Joel has served as the rabbi of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, New Jersey, since 2001. He is the husband of Elyssa and the Abba to Ari and Lev. Joel and his family have taken on issues of the environment, food, and sustainability in the most serious manner, and in the context of their faith. On a personal note, no one could have better friends than the Mosbachers, who have loved us and sustained us in some difficult times, who are fantastic and fun travel companions, and who really know how to accessorize a veggie dog :-)
I spent a summer at Kayam Farm in Reisterstown, MD, working in the fields in the morning and studying Jewish texts on farming and food in the afternoon; it was a glorious summer kollel; I intend to return and invite you to join me!
One of the great challenges and growth areas for me that summer was living in intentional community with a diverse group of Jews– from the most secular to the most Orthodox. Among all the many things we did together as a community living in tents, we had a communal kitchen that was to be a kosher kitchen. Fair enough.
But for a community of Jews trying to live off the land, learning deeply about ancient Jewish values regarding food, we had many questions about the expansiveness of kashrut.
Could Susie’s Jam from a farmer’s market without a hechsher be kosher? Jam that contained nothing but fruit and fruit pectin in jars that Susie had never used for anything else, produced on machinery that had never been used for anything else? According to halakha, such jam should be kosher. But, according to my Orthodox farm friend, “it’s not what we do.”
On the other hand, we witnessed the kosher slaughter of a goat that summer– a powerful experience in and of itself. The goat was slaughtered to the glatt standard, and yet, when I asked the shochet how it had been raised, he said, “what does that matter?” Had it been shackled its whole life? Had it been fed things goats never were meant to eat? Did it breathe a moment of fresh air, ever graze fresh grass? According to traditional standards of kashrut, such things don’t matter for the sake of kashrut at all.
I don’t believe we should abrogate or ignore traditional kashrut standards. I do believe, though, that we should actually raise our kashrut standards on the one hand, and lower them on the other.
On the one hand, I think kashrut should be as much about how animals live as how they died.
I think kashrut should take into consideration how the fruits and vegetables we eat were grown, whether or not they’re bathed in pesticides, whether or not the workers who tended and harvested them were paid a living wage.
Kashrut should not only be about how the produce of the land died or was gathered. It should also be about how it was raised, and how it lived.
At the same time, I believe we should back off of the way that the kashrut system has locked us into the industrialization of our food system. When we insist on a hechsher and aren’t allowed to rely on the word of the local farmer we’ve come to know well, we’re putting our priorities in the wrong place.
It’s time to rethink kashrut– to expand it to focus on how we relate to God’s creative process from beginning to end– and to contract it so as to reclaim the value of trust and relationships in our fellow human beings.
Imagine the following scenario: A local farmer advertises as organic, but doesn’t want to pay or bother with any kind of certification that ensures that the advertised standards are in fact truthful and regulated. When a member of a group that is concerned with organic farming and standardizing claims of organic says “it’s not what we do,” he is criticized for being rigid.
It shouldn’t surprise the writer much that Orthodox Jews are mightily unimpressed with what the writer “thinks kashrut should be.” Mitzvos are defined by HaShem, not later day liberals.
Let’s try another analogy: A USDA inspector comes to a slaugherhouse to inspect for health standards as defined by the regulatory agency. The inspector certifies the plant as meeting all the stated health standards. When asked “how were the animals raised,” the inspector answers “what does that matter?” Kashrus is as little about the ethical treatment of animals as USDA standards are. Conflating the issues would make little sense in American legal policy, and it is just as specious in halacha. There may (or may not) be other moral or halachic imperitives that would address the ethical treatment of animals (tzar ba’alei chayim, kedoshim t’hiyu, etc.), but remaking a mitzvah of the Torah in one’s own image is little more than self-worship