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.email print