Keeping Kosher: Now What?

February 3, 2010
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Nigel Savage

For 3,000 years, Jewish people have asked, “Is this food kosher?” — that is, is this food fit to eat? You might think that, after all this time, we’d have sorted out what this question means, and/or how to answer it.

But at the start of a new decade, kashrut has moved high up on the communal agenda. These are some of the questions we need to think about: What does “keeping kosher” mean? What certifications should we use? On one side, people like Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Rabbi Arthur Waskow have argued that kashrut should be a broad ethical category of consumption. They argue that we should ask not only about our food but also about our clothes and cars: “Is this fit for me to consume?” The questions they’ve asked for decades are now being picked up by mainstream commentators, within and without the Jewish community. On the other hand, traditional Orthodox leaders argue that broader issues can and should be raised, but those issues should not be confused with kashrut (See Rabbi Daniel Alter’s essay in Sh’ma, Dec. 2009). A mashgiach can establish whether the animal was a kosher animal (was it a cow or a pig?), whether it was healthy or unhealthy, and whether it was killed by a trained shochet in accordance with the halakhah of shechita. They argue that while many other issues are important, including the treatment of workers, they should be addressed by the law of the land rather than the categories of kashrut. Kosher meat produced or handled by workers who have been mistreated is not unkosher, in this argument, though people might choose not to eat it for those reasons.

Between these two arguments step, variously, three “certifiers” of kashrut: the Magen Tzedek, the Tav Hevrati, and the Tav Hayosher (see Sh’ma ethics columns, September and November 2009). Each seeks to establish a second certification, framed in explicitly Jewish terms, addressing what might be called the non-kashrut elements of kashrut; each offers consumers the information to exercise ethical choices. Over the next decade, we’ll see which of these certifications become normative and how they — along with public pressure — influence institutions to act more responsibly.

Arguments to reduce red meat consumption are growing steadily. Will the meat, though, be slaughtered and sold through the existing kosher food lanes or will it come from Arcadia Farms, Kol Foods, Mitzvah Meat, and other recently founded ethical producers?

We’re also seeing a dramatic increase in growing food in Jewish institutions. Community Supported Agriculture groups (CSAs) are already becoming mainstream — by 2010, just six years after Hazon’s first CSA was launched, we will have at least 40 CSAs, with many thousands of members that support more than three dozen farms. A decade from now, there’ll be CSAs across the Jewish world and a growing number of suburban schools, JCCs, and other institutions will be bulldozing sections of their parking lots to plant gardens and grow their own food. This will be a profound shift, as will the maturation of a group of Jewish farmers from Adamah: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship and elsewhere.

What will be the Jewish response to hunger and how will we connect issues of hunger, poverty, and food justice to the ethics of kashrut? Organizations like the American Jewish World Service and Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger are already doing vital work. But when and how do we take on the U.S. Farm Bill? What do we do about food deserts in our inner-cities? Does the Jewish community believe that public schools should serve healthy and nutritious school meals to all children — and, if so, what will we do about it?

Finally: What role will Jewish culture play in the conversation about food and kashrut? I grew up in a household with chopped liver, lokshen, vosht, schmaltz, and pletzels (yes, that’s pletzels, not pretzels). Not to mention my grandmother’s chopped and boiled fried fish. I grew up with these foods. But if you raided my kitchen today, you wouldn’t find any of them. I’m starting to be bothered by this, and I hope to find ways to reintegrate memory and culture back into the kitchen. In this way, I really do hope to eat more healthily and sustainably.

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Nigel Savage is the director of Hazon. For more information on the Hazon Food Conference, CSAs, Jewish Food Education Network, and other programs, go to For Hazon’s award-winning blog, “The Jew & the Carrot,” go to

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