There are 613 commandments in the Torah (according to Talmudic tradition) and innumerable other commandments imposed by the Sages and adopted by Jewish communities over time. While many are related to kashrut, obviously the vast majority lie in other fields. And in most of these fields -- and in kashrut too -- there is more nuance to be found than simply ruling things kosher or "treif." (By the way, since "treif" is a technical term for a particular kashrut violation, I recommend we use the more general term "forbidden" or assur.) I would counsel patience and reticence before pronouncing all kinds of things assur.
Instead, taking a global look at Jewish virtues, we'll find that some things coincide perfectly with Jewish values and practices; we would say that it is required, or a hiyyuv, to engage in those things. Other things are impossible to align with Jewish values; these are assur, forbidden. For an example of the first, all Jews are required to cease from work on Shabbat. By contrast, we are all forbidden from eating pork.
But all kinds of things fall in some middle ground, neither required, nor forbidden, but partly manifesting various virtues and abutting various laws. I think you raise such an example. No one has ever heard of a prohibition on aluminum or plastic anywhere in Jewish tradition. There is a general positive value of caring for God's creation, and a specific negative prohibition, bal tash'hit [Deut 20.20] against wanton destruction of trees, and by extension the rest of creation. I would say that virtuous Jewish living tries to fulfill those values and avoid violating those rules.
Under those guidelines, I see no absolute prohibition on aluminum or plastic. Can you use disposable pans or plastic cups responsibly and frugally, perhaps washing them for re-use, and recycling them? I would only apply the term assur, "forbidden" to behavior and items that fall to the level of "impossible to align with Jewish values." I don't think this is it.
The word kosher means acceptable. Thus food can be kosher if it meets certain requirements set out by the Torah and Rabbinic sources. The same can be said for a Mezuzah scroll or a shofar. The latter two are inedible but they are nonetheless subject to a set of standards that when fulfilled allow the objects to be known as kosher. (Parenthetically - treif refers to animals that had a wound that either caused its death or would cause its death. In Yiddish, and now popular speech, it has come to mean any non-kosher food product, or even concept.)
The question you are asking, I think, isn’t really about the traditional understanding of kashrut. Rather it is about whether or not Jewish law or ethics should prohibit the use of products that may, or are proven to be, detrimental to the planet.
I have tremendous sympathy for this concern but it is hard for rabbis to legislate on consumer products unless there is a specific and profound impact. A rabbi may suggest to his students or congregants that they avoid those products that are bad for the world but they will also have to contend with competing values. Since there is no specific biblical or rabbinic prohibition involved in using these products there could easily be a values challenge. An example: if I am trying to feed my family the healthiest kosher food possible I may not have sufficient money to purchase biodegradable plates. Other examples: in setting my personal priorities should I give more tzedakah or spend more on environmentally friendly products?
One can extrapolate further and ask if we should all be required by Torah law to give up our internal combustion cars and replace them with electric cars. What would be the impact on the community? Would people adhere to this ‘command’? This brings us to another issue. Rabbis understood the Torah as giving them extremely powerful interpretive license. The read the Torah as saying that listening to the Rabbis was a Biblical commandment, a mitzvah. So they were, and continue to be, careful not to suggest or command legislation that will not be followed. Ignoring the Rabbis would be far worse than transgressing a minor prohibition.
There are standards in rabbinic literature about what it is appropriate to spend on certain items - i.e. one’s lulav or etrog. But these standards don’t apply to non-mitzvah items.
Other issues are more hidden. What if I want to entertain 30 students at my home on Shabbat, should I invest in very expensive disposable goods? How can one practically resolve the problem of having so many dirty dishes in a non-institutional environment?
In practice I think that we should not use disposable plates as a matter of convenience. I understand this as an application of the prohibition of baal tashchit - wastefulness. But there are times when the factors are more complex and one should then do their very best within their means to balance the needs of people against the needs of the planet.
[Consider these other questions: Should we buy bottled water? Or cola? Is it permissible to use salt on your icy stairs if the runoff will enter the water table? There are hundreds of value judgements we make every day.]
Kashrut, as applied to food, is mentioned in the Torah and expounded upon at great length by the Rabbis. The food laws are central to so many Jews’ experience that entire industries have been created to cater to those needs. That is why there are so many different authorities overseeing different communities’ standards of kashrut.
There are many Jews today who want to add to that definition of kashrut; some choosing to do so instead of what they feel are antiquated and unnecessary food laws as defined by the Torah and Rabbis or as an extension in addition to the customary food laws. Sometimes this is knows as ‘eco-kashrut’ and it has taken root throughout the country.
Eco-kashrut is another voluntary layer to food. But it has broadened its outline so that all ethical and environmental considerations are embraced. For example, many people (myself included) feel that the harsh treatment of animals such as calves that provide veal are inhumane and do not meet the standards of tza’ar ba’alei hayyim – the consideration of pain afflicted upon an animal. Therefore I, like many, consider veal treif. Others may have the same consideration regarding other food such as chickens, choosing instead free-range animals or any number of other examples. Though they may be slaughtered and koshered in a proper halachic manner, their lives were painful and they were abused and so they are considered treif by many.
But, as you suggested, food is not the only expression of eco-kashrut. Indeed, how the food is prepared and by whom is also a key consideration. Were the workers who worked in the factory taken advantage of and their employers trampling on halacha and common decency (i.e., Postville, Iowa - http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/13/opinion/13sun2.html and http://www.jufj.org/media/jufj_media_statements/6_26_08_jewish_groups_respond_kosher_meat_scandal)? Indeed, such scandals abound including the threat of removing kosher certification of restaurants until a gratuity is paid, etc. Unfortunately, what is supposed to be an ethical system sometimes is corrupted and devolves into something unethical. For many, this is tantamount to treif and there are many Jews who make it a point to avoid such places so that they will not contribute to what they consider corruption and graft.
There is another kind of kashrut, as well, which encompasses all the earth. This is, technically not kashrut in the common meaning of the term but rather a respect for the Earth and a sense of shomer adamah – a stewardship to our environment. So houses can be kosher or treif depending on how they are insulated and heated. Cars can be kosher or treif depending on their energy efficiency. Garbage can be kosher or treif depending on its biodegradability, and so forth. However, there is no organization that I know of – yet – that will set standards for eco-kashrut. I doubt very much that we will see any such organization as the community itself would have to agree to it and the movement is far too diverse at this point. In the meantime there are many Jewish resources about taking care of the earth, vegetarian living, and tzaar ba’alei hayyim and they can be useful in creating your own kashrut that is meaningful and purposeful.
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