of the questions which a movement towards Ethical Kashrut demands us to consider. 

The ritual laws alone are not enough

Such a commitment to ethical concerns – which is technically separate from the kosher laws themselves – is necessary. It shows that we should always interweave supplemental moral mandates with ritual laws. Indeed, when we don’t remember that we are here to respect and cherish the works of the Divine, we concede our moral primacy as human beings. With an ethical commitment, kosher consumers must move toward greater concern not just for the humans involved in food production processes. We absolutely must have more concern for animal welfare. Such a seemingly ‘supplemental’ moral approach will impact all corners of the meat industry in a transformational way. 

Harnessing consumer power 

The ever-growing number of kosher consumers who wish to make the industry more accountable should be agitating for change. The American kosher industry will continue to import meat from Uruguay, Argentina, and other major exporting countries—where cruel methods of slaughter will continue unabated—if kosher consumers keep purchasing it. The elevation of the bottom line over Godly respect for animals should bring about greater communal introspection. If we fail to do this, we neglect our sacred duty as stewards of the earth. 

(For suggestions of how to incorporate Ethical Kashrut into your everyday life from today, see Jewish Food Hero’s Essential Guide to Ethical Kosher Today)

Basic ritual requirements are merely the beginning

Nachmanides—also known as the Ramban—wrote that a person can be naval birshut ha’Torah, a repulsive person with the permission of the Torah. It is not enough, he argued, to follow the letter of the law. If we wish to be moral and holy, we must go further. His specific example, in fact, is one who keeps kosher but is morally oblivious and gluttonous with kosher meat. 

Kashrut is indeed about far more than some technical ritual preparation. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik offers the thought that halakhah is a “merely a floor not a ceiling.

 “Thus, while Torah is the basis of a Jew’s life, it is not, to use another metaphor, set in cement; one can and should build upon God’s revelation.”Rabbi Walter S. Wurzburger

Fulfilling basic ritual requirements is merely the beginning. We only truly serve God when we consider the moral and spiritual dimensions involved with each religious act. 

Reflecting on the past as we move forward

When we reflect on the laws of kashrut, as taught in our holy Torah, let us find inspiration in the timeless traditions to keep the Jewish people nourished. At the same time, let us reflect on the ethical dimensions of food consumption that help enable us to thrive morally today.

Please, share your thoughts with me and our community in the comments below. What does Ethical Kashrut and Food Justice mean to you, today?

About Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 18 books on Jewish ethicsNewsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews

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