Thursday, September 6, 2007

Eco-Kosher Fulfills Law On All Levels

The Washington Post
Tribune Staff Writer

South Bend Tribune September 6, 2007

First she had to find an organic cattle farm near home. Then a "shochet," a person trained in kosher slaughtering, who was willing to do a freelance job. Then a kosher butcher to carve the beef into various cuts, and other families from her synagogue to share it.

All told, it took Devora Kimelman-Block of Silver Spring, Md., 10 months to obtain 450 pounds of meat that is local, grass-fed, organic and strictly kosher. It was a lot of work.

"Here I am, leading this meat thing, and we don't even eat meat in our house," she said.

As a part of a budding movement sometimes called "eco-kosher," which combines traditional Jewish dietary laws with new concerns about industrial agriculture, global warming and fair treatment of workers, Kimelman-Block's effort does make sense. Part of the greening of American religion, eco-kosher is an indication of how rapidly environmental issues are entering the mainstream of religious life.

For many people, the primary daily impact of rising environmental consciousness is on the food they eat, which they want to be produced locally, sustainably, organically and humanely. Increasingly, religious people view this as a religious obligation, not just a matter of good health or ethics. The trend is advancing particularly fast among Jews, who have a long tradition of investing food with religious meaning.

A new ethical standard

Rabbi Michael Friedland, of Sinai Synagogue in South Bend, sees the movement as a response to the realities of modern food production, which has become more and more complex. "Many of us were affected deeply by the book 'Fast Food Nation,' " he said during a recent phone conversation. He remembers feeling disgust on learning that "the meat is produced with no respect for the animal" and workers in meat plants are not treated well.

Nigel S. Savage, who keeps a kosher household and edits a Web site, The Jew and Carrot ( shares Friedland's sense that such

practices do not meet the requirements of his faith. "I would no sooner bring eggs from caged, battery-farmed hens into my home than I would shrimp or pork," Savage says. His Web site is devoted to what he calls "the new Jewish food movement."

The most dramatic expansion of eco-kosher principles is likely to come in the next few years as Conservative rabbis and congregations, which occupy the middle ground between Orthodox and Reform Judaism, create a new ethical standard for food production.

Justice certification

The Conservative seal of approval will not be based on traditional kosher requirements, such as separating meat from dairy products, avoiding pork and shellfish, and slaughtering animals with a sharp knife across the throat.

Rather, the Conservative "hechsher tzedek," Hebrew for "justice certification," will attest that a particular food was produced at a plant that meets ethical norms in six areas: fair wages and benefits, health and safety, training, corporate transparency, animal welfare and environmental impact.

Rabbi Morris Allen of Mendota Heights, Minn., head of the committee drafting the rules, said he hopes to have enforceable standards in place by Rosh Hashana (which begins at sundown on Wednesday this year). Within a year after that, he said, the justice certification should begin to appear on packaged foods.

The hechsher tzedek, Allen said, is meant to supplement, not replace, the traditional kosher certification, which is most often supervised by Orthodox agencies. But he does believe that if given the choice between a kosher item and a kosher item "produced by a company that respects its workers and the environment," most Jews will choose the latter.

The dark side

Friedland, a Conservative rabbi, pointed out that "with cow and veal, to keep the meat soft, the muscles soft, they don't let the animals move." Penned up, basically chained -- "It's not the way animals should live," he said.

"A person who takes 'kashrut' (kosher) seriously would say, 'You know, kashrut is not just what I'm sticking in my mouth, but "How did the animal get to be that way? How was the animal treated?" ' " Friedland said. And beyond that, he added, "Are the companies that produce this kosher food, do they follow decent labor practices?"

Kimelman-Block, who is married to a Conservative rabbi, recalls feeling ashamed after reading articles last year in the Jewish newspaper the Forward about the treatment of workers and cattle at a large kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa.

"I know that (the Iowa plant) is probably no worse than the other U.S. food processors, but they're doing it in the name of Judaism, in the name of holiness," she said. "That's the thing about kashrut -- it's supposed to be ethical, and it ... has this dark side that either people don't know about, or if they know about, they think it's irrelevant."

Broader definition of kosher

What it comes down to, Friedland said, is that "You understand kashrut in a very narrow way as just 'Food I'm putting into my mouth is following dietary laws.'

"Or, do you understand kashrut in a greater -- a broader way. That 'What I'm eating has been produced with respect for human beings, with respect for the animals, because eating is a way that I draw close to God.'

"It's one of the most mundane activities we do every day, and yet kashrut suggests that I can raise that mundane activity up to holiness and drawing close to God," Friedland said.

Visiting a slaughterhouse where immigrant workers were poorly trained changed the thinking of Allen. "Having promoted kashrut for 21 years and made it a central part of my rabbinate, all of a sudden it made sense to me: How could I be satisfied if the ritual aspects of kashrut were being followed but the way the workers were treated was degrading and contrary to Jewish ethical norms?" he said.

The whole process

It's much easier to buy food that follows the minimum kosher guidelines for putting food in your mouth, Friedland said. Milk and meat are kept separate. You know that not even a trace amount of a dairy product has been added to the bread of your meat sandwich to make the bread whiter or softer. The meat is kosher according to Jewish law.

But, Friedland added, "By limiting yourself to that narrow focus, you have to wonder if that is what God is really demanding of you. Or is there something more important?

"The prophets in the Bible used to rail against the people because they would offer sacrifices. We're coming up to Yom Kippur. In the biblical period, a key element of Jewish worship was offering an animal for various reasons.

"On the High Holy Days, we read a passage from Isaiah, where Isaiah basically says, 'I don't want your sacrifices.' " God didn't want the people's sacrifices, Friedland explained, and Isaiah railed against the people because they were "fraudulent toward one another. They would show disrespect to the poor and the needy in their community. Their society was corrupt." After bringing their animals to be sacrificed, Friedland said, they would say, "Now I'm clean."

Following the law in that strict or narrow sense is not enough, Friedland said. It does not fulfill its spirit.

"I think that's what the hechsher tzedek movement is trying to say. We really have to think, now that we know how complex the modern methods for food production are. We really can't pretend that it's just about limiting ourselves to the end production. We've got to be concerned with the whole process. Because how we eat connects us to God."

Affordability, keeping track of the labor practices of companies around the world, tracking down all the additives available and often used to enhance food, and discovering even the tiniest amounts of dairy products in foods, which the FDA doesn't regulate, are only some of the issues -- the pieces of the puzzle -- that kosher- observant Jews face.

Sinai Synagogue has created an environmental committee, Friedland said, to begin looking more closely at these issues. Whether they can afford to buy food with the hechsher tzedek label is "something we'll have to think about."

"I am grateful for what Rabbi Allen is doing," Friedland said. "The more transparency you have, the more you can control your own ethical choices. I think that's really important: that we should know what we're doing. And not knowing is convenient, but it's not right.

"And it's not what God expects of us."