Kashrut Is a Law: It’s Not About Ethics

December 7, 2009
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Daniel Alter

Most traditional Jews go to significant lengths to keep kosher; we buy only kosher-certified products and will not eat in non-kosher restaurants. As a member of this demographic, I find discussions about the ethics of kashrut harmful to both kashrut and Jewish ethics. Let me explain why: Values for traditional Jews, both ethical and ritual, are defined by the Torah. A plethora of biblical sources and talmudic discussions guide us in defining those Jewish values. To understand the definition and scope of kashrut, I reach back to the wisdom of my tradition.

I keep the ritual of kashrut because it is God’s will, not because of ethical sensibilities. As a kosher consumer, I don’t consider it an ethical imperative to wait six hours between eating meat and milk, to eat cows but not pigs, or to abstain from food that is cooked by a non-Jew. Kashrut is fundamentally a ritual law and not about ethics. As an obvious example, I don’t consider one who does not keep kosher to be unethical in any way.

Talk of the ethics of kashrut hurts Jewish ethics. It renders a tradition that possesses immense wisdom irrelevant at best and nonsensical at worst. If we take words that have specific meanings and manipulate those words to the point where they are unrelated to their original meanings, we have rendered these terms devoid of any content that is uniquely Jewish. These words now have no connection to their original Jewish meaning, and are therefore no longer seen as Jewish values.

If we intend to speak about ethics, let’s use the language of Jewish ethics that are found in Torah and talmudic sources. Let’s use these sources as models for new initiatives to raise our level of ethical living. Jewish groups that choose to focus on ethical issues should be applauded. But we make a mockery of Jewish tradition when we draw inaccurately on our sources to make claims about kashrut, and we thus weaken rather than bolster our push for ethical living. Ethics is ethics; kashrut is kashrut.

Talk of the “ethics of kashrut” hurts kashrut as well. Kashrut will suffer if placed under constant, intense scrutiny. The industry should be held to high standards, and when it (or we) behaves in unscrupulous or inappropriate ways, those transgressions must be addressed; yet the magnifying glass of the community or outside observers should not be focused only on kashrut. How we scrutinize the kashrut industry — that is, how we observe and react to the labor used to make kosher food — should not be harsher than how we observe the manufacture of the shoes we wear or the toys our children play with. By focusing on the merchant selling food, while giving a free pass to the merchant next door who sells suits made in sweat shops in Asia, we appear unfair and biased. Where does our scrutiny begin and end? Do Jewish organizations shine the same magnifying glass on all donations, requiring disclosure of the source of all funds collected to ensure that the money was earned ethically? We probably know a number of Jewish philanthropists whose money would no longer be accepted if this were the case. Many Jewish organizations would be forced to close down and would become the focus of much negative attention.

Jewish values are supposed to affect every aspect of our lives. Let’s applaud those who work to create a culture of Jewish ethics. Let’s examine our sources and develop appropriate language to focus on Jewish ethics in every area of our lives. But please don’t pick on one mitzvah while giving everyone else a free ride.

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Daniel Alter is an alumni of Yeshiva University. He is the founding rabbi of the DAT Minyan and head of school at the Denver Academy of Torah, a Modern Orthodox day school. He lives in Denver, Colo., with his wife and six children.


  1. The bible says not to eat meat ‘on the blood’, the original motive was probably the result of an empirical understanding of health and propriety in a particular (inaccessible) cultural context. If you consider the minutiae of halacha to be ‘the word of god,’ then you are delusional.

    Posted by
  2. responding to levi first – the writer didn’t say that the minutiae of the law are “the word of God”; however, as a torah Jew he believes that the source of these laws, the Torah, is divine.

    As to the writer himself – to understand the foundation of “ethical kashrut” you must recognize that its adherents are basically searching for a substitute to shemirat mitzvot – a sort of “jewish lite” where “being nice” replaces keeping mitzvot.

    Posted by
    velvel horowitz
  3. If the Torah is the word of G-d, than it is irrelevant to apply any kind of sensibilities to it. As the article states, it is something you do as a matter of faith, to the best of your abilities. By trying to impute meaning or reason into these laws, adherents feel better about what they are doing and scoffers justify their rejection.

    Posted by
  4. Below are my thoughts, posted on my blog at http://www.kissamezuzah.blogspot.com:

    Last week, a kosher poultry processing plant in New York was shut down due to health violations, including a lack of soap and sanitizers in the employee restrooms and processed chicken being stored in a tank without running water. This case brings to mind the much larger kosher meat processing plant, Agriprocessors, which was the center of a huge bruhaha a little over a year ago when it was accused of being in violation of labor laws as well as the mistreatment of animals.

    At the time of the Agriprocessors scandal, the question arose, “How can meat be considered kosher if the animals and the workers are mistreated?” After all, one of the purposes of kashrut (the set of Jewish dietary laws) was to make sure the animals to be eaten would be slaughtered in a humane way, causing as little pain to the animal as possible. In other words, the animals were to be treated with compassion, and thus ethics and kashrut appear to be bound tightly together.

    However, in the December 2009 issue of the journal Sh’ma, Daniel Alter writes, “Talk of the ethics of kashrut hurts Jewish ethics. It renders a tradition that possesses immense wisdom irrelevant at best and nonsensical at worst.” He later goes on to say, “Ethics is ethics; kashrut is kashrut,” as if they were two completely unrelated things.

    This idea that one can separate ethics from the dietary laws – or anything else for that matter – is a foreign one to me. I would argue that ethics do, and should, permeate every part of our lives, from what we eat, to what we wear, to how we behave when we drive to work in the morning. How can we say food is “kosher,” meaning “fit” to eat, if the animals and/or the workers were treated unethically? Can something truly be considered to be ritually pure if it was prepared by someone who wasn’t paid a living (or even lawful) wage? What would be the point of ensuring an animal is killed quickly and painlessly if it were allowed to suffer needlessly in the days beforehand?

    When we say laws are unrelated to ethics, or when we claim the letter of the law is more important than its ethical considerations, then we are worshipping at the altar of the idol of the law. And I think we all know bad things happen when we start worshipping idols.


    Posted by
    Susan Barnes
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