Kashrut and Eating Ethically

This guest post is by Rabbi Carla Freedman, who is rabbi at the Jewish Family Congregation in South Salem, NY.


A while ago, I went out to lunch with three friends.  When the waiter came to take our orders, she was in for a challenge: one is gluten-intolerant, one is lactose-intolerant, one is diabetic, and the other–me–keeps kosher.

Regarding the first three, she was both knowledgeable and respectful. About my issue, she was ignorant.  When I explained that I was referring to the Jewish dietary laws, she said, ”Oh, I didn’t know anyone still followed those rules!”

Now it is true, in general, that outside Orthodox Jewish communities, very few people do follow “those rules.” But it was clear from the waiter’s response that medically-motivated dietary restrictions were acceptable or legitimate (dare I say “kosher”?).  But religiously motivated dietary restrictions were suspect.

Why?  Is it because there is no reason to comply with these rules other than respect for their source (either God or the Bible, depending on your religious values)?  Is it because, in our culture, voluntarily giving up something that might bring pleasure is incomprehensible?  Or is it just that religious practice in public is highly suspect?  I don’t know.

But I do know that my three friends are every bit as vigilant about what they eat as I am.  We each take the position that we are responsible for making sure that what we eat meets our own particular standards.  When I asked, at that lunch, whether those standards included how the ingredients were grown, harvested, processed and transported, they seemed puzzled.   And so might be a strictly Orthodox Jewish eater.

But the kind of kashrut that is growing in practice today is ethical kashrut, which says that in addition to the restrictions imposed in Leviticus 11:1-47, we should also be concerned about the very points I mentioned to my friends:  how the food is produced on the land where it is grown, what the conditions are for the people who tend and harvest the crops, how food is processed (in terms of nutrition, sanitation and safety of the workers), what the cost is to the planet of transporting that food to market, and what all this does to taste, appearance and nutrient values.

Then there is the ethical issue of eating animals…

Now, those factors complicate eating considerably.  And they make dining out almost impossible.  But neither of those issues should relieve us of our obligation to eat ethically.

The original dietary laws of the Bible were intended to impose discipline on the community to whom they were addressed.   That discipline was not based upon medical or sanitation issues (yes, pork spoils quickly without refrigeration, but what doesn’t?  That can’t explain the prohibition on pork in Leviticus) but upon the supposed wishes of the Deity. The rules of kosher slaughter were intended to cause the animal the least suffering.  But some argue that they no longer meet that standard today.

So, the challenge for people like me–not Orthodox but nonetheless connected to our people’s history and desirous of demonstrating that in everything I do–is to combine the religious imperatives of Leviticus with the ethical imperatives of our own day to come up with a set of rules that make eating a meaningful experience, not just a refueling opportunity.  For me, this is a work in progress, and I struggle to balance all the issues while enjoying a meal, too!

Oh, and did I mention that I have a few food allergies too?  (Never mind!)