Thinking about Kashrut

This is an article I wrote published in the April 2009 edition of Congregation Aitz Chaim’s newsletter:

I don’t think that it will make anyone sad to learn that hedgehog is not a kosher animal.  These furry creatures adorn the rooms of first graders and yet to encounter a hedgehog on a restaurant menu.  Adventurous types might be sad to learn that escargot is, however, also unclean.  The end of Parahsa Shmini contains the biblical laws of kashrut, the laws of keeping kosher.  It used to be easy to know what was Kosher and what wasn’t: one simply went to the kosher butcher for meat, and the kosher grocer for everything else.  Fortunately produce, when washed to get rid of the bugs, is always kosher.

As food production and distribution became less personal, Jews devised a new system for ensuring that food is kosher – the ubiquitous heksher, or kosher symbol.  Whether a circle with a U inside of it, a triangle with a K, or some fancy picture of a rabbi, we can now rely on someone else to tell us that our food is certified kosher.  We also came to believe, as did many non-Jews, that these symbols were an indication of quality and ethics, and that by eating kosher products one maintained a higher “level” of eating.  Why else would there be such a premium for kosher food?

Recently several scandals in the kosher world have brought one to question many of the pre-conceived notions of kosher food.  The little symbols stamped on the package does not guarantee anything other than process, and in fact many of the major kosher meat plants were found to have horrible practices, underpaying workers, treating them poorly, abuse of animals, to say nothing of the chemicals and hormones that do not affect the laws of kashrut.

There is a concept in Judaism called Tzaar Baalei Hayim – ethical treatment of animals.  We are not to place animals in undue burden when we can avoid it.  When you need to take home a lot of goods, it’s OK to load your donkey for the walk home, or to put several sacks on your camels, but it is not OK to beat them or confine them unnecessarily.  Fortunately there is a new movement on the horizon, a new kosher symbol and a group of Jews who want to proudly say that kosher food should be a statement of quality, workers and animal rights. This new movement is called Heksher Tzedek.  Heksher Tzedek is attempting to augment the current kosher symbols by certifying that the workers and animals are treated well.  On their own they cannot certify that something is kosher, and this is a free service.

Hopefully Jews around the country will embrace this new movement and will decide that as Jews we have an ethical obligation when we consume food, that the simple laws of kashrut are not only a framework for choosing what we eat but a mindset for how we go about eating our food.  As we consume our matzah, we remember that we are commanded to be kind to our slaves, anything with a heart, for we were slaves in the land of Egypt.  Chag Sameach and Bateavon (Bon’ Appetite)

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