For thousands of years, Judaism has taken seriously the idea of “you are what you eat”-– in other words, that the choices we make about what food to eat (and not to eat) has the capacity to make us holy. This is the origin of ancient Jewish dietary laws, known collectively as kashrut. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi first suggested and Rabbi Arthur Waskow has since popularized an important concern about these laws: If what we eat helps make us holy, shouldn’t ethical considerations have a role in deciding what is kosher (literally: fit) to eat? Is an egg from a chicken living its entire life in a 61-square-inch cage as good for our souls (to say nothing of our bodies) as an egg from a cage-free animal? Is meat processed in a plant where workers are underpaid and work in unsafe conditions equivalent to meat where animals are treated humanely and workers are treated fairly? And can pâté de fois gras, made by force-feeding a goose through a tube shoved down its throat, possibly be kosher?
In response, Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi coined the term “eco-kashrut” – meaning eating in a way that is mindful of both ecological concerns and ritual concerns (or more properly: of the way that ecological concerns affect ritual concerns. Rabbi Waskow suggests that the category of eco-kashrut could be expanded beyond food items to other products and services such as paper, energy, etc.).
More recently, his call to arms has been taken up by others, with a wider general interest in organic food, sustainability, and eating locally-grown produce. (For a great blog exploring these issues from a Jewish perspective, click here). While the current obsession with these matters may prove to be a passing fad, the underlying ethical issues and the importance of integrating them into the way we consider what makes food fit, from a religious point of view, are not. This is not to say that the other aspects of what makes food kosher–ritual slaughter, draining of blood, separating meat and dairy, avoiding forbidden foods–stop being important. Rather, we have here an example of maximalist progressive Judaism: of saying that both traditional ritual guidelines and contemporary ethical concerns need to be honored.
Given recent concerns about treatment of animals undergoing kosher slaughter, it is time to reaffirm our commitment to the ideal of treating animals humanely – a concern that is supposed to underlie kosher slaughter according to rabbinic tradition. In addition, this concern must be amplified by the core Jewish principle of treating laborers fairly in order to ensure that both the “eco” and “kashrut” parts of the eco-kashrut label are taken seriously.
Here is the text of an unpublished “letter to the editor” Rabbi Waskow sent to the Washington Post in response to the article linked above that he was kind enough to send me:
The Editor, Washington Post:
It is gratifying that you reported the growing movement in the Jewish community for “eco-kosher” practice, taking ethical and environmental concerns into account in assessing what is proper to consume. (“Eco-Kosher Movement Aims To Heed Tradition, Conscience,” July 7, 2007, Page A01).
But the word and its practice, as it was coined and defined by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in the mid-’70s, taken on the road as an important aspect of eco-Judaism by me beginning in the mid-’80s, and given broad currency in and beyond the Jewish community by my book Down-to-Earth Judaism in 1995, was about issues of consumption far broader than the arena of food to which your report confined it.
Just as the code of kosher food emerged in a pastoral-agrarian society, defining a sacred relationship with the earth through food, so in a society that consumes coal, oil, uranium, and plastics, the sacred relationship with earth must be far broader: Is electricity from a nuclear power plant eco-kosher? Is the use of a Hummer, spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere of an already endangered planet, eco-kosher?
Seen this way, “eco-kosher” is an issue not for Jews alone but for all religious and ethical communities. Indeed, The Shalom Center and I have been deeply involved in a multireligious project on “Sacred Foods” for the last two years.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center