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Eco-Kashrut: You Are What You Eat

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

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laura t mushkat

posted August 21, 2007 at 1:09 pm

I have always thought it was too bad that the people who started the Chrisitian religon decided to made it easier for them by eliminating the need of certain Jewish things including being Kosher.
Nowadays, for health reasons alone, it would not be so important. Just think, tho. how many of them would have lived thru times when due to how they handled their food they died, particularly in the middle ages.
I find that I am just fine the way I am. Unfortunatly the price, for varied reasons, of kosher food is expensive and in some areas impossible to get. One needs to be a “veggie” in order to keep kosher in some areas. I find that when I have money I was able to be strictly kosher and if I failed to it would be by choice more then anything else.
Since I am now among those classified as poor with food stamps of $38 per month and the rest of my money needing to go elsewhere I can not be kosher. I find myself simply not eatting, knowingly, anything that has to do with pork. I do not eat meat with milk. For now, and probubly the future it will have to suffice.
I feel this is a big reason people do not keep kosher-ease in shopping and/or price.

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posted August 22, 2007 at 5:23 pm

Laura wrote,
“I have always thought it was too bad that the people who started the Chrisitian religon decided to made it easier for them by eliminating the need of certain Jewish things including being Kosher.”
I don’t know about Kosher, but I’d like to have a talmudic tradition.
(I don’t think that Jesus ever intended that his followers stop thinking about what is the right thing to do and just consider him to be a human sacrifice/get-out-of-hell-free card.)
“One needs to be a “veggie” in order to keep kosher in some areas.”
If it makes you feel any better, in other areas one needs to look for a “Kosher” label in order to keep veggie.

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posted August 22, 2007 at 9:46 pm

1/ Aging Arthur Waskow of the shrinking Philadelphia Jewish community is a ‘self-made’ rabbi and thus his opinions are no better informed than any layperson.
2/ Meatpacking is an inherently dangerous job under the best of circumstances. If you want to go veggie, go veggie.
3/ If anyone wants to create a new religion out of Judaism (its been done before) go ahead, but there’s nothing in Judaism about ‘organic’ (so long as the chemicals used are kosher) or ‘locally grown food’. If most people outside of maybe California today only ate locally grown foods their diets would be quite deficient.
4/ I doubt I’ve ever eaten pate de foie gras but then I’m not a member of the social elite like so many lefties here.
5/ The Backwards is anti-Orthodox. So what else is new?

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posted August 23, 2007 at 1:30 pm

I would think, as Rabbi Waxman suggests, being “eco-kosher” would mean limiting ourselves to foods produced only with humanely treated animals, including eggs from cage-free chickens. Kindness to animals seems in accord with Jewish tradition, does it not? As for organically grown vegetables – if we are here to heal the world, I believe it is difficult to heal the world while poisoning the planet. That would be the reason for buying locally grown food – to cut down on the pollution of transporting it over long distances. Protecting the health of the environment doesn’t seem, to me, to be a distortion of traditional, Orthodox Judaism, whether one is left-leaning or not. The Earth is for everyone – left, right, or center. If we are our brothers’ keepers, preserving the planet is our responsibility as much as anyone’s – perhaps more so, if we are cognizant of that role. Many spiritual traditions embrace the notion of respect for the Earth, but I don’t see that as being in conflict with Jewish tradition.

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Al Eastman

posted August 23, 2007 at 2:17 pm

I suspect the proponents of “Eco-Kosher” are unfamiliar with the actual production of the foods they purchase in their urban and suburban markets. We, here in the USA, enjoy a relatively healthy, plentiful and affordable food supply. This is in part due to the economics of scale afforded by “corporate farmers”.
The objectives of “Eco-Kosher” are laudable. However, I suspect that if the restrictions it requires were applied universally to the production of ALL our foodstuffs, we would either starve or end up using the bulk of our incomes to fill our cupboards. Perhaps a summer or two working on a truck farm during college would help people understand what is involved in getting all those veggies to their tables. The same would apply to their eggs, dairy and so on.

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posted August 24, 2007 at 10:50 am

I live in Vermont, so getting kosher food [at least meat] can be difficult. However, I also live in an area with many farms. By shopping farmer’s markets and local, natural food markets, I am able to get quite a wide variety of food locally, naturally, often organically, humanely, and not overly expensively. This last is an important thing for me, as I don’t live far over the poverty line.
Organic farming methods aren’t more expensive to use than conventional ones, yield crops that are comparable, and don’t hurt the earth. Unfortunately, a lot of companies see the move toward organics and exploit it, making things far more expensive than they need to be and thus making people think that you have to have a lot of money to be ecologically aware.
While farming is a messy job that I wouldn’t want to do, I also do a job that many people wouldn’t want to, so the trade off works. Saying that you shouldn’t make a big deal about organic farming because it’s a hard job would be like saying that we shouldn’t educate handicapped children because do you know what it’s like working with them in schools? It’s hard, it’s frustrating, it’s long hours with little return. I still think it’s rewarding, and I think eating organically is as well.

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posted August 24, 2007 at 12:03 pm

Hali wrote: “(I don’t think that Jesus ever intended that his followers stop thinking about what is the right thing to do and just consider him to be a human sacrifice/get-out-of-hell-free card.)”
Amen Sister!! and I truly do not believe that he ever intended his “followers” to abandon the Jewish faith.

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laura t mushkat

posted August 24, 2007 at 5:43 pm

To Dave-
your Aug 22 post-
What is the Backwards? Is that a refrence to the Washington Post or an actual newspaper like the Foreward?
One never knows

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posted August 26, 2007 at 10:40 am

Forward (or Forvertz as its aging readership would call it and its secular yiddish version)

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