It seems that as people are increasingly aware of where their food comes from and how the animals they consume are treated while alive, kosher eating might become more popular, even amongst non-Jews. How does the safe treatment of animals for consumption fit within kashrut dietary laws, and what is the modern take on non-Jews eating kosher as a way to eat healthier and more fairly?
According to Menachem Lubinsky, founder and president of LUBICOM, one of the foremost companies tracking the marketing of kosher food in the world, the vast majority of consumers of kosher food are non-Jews. When questioned, non-Jewish consumers report that they believe kosher foods to be purer, healthier, safer, and more environmentally friendly. All of this is good news for the Jewish consumer. It is the purchase of kosher products by the non-Jewish public that keeps the costs down. That is to say, if the kosher food industry had to rely only on Jewish consumers, the range of products available would be smaller and the price of those products would be dramatically higher. So non-Jews have already concluded that there is an advantage to buying kosher food products despite the costs. It is hard to imagine the numbers growing to a percentage higher than it already is.
Temple Grandin, a world-respected authority on animal care (and subject of a recent award-winning documentary) has long insisted that the kosher slaughter of meat is relatively painless and superior to other modes of slaughter, despite the ongoing campaign to ban shehitah around the world (Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and now, New Zealand). The problem, however, lies in the treatment of animals before slaughter. While it is true that Jewish law demands that animals be protected from unnecessary pain, there is wide latitude in treatment accorded animals before that threshold is crossed. Calves raised for veal are still subject to what some may call mistreatment. If kashrut supervising agencies would be willing to certify the mode of treatment of animals before slaughter as well as certifying the propriety of meat during and after slaughter, an even stronger public relations case could be made.
In Sue Fishkoff’s new book, Kosher Nation, she explores the reasons why 86.2 percent of the 11.2 million Americans who regularly buy kosher food are not kashrut-observant Jews. There is no problem with non-Jews choosing to buy kosher products, or even maintaining the laws of kashrut; in fact, it seems almost trendy! But, I think anyone choosing to participate in the system of kashrut, particularly as practiced in America, should consider their reasons why.
Kashrut is a complex dietary system. Beginning with simple injunctions in the Torah, such as (Exodus 23:19, 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21) “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” the Torah gets more complex in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, listing explicitly the animals which are ritually permitted, and those which are not. No explicit reasoning is given, other than to say (Leviticus 11:44): You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. While many over the years have suggested that kashrut was some sort of ancient attempt at food sanitation and health standards, Maimonides and others suggest otherwise; kashrut is not about health (though it could end up an incidental benefit), but about doing something for reasons of faith, community, and/or connection with the Divine.
Etz Hayim, the Torah commentary published by The Rabbinical Assembly (of Conservative Judaism) suggests the following regarding meat and kosher slaughter: The eating of meat requires killing a living creature, constantly seen by the Torah as a compromise. These laws elevate the eating of meat to a level of sanctity by introducing categories of permitted and forbidden. But, as the laws of kashrut developed, particularly in the rabbinic time, they grew ever more intricate and specific, and soon laws governed not only what animals could be eaten—but how they were slaughtered. Initially, the rules around slaughter were designed not only to meet standards of kashrut, but also so as not to violate the principle of tza’ar baalei chayim, not causing pain to living creatures. For that reason, kosher slaughter (shechita) has long been seen as one of the more ethical ways of slaughtering animals.
However, scandals in the news remind us that the ethics of kashrut are not only about the way the animal is slaughtered, but also about how the animal is treated while still alive; it should also be about the way the workers are treated as well. Samantha Shapiro, writing in the New York Times Magazine in October 2008, wrote the following about kosher slaughter: Is it simply about cutting an animal’s neck and butchering it in a specific way? Or is the ritual also meant to minimize an animal’s pain or to bring sanctity to its death? Does it matter how the animal was treated when it was alive? How about the workers who processed it? Is reverence for life possible in a factory-farming setting? For me, the answer to all of those questions must be yes. The laws of kashrut are no more binding or important than the many times that Torah reminds us (Deuteronomy 24:14-15) “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is of your brothers, or of your strangers who are in your land inside your gates.” Our ethical and ritual commands are intertwined, and one should not trump another. Therefore, anyone choosing kashrut as a path towards a more conscious, ethical way of eating should considering being a vocal part of the movement trying to reform the system of kashrut in the United States.
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