“Is This Fit To Consume?” -- The Jewish Relationship to Ethical Food

By Zoe Jick, a senior thesis for the Wesleyan University Religion Department (December 2010)

Dedicated to Leon Jick, z’l, whose scholarly legacy I can only hope to emulate;

and to Dan Rosen, for exhibiting the most exuberance about sustainable Jewish food of anyone I know.

With many thanks to Professor Annalise Glauz-Todrankm,for all her constant editing and continual support. I could not have finished this project without her encouragement.

I. Introduction

When I began learning to cook, I fell in love with Alice Waters. Owner of Chez Panisse, Berkeley’s iconic restaurant famous for growing its produce on site, Waters is best known as the tiny woman who single-handedly jumpstarted an American food revolution. With fierce gusto, she pushed the sustainable food movement to the forefront of American consciousness through determined activism and delicious organic fare. No one could ignore this fiery woman’s environmentally conscious food ideology, especially when she served the best organic spinach ever tasted, right from her backyard.

Wondering why Waters’ philosophy about food resonated with me so deeply, I began to

read more about the sustainable food movement. Michael Pollan’s famous manifestos

littered my bedroom floor, yet it wasn’t until reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent

publication, Eating Animals, that I located the multi-faceted connection between this

movement and my Jewish sensibilities about food.

In Eating Animals, Foer explains his decision to become vegetarian in response to

the brutalities in factory meat processing today. The book, published in 2009, is Foer’s

call to arms for modern consumers; he urges us to investigate the hidden back-story of

contemporary food production and to make educated decisions regarding consumption

with this information in mind. Foer’s desire to make conscious and ethical choices about

food is guided by a modern emphasis on food activism, yet is also self-consciously

Jewish. While making ethical judgments about food is a growing national trend, Foer’s

logic is distinct in the degree to which Jewish values inform his perspectives.

Realizing this trope in Foer’s book, I understood that the sustainable and ethical

food movement resonated with my intrinsically Jewish sentiments toward food. Jews,

regardless of their religious observance, often reference this relationship between

Judaism and food when describing their eating habits. The connection is fundamental to

their Jewish identities; Yonah Bookstein, who teaches the rules of Kashrut to Jewish

Sunday school children, remarks on the students’ attention when learning this subject:

“their interest in food issues is part of their Jewish DNA. It’s the culmination of

thousands of years of culture telling them to think about their food.”1 Because this focus

is ingrained in Jewish tradition, Jews often sculpt their food choices based on Jewish

values. Furthermore, this relationship acts as a feedback loop: just as Jewish eating

traditions shape Jewish culture, Jews then engage with contemporary food issues to

reshape Jewish eating traditions.

Enthusiastically involving themselves with today’s food activism, many Jews call

upon their Jewish sensibilities as guides for how to eat ethically and sustainably. Thus

was conceived the nascent “New Jewish Food Movement”: a network of organizations

engaging contemporary food issues from a distinctly Jewish vantage point. For example,

Dr. Roberta Kalechofsky, a leading promoter of Jewish vegetarianism, elaborates on the

connection between Judaism and conscientious eating: “For me, organic means “God’s

plan”… I’m a Jew—Jews possess the longest history of meditations on the ethics of diet.

Who should be more involved in these issues than us? Our values oblige us to be

1 Yonah Bookstein, "Teaching Kashrut," Sh'ma 2010, 20.

involved—because of our history, because of justice.”2 Kalechofsky points to the Jewish

underpinnings in her involvement with food activism by stressing the culturally ingrained

connection between food values and Jewish identity. With this background, she writes

about the Jewish relationship to vegetarianism, saying that Jewish values coincide with

vegetarian lifestyles today. Here, the reciprocal process of interpretation is at work:

Kalechofsky engages with contemporary food issues from a Jewish starting point, and

then reconfigures her perspective on Jewish eating with these modern sensibilities in


As Americans increasingly emphasize the importance of eating locally,

sustainably and ethically, the New Jewish Food Movement’s involvement with these

issues demonstrates the notable Jewish presence in food activism. Jews often assume

leadership in issues of social change, as demonstrated by rabbinical involvement in the

civil rights movement, for instance.3 The Torah’s code of morality prompts many Jews to

immerse themselves in activist efforts to proactively respond to social norms that conflict

with Jewish understandings of ethics. Contemporary food issues are no different, as the

food blog The Jew and the Carrot states: “If we look at such issues in a Jewish context,

our traditions offer rich inspiration for the most enormous and urgent tasks of our time.”4

The New York Times Magazine article entitled “Kosher Wars” proclaims that the

blending of traditional Jewish values and emerging food sensibilities “has made Jewish

food traditions relevant for a new generation” and propels Jews to the forefront of the

food movements and activism.5

The emphasis on this relationship between Jews and food is also significant when

considering how religion permeates contemporary secular settings, like using religious

values to justify food activism in the political forum. Rabbi Gordon Tucker points to

religious values shaping social trends to argue, “religious concerns are even bigger than

one might think.”6 With this in mind, I hope to uncover the extent to which Jewish food

values influence various realms of Jewish life. Judaism’s emphasis on conscientious

eating extends farther than keeping kosher, fasting, or abstaining from leavened products

during Passover. And I don’t just mean buying Hebrew National hotdogs because they

“answer to a higher authority.” Jonathan D Brumberg-Kraus writes in his essay Meals as

Midrash: “meals play such a central role in Jews and Judaism that to understand them is

perhaps the most direct route to understanding the core values of Jews and Jewish


2 Susan Schnur, "Eco-Ushpizin: Women Take on the Environment," Lilith 2007, 28.

3 Jonathan D Sarna, American Judaism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 309. Jonathan D.

Sarna’s American Judaism states, “Civil rights became a major issue for American Jews in the postwar

era… All three Jewish religious movements concurred. In 1953, the Central Conference of American

Rabbis recognized Race Relations Day and issued a pronouncement entitled, following the biblical

injunction in Deuteronomy 16:20, Justice, Justice Shalt Thou Pursue.”

4 Rhea Y Kennedy, "Can Judaism Save the Planet?," in The Jew and the Carrot, Hazon (2010).

5 Samantha M Shapiro, "Kosher Wars," The New York Times Magazine, October 12, 2008 2008, 32.

6 Nina Budabin McQuown, "Change from Within: An Interview with Rabbi Gordon Tucker," in The Jew

and the Carrot, Hazon (2008).

7 Jonathan D Brumberg-Kraus, "Meals as Midrash: A Survey of Ancient Meals in Jewish Studies

Scholarship," in Food and Judaism, ed. Ronald Simkins Leonard J Greenspoon, Gerald Shapiro (Omaha:

Creighton UP, 2005), 297.

In this essay, I begin by outlining the basic food values described in Jewish

theology. I also connect this theology to Jewish discussions of how ethical action can be

involved with eating. I will then explain how the foundations of the Jewish relationship to

food has undergone changes with the onset of modernity, showing that Jews struggled to

adapt traditional eating laws to correspond with modern sensibilities and ethical

considerations. The challenge of keeping kosher traditions relevant for modern Jews

prompted the creation of kosher reformation ideologies, best exemplified by Arthur

Waskow’s eco-kosher movement. This dance of interpretation came to a head in 2008

with the AgriProcessors kosher meat factory raid in Postville, Iowa, which pushed the

debate about ethical consumption to the forefront of the American Jewish agenda. In the

wake of the AgriProcessors scandal, the focus on food issues became of national Jewish

interest, creating a new Jewish consciousness toward food. I will end the paper by

analyzing a few contemporary organizations that hold particular influence for this “New

Jewish Food Movement.”

I hope to show that the progression of Jewish perspectives on eating indicates the

importance of food in the self-construction of Jewish identity. As Jews continue to

wrestle with what “proper eating” entails, they indicate that their Jewish identity is

intrinsically linked to what they eat, and preserving the integrity of eating serves to

strengthen the Jewish nature of their lives in general.

II. Theological Background for Jewish Food Values

The origin of Judaism’s relationship to food resides in the Torah. Biblical

concerns with food mainly include the rules of what the Israelites can and cannot eat. The

first biblical “food rule” appears almost immediately, in Genesis chapter one: “God said,

“See I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and

every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.””8 From the start of the

Torah, humans are powerfully connected to the land and its vegetative offerings. After

eating of the tree of knowledge, humans are cursed to toil the land for its produce,

responsible to generate the very sustenance on which they depend.9

Eight chapters later, however, God widens human food choices by allowing

humans the option of being omnivorous. After the flood, God permits eating meat,

saying, “every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the

green plants, I give you everything.”10 Then, in Leviticus, God’s prohibitions about meat

expand to form the basic tenets of kashrut, stipulating which foods are clean and which

are unclean. The Torah’s explanation of the specific laws of kashrut remains brief and

mostly unjustified, an example of Jewish chukim, laws that are left without explanation

besides being God’s will. However, one passage at the end of the section of Leviticus on

8 Genesis 1:29

9 Genesis 1:17-19: “And to the man he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have

eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of

you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and

you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the

ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.””

10 Genesis 9:3

kashrut touches on the reasoning for these laws, focusing on the significance of

guidelines for eating and the importance of choosing food carefully:

“For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.

You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming creature that moves on the earth. For I

am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be

holy, for I am holy. This is the law pertaining to land animal and bird and every living

creature that swarms upon the earth, to make a distinction between the unclean and the

clean, and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may

not be eaten.”11

This passage hints at two crucial aspects of the biblical foundation for Jewish food

values: the association between eating and holiness and the difference between humans

and animals. The implied hierarchy here of divinity/humanity/animality runs throughout

religious discourses of eating, and continues to play a significant role in contemporary

Jewish sensibilities toward ethical and conscientious consumption.

The demarcation of clean and unclean in Leviticus demonstrates the relationship

between consumption and holiness. This passage directly specifies proper eating as an act

that reflects godliness: “you shall not defile yourselves with any swarming creature…

you shall be holy.” The Israelites’ food choices reenact their status as God’s chosen

people, because eating food as God describes elevates the human toward God. Therefore,

the opposite is also true: eating food that is unclean according to God’s standards causes

the person herself to be unclean, distancing herself from God. Humans can move toward

and away from God based on their consumption, becoming more or less holy based on

how they eat. The Torah repeats this concept in places other than Leviticus as well, such

as “You shall be a holy people to Me: you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field,”12

and “you shall not eat anything that has died a natural death… for you are a people

consecrated unto the Lord your God.”13 In eating the food God permits, and in the

manner God describes, Jews consecrate themselves to God and reaffirm their own

holiness. Having been created in God’s image, humans use eating as a ritual reenactment

of their relationship to the divine. Eating in the way God commands, with discipline and

proper intention, serves to highlight the divinity in humans and bring humanity closer to


The emergence of humanity’s own divinity through eating also distinguishes

humans from animals and animalistic behavior. As humans elevate themselves toward

God through purposeful food choices, they reinforce their distinction from animals.

Animals do not distinguish between what they eat, yet humans are capable of restricting

their diet. Unlike animals, who do not differentiate one food source from another as far as

we know, humans are meant to make critical choices before they eat.

As Aaron Gross points out in his dissertation entitled “The Question of the

Animal and Religion,” “many religious traditions, as well as the study of religion itself,

share a presupposition so basic that it often goes unnoticed: the existence of essential

11 Leviticus 11:44-47

12 Exodus 22:30

13 Deuteronomy 14:21

14 This notion might also be reflected in the Hebrew word used for animal sacrifice- korban- whose root is

defined as “to draw close”

distinctions between humans and all other animals.”15 The scholarly- albeit Protestant and

problematic- dichotomy between humans/animals “denotes a burdening of animals-ingeneral

with a mirror function that allows humans to define ourselves.”16 With this

implication in mind, I posit that human food choices, as different from animal food

choices, influence the construction of human identity by separating the categories of

human and animal.

To restate, as humans distance themselves from animals by practicing discipline

that relates them to holiness, they move closer to the divine, ethereal, and spiritual. By

not practicing the lawful eating codes, humans move downward, toward animal behavior,

materiality, and physicality. The bounds between these three categories, then, are fluid,

blurred during consumption, yet theoretically never shifting out of order.

Jewish teaching further specifies the qualifications for human elevation during


“the higher realm of human beings occurs only if the human partakes of the meat with

the required Berachot and proper intent; otherwise, the consumption is no different than

the consumption of animals by other animals. For this reason, then, the Gemara forbade

the consumption of meat by an Am Ha'aretz, who does not study Torah and therefore

does not maintain the aura of sanctity necessary to elevate the meat to a higher level.”17

This passage mentions that the consumption of meat is forbidden to an am ha’aretz,

referring back to the Talmud. Masechet Pesachim 49b states that an Am Haaretz, one

who does not study Torah, is forbidden to eat meat. An unlearned person may not eat

meat because knowing how to treat the animal as God requires is crucial for Jewish

eating. The quote indicates that proper intention during eating derives from studying

Torah; only the learned can achieve the holiness available through eating. While this

tractate may seek only to stop unlearned Jews from unintentionally eating un-kosher

meat, a more liberal interpretation can find evidence here for the Jewish tendency toward

conscientious consumption because of this passage’s emphasis on the thought required

before eating.18

By referring to the prohibitions for an am ha’aretz, Jewish thought further relates

eating and human identity. Only humans- not animals, not God- can study Torah.19 By

making learning Torah a requirement of proper eating, only those who truly practice their

own humanity through learning can assert their place in the hierarchy. Eating and

studying Torah become ways of consecrating one’s own humanity, situating oneself in

the category of human. Gershom Scholem, founder of the academic study of Kabbalah,

15 Aaron Gross, "The Question of the Animal and Religion" (Univerisity of California Santa Barbara,

2010), 7.

16 Ibid., 16.

17 Avi Pryntz-Nadworny, "Kosher Primer," Congregation Light of Israel,

http://www.conglightofisrael.org/haf/kosherp.htm. This quote comes from Congregation Light of Israel’s

webpage explaining the laws of kashrut. They credit this explanation to kabbalistic thought, yet they do not

directly cite the source.

18 Ibid. I will elaborate on the difference between strict readings of the text and more flexible interpretations

later on.

19 It should also be noted that non-Jews do not study Torah, thereby separating Jews from others through

the act of eating. Kosher standards are often perceived as a tool of differentiation, further indicating the

formation of Jewish identity through eating.

expounds on concept by citing the Psalms: “Taste and see that the Lord is good,”20 “Thy

law is in my inmost parts.”21 These two verses indicate the relationship between learning

and consumption; through eating properly based on their study, humans consume the

Torah and taste God. Through this process, God and His word reside inside our bellies,

and we are made aware of our relationship to the divine.

Jewish eating traditions mark the bounds of humanity, situating the category of

human by distancing humanity from animality while simultaneously bringing humanity

closer to the divine. The distinction between these three subjects helps humans to locate

themselves, positioning human identity in the context of these categories. Because eating

situates humanity in relation to divinity and animality as such, eating thus serves to

define humanity. Furthermore, since Jewish food values are rooted in this hierarchy,

eating becomes an intuitive way of sculpting of Jewish identity.

III. The Ethics of Jewish Eating

In their reactions to recent ethical dilemmas surrounding food production and

consumption, Jewish scholars debate whether Jewish food laws are necessarily imbued

with ethical sensitivity. Since many Jews perceive their tradition as ethical, this question

must be considered. While locating ethical intention in these laws is often an ambiguous

process because the text does not explicitly engage with ethics, there are moments in

Jewish theology where ethics and eating clearly intersect. These ethics usually imply

considering food before consumption instead of eating mindlessly or without reflection.

Some moments of ethical justification for eating rituals are easier to locate than

others. For example, as Foer highlights the contemporary secular importance of treating

animals with respect throughout Eating Animals, he also specifically notes the biblical

foundation for this notion. He observes a “myth of consent” in biblical tradition:

“In the ancient Israelite tradition, the red heifer sacrified for Israel’s atonement must walk

to the altar willingly or the ritual is invalid. The myth of consent has many versions, but

all imply a “fair deal” and, at least metaphorically, animal complicity in their own

domestication and slaughter.”22

Some Jewish thinkers have asserted that considering the animal as a subject, especially

during its slaughter, is a prerequisite for Jewish lawful consumption of meat. In fact, this

ethical impetus for consideration before consumption is necessary for all eating, even for

vegetarian meals. As Rabbenu Bahya states in the Shulhan Shel Arbah:

“It is well known of the majority of the children of Adam, that their hearts are asleep and

slumber, they eat with the blood, they spill blood themselves. Like an ox eats straw they

eat their bread, and their souls are wasted and devastated, full of the wine of lust and

empty of the wine of intellect. Their drunken excess turns against them, hard in pursuit of

tangible pleasures, far from the way of truth. How many are those who serve their senses,

to fulfill their desire, who gather to drain their cups to please their gullet! And how few

are the elite who eat to sustain their body for their Creator’s sake! There are some, witless

and ignorant, the shifty man, who enjoy without blessing, neglect blessings. There are

some fools who spit the good of the world into their vessels; the light of their calm will

flash away like lightning, they forget the point when they eat at their tables, if they drink

20 Psalms 34:8

21 Psalms 40:9

22 Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), 100.

from their bowl. But unique is the one who fears and delights in the Lord even over a

dinner of vegetables.”23

This quote specifies that thoughtless eating is antithetical to Jewish values. As this source

mentions, and others further support, Jews are commanded to bless their food,

considering its origins and praising the Lord even at the simplest of meals.

Despite these moments of clear ethical intention, though, the authoritative textual

basis for the ethical tropes involved with eating remains somewhat vague. Considering

the relevance of ethics in kosher practices, Gross turns to the texts published by the

largest kosher certification companies, hoping to locate the theological background to

their processes. He finds that these documents reference “discipline and kindness” as

major ethical themes for kosher certification.24 The first objective, discipline, directly

relates to the aforementioned hierarchy of divinity/humanity/animality. Discipline creates

ethical guidelines for human behavior; restricting consumption along God’s precepts,

limiting the “what” and “how” of eating, Gross writes, “suppresses and transforms

something “animal” in human beings and moves humans towards the divine.”25 Echoing

this concept, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman from Star-K kosher certification cites the human

ability to “discipline our appetites and refrain from certain foods” as a mark of holiness

and elevation toward the divine.26 Therefore, disciplined eating marks the act as uniquely

human, reaffirming human identity for those who practice restriction.

The second objective, kindness, directly relates to the mitzvah (good deed) of

tzaar baale hayim, kindness to animals. Proverbs 12:10 states, “the righteous know the

needs of their animals,” and laws throughout the Torah prohibit animal cruelty in various

ways. Maimonides points to Numbers 22:32, which asks, “why have you struck your

donkey these three times?” as the foundation for the most basic of laws regarding

compassion for animals: “It is forbidden to cause pain to any animal.”27 While many

Jewish vegetarian activists, like Richard Schwartz, argue that any consumption of meat

violates tzaar baale hayim- “no one can ignore this price that has to be paid for the

pleasure of eating meat”- some kosher meat eaters contend that the Jewish laws of

kashrut protect animal rights and maintain ethical standards regarding meat


This element of “kindness” serves to further establish human identity in relation

to animals. Gross points out that the word kindness itself contains this relationship, that

humans and animals are similar-in-kind.29 The kindness toward animals required of

humanity derives from a sense that humans and animals are bound together, are of the

same nature. The Jewish eating laws may in fact be a reaction to this similarity-in-kind,

23 Jonathan D. Brumberg-Kraus, "Does God Care What We Eat? Jewish Theologies of Food and Reverence

for Life," in Food and Judaism, ed. Ronald Simkins Leonard J Greenspoon, Gerald Shapiro (Omaha:

Creighton UP, 2005), 120.

24 Gross, "The Question of the Animal and Religion", 40.

25 Ibid., 41.

26 Ibid. 41 Here, Gross is citing Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, one of the Orthodox certifiers for Star-K

certification, from the Star-K website: http://www.star-k.org/cons-keep-basics-why.htm

27 Richard H. Schwartz, "Tsa'ar Ba'alei Chayim- Judaism and Compassion for Animals," in Judaism &

Animal Rights: Classic & Contemporary Responses, ed. Roberta Kalechofsky (Marblehead: Micah

Publications, Inc, 1988), 61.

28 Ibid., 70.

29 Gross, "The Question of the Animal and Religion", 287.

aiming to differentiate humanity from its potential to be animalistic. Gross shows that

two different relationships to animals are established in the biblical narrative. Genesis

bestows humans with an ascendant responsibility for animals, emphasizing human

behavior’s elevation above animal nature. The ethical commandments, though, require

human protection for animals to remind humanity of their proximity to animals. I

understand these two modes of interaction with animals as creating a constant boomerang

effect, bringing the two categories (human/animal) back together after attempts to

establish distance between them. This ever-fluctuating nearness/distance in how humans

relate to animals, especially when eating them, is crucial for human conceptions of the

self; moving up and down the hierarchy by how we eat, humans constantly re-imagine

the self in relation to others through reenactments of ritualized eating.

The rituals of ethical eating in Jewish tradition are mainly found in the

requirement to say blessings before and after eating, and the laws surrounding shechita,

kosher slaughter. Blessings set apart the meal as a sacred ritual. Delaying hunger pangs in

order to bless the food on the table and then further postponing daily activity to thank

God for providing sustenance, Jews recite these prayers in order to consider food before

and after consumption. As “Kosher Wars” elaborates: “the rules around kosher food- like

the requirement that meat be slaughtered by a pious person with a certain intention and

the requirement to say a blessing over every food acknowledging its source (land, tree,

grain, other)- encourage mindful eating and discourage overconsumption of resources.”30

The Birkat HaMazon, the prayer recited after a meal, specifically reflects the notion that

Jews must be mindful during consumption. The prayer reads: “Blessed is the God whose

food we have eaten and through whose goodness we live.”31 This blessing requires eaters

to thank God for providing food, reminding participants that sustenance cannot be taken

for granted. Despite eating being a daily necessity, food is not a given, so Judaism sets

eating apart as sacred through prayer. Ori Soltes, who writes on the ritual of Jewish food

practices, goes so far as to argue, “the blessings that frame the beginning and ending of a

meal transforms the dinner table into an altar.”32 Because of this sacrality, if Jews do not

pray before and after a meal, they desecrate a religious code of conduct instructed to them

by God. For these reasons, eating becomes an ethical act- one which can be violated if

not performed correctly.

Perspectives on shechita offer a more controversial discussion on the ethics of

kosher eating. Many Orthodox Jews profess that shechita is the quickest, most painless

and humane way to slaughter animals.33 Yet, although shechita can be ethical and

humane, the technical rules of slaughter do not demand ethical treatment explicitly. The

kosher slaughter practices are meant to cause the animal the least amount of pain

possible, in adherence with the mitzvah of tza’ar ba’ale chayim. The shochet, slaughterer,

must be learned and highly trained; the knife must be sharpened to perfection; the animal

must be killed with only one stroke. While these precautions intersect with ethical

concerns, claiming that shechita and ethics are necessarily connected is not valid- as

30 Shapiro, "Kosher Wars," 52.

31 This, and the full text, is offered at www.hillel.org

32 Ori Z. Soltes, "The Art of Jewish Food," in Food and Judaism, ed. Ronald Simkins Leonard J

Greenspoon, Gerald Shapiro (Omaha: Creighton UP, 2005), 29.

33 Ronald L Androphy, "Shehita," in Judaism & Animal Rights: Classical & Contemporary Responses, ed.

Roberta Kalechofsky (Marblehead: Micah Publications, Inc, 1980), 81.

proven most recently by the egregious inhumanity in the AgriProcessors plant, and even

earlier by statements from leading animal rights activists such as Temple Grandin.34

However, many defenders of the traditional practices still offer the argument that

shechita aims to maintain ethical standards because of the special training of the

slaughterer and the speed of the slaughter itself.

I will discuss further the nuances, hypocrisies and contradictions contained within

the practice of shechita later on. These debates will become more relevant regarding the

various ways that contemporary food movements redefine kashrut from an ethical

starting point. This exercise seeks interpretive space in order to locate ethical potential in

kosher laws, and then emphasizes ethics as an essential component of the practices.

Shechita presents a particularly relevant example for how these laws can be reinterpreted

based on current sensibilities.

The ethics involved with proper Jewish eating are not made explicit in

authoritative texts. Especially in the specific laws of kashrut, ethical tropes can be

overlooked if one does not aim to maintain them. However, these ethics are embedded in

Jewish eating codes. In his analysis of the ethical undertones in eating rituals, Gross


the act of eating animals according to kosher law amplifies, modifies, supplements, or

otherwise manipulates the significance of these actions so that they do not simply impact

the world and our psyches but are honed to propel individuals and communities into the

world with particular sensitivities, dispositions, and ethics. While articulated explicitly

only on occasion, the daily repetition of the motions of eating kosher meat works silently,

inscribing words in the expansion and contraction of muscle, embedding ideas in

gestures, and shaping how Jews who participate in the practice categorize, perceive and

experience both their selves and others.”35

Gross indicates here that while the ethical values of kosher eating may hide behind the

explicit halacha, their presence remains significant in the formation of Jewish identity.

When the ethics are recognized, they influence the Jewish community’s conception of

itself and of others.36 As an eater pauses to consider her food, she reminds herself of her

own humanity- as one who eats, and as one who eats in a certain manner. Yet even when

these sensibilities are ignored, as they must be for rituals performed so regularly, they

continue to quietly influence Jewish experience, instilling an ethical nature in daily

action. Eating in this manner establishes Jews as ethical human subjects even when

ethical elements are not directly considered.

34 Temple Grandin, "Humanitarian Aspects of Shechitah in the United States," in Judaism & Animal

Rights: Classical & Contemporary Responses, ed. Roberta Kalechofsky (Marblehead: Micah Publications,

INC, 1990), 92.

35 Gross, "The Question of the Animal and Religion", 285.

36 As will be elaborated later through the various responses to AgriProcessors, the “Jewish community’s

conception of itself” cannot be generalized as I have here, since various denominations highlight different

ideologies as the center of their identity. However, here I use broad language since all Jews eat; no matter

the particular performance of Jewish eating, the hidden ethical tropes continue to impact formations of


IV. Redefining Kashrut and Jewish Consumption in Modernity

This section of my essay traces the evolution of Jewish perspectives on eating at

the onset of modernity. The vast implications involved with eating perpetuates its

continued importance in modernity, as Jewish consumers attempt to hold on to the

meaning in traditional eating even when its practice is called into question. First, I discuss

general transitions in Jewish communal life, including the formation of various religious

movements. Different religious denominations within Jewish society formed as a result of

shifting perspectives on how to engage tradition, which includes eating rituals, in the

modern context. I hope to show that different modes of interpreting halacha exist on a

spectrum, each movement blending tradition and modernity to varying relational degrees.

This discussion prefaces how Jews in America confront the major changes in American

life that irrevocably altered how kashrut functions. Specifically, I will discuss Rabbi

Arthur Waskow’s approach to new kosher standards, as one particularly influential model

for redefining Jewish eating. Then, I will analyze the AgriProcessors scandal as a

transformative moment in American Jewry’s interactions with kosher practices. The

various responses to AgriProcessors exist on my imagined interpretative spectrum, yet all

of these reactions share a common Jewish concern for maintaining the integrity of Jewish

eating in the modern context.

The Enlightenment and Moving to America

Traditional Jewish practices altered in 18th and 19th century Europe with the

emergence of Jewish Enlightenment, or haskala. The haskala movement’s support for

secular education and acculturation spurred greater integration with outside communities.

Jews ceased to be a semi-autonomous, isolated community; instead, they began to

integrate into public European society. As The Jew in the Modern World elaborates,

enlightened Jews “evinced little hesitation in appropriating the philosophical, aesthetic,

educational and political values of the Enlightenment.”37 This move transformed life in

Europe, and changed the character of Jewish identity. With the addition of other fields of

knowledge like science, philosophy, and technology, Jewish society began to incorporate

other considerations beside religion into daily life.

The challenge of blending Jewish tradition with European modernity prompted

the creation of various denominations within Judaism. For example, the Haredi, “Ultra-

Orthodox” sect, was created as a way of combating the move away from tradition. Ultra-

Orthodoxy made reactionary changes in order to cling to tradition despite enlightenment

sensibilities and historical critiques of religion. For example, the “Chatam Sofer”, one of

the leading Haredi rabbis in nineteen century Europe, famously set forth the claim:

chadash asur min haTorah,” “what is new is forbidden by the Torah.”38 He went so far

as to proclaim, “Never say: “Times have changed!” We have an old Father- praised be

His name- who has never changed and will never change.”39 His stance is reflective of

37 Jehuda Reinharz Paul Mendes-Flohr, ed. The Jew in the Modern World, Second Edition ed. (New York:

Oxford University Press,1995), 155.

38 Joshua Lesser Gregg Drinkwater, David Shneer, ed. Torah Queeries (New York: New York University

Press,2009), 247.

39 Paul Mendes-Flohr, ed. The Jew in the Modern World, 172.

the Ultra-Orthodox understanding of how to grapple with modernity; strict readings of

the Torah and halacha prohibits liberal interpretations of the text, keeping tradition

unwavering in the modern age despite the modern tendency toward re-appropriation and


The Haredi attitude toward halacha is an extreme example of how to grapple with

modernity; other variations of interpretive maneuvers used by “Orthodox” movements

are not as strict and immovable. The term Orthodox itself is problematic in its broad

usage, as Marc Lee Raphael explains: “such usage of the term orthodox… does not

adequately convey the texture of Jewish life… does not suggest the rich diversity of

religious expression.”40 As one example of other “Orthodox” viewpoints, neo-Orthodox

thinker Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote in his 1854 essay “Religion Allied to Progress”:

“An excellent thing is the study of Torah combined with the ways of the world [yafeh

talmud torah im derekh erez.]”41 While still labeled under the all-encompassing title of

“Orthodox,” this statement reflects a perspective that seeks for maintaining tradition in

combination with the modern world, a stance quite different than that of the Haredi

movement. I point out this complication in the category of orthodoxy in order to preface

the multitude of “Orthodox” responses to the AgriProcessors scandal. I also see this

example of neo-Orthodoxy principles as demonstrating the extent to which these

evolving interactions with halacha exist on a spectrum.

With this spectrum in mind, the Reform movement’s values can be seen as

existing on the opposite end from those of the Haredi group. The Reform movement was

founded as way of re-evaluating Jewish tradition, eliminating practices that seemed to

conflict with modernity. The Reform movement began in Germany, and gained

popularity in the United States after many German Jews immigrated to America. Reform

Rabbis convened in Pittsburgh in 1885 to write The Pittsburgh Platform, which states:

“to-day we accept as binding only the moral laws and maintain only ceremonies as

elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and

habits of modern civilization.”42 Reform Judaism adopted new priorities for living a

Jewish life in modernity, focusing only on the elements of religion that remain in accord

with reason.43

Reform Judaism allowed for the elimination of laws that seemed incongruous

with modern logic, including, for example, the laws of kashrut. In 1883, shrimp, clams,

and other non-kosher fare were served at a dinner hosted by Hebrew Union College. Now

infamously called the “Trefa Banquet”, this event produced a flurry of outrage from

rabbis and kosher Jews who were repulsed by Reform Judaism’s complete rejection of

the laws of kashrut. This menu choice is indicative of Reform Judaism’s ideological

beginnings; Isaac Mayer Wise, the president of HUC at the time, spearheaded the Reform

movement’s reevaluation and rejection of traditional practices. He even started to eat

oysters himself.44 As Kosher Wars explains, the Reform Movement saw the “the kosher

dietary laws as an anachronistic impediment to “modern spiritual elevation””, and

40 Marc Lee Raphael, Profiles in American Judaism (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 127.

41 Paul Mendes-Flohr, ed. The Jew in the Modern World, 200.

42 Ibid., 468.

43 Ibid., 469.

44 Joan Nathan, "A Social History of Jewish Food in America," in Food and Judaism, ed. Ronald Simkins

Leonard J Greenspoon, Gerald Shapiro (Omaha: Creighton UP, 2005), 3.

rejected the kosher standards as irrelevant for Reform Jews.45 One extreme response to

the Trefa banquet came from Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, who famously proclaimed that the

kashrut laws “are dead and buried for us and no power in the world can resuscitate

them.”46 While the Reform movement’s position has since changed, the Trefa Banquet

serves as a potent example of changing food ideologies, and the effect of modernity on

Jewish eating traditions.

The Kosher Industry in America

Modernity irrevocably altered how traditional Jewish eating practices function. In

America especially, with the introduction of supermarkets, mass-production, and

packaged foods, the kosher industry was completely changed. Joan Nathan, the leading

American Jewish food writer, reports:

“With the growth of food companies, delicatessens, school lunch programs, and

restaurants, both American food generally and American Jewish food in particular

became more processed and more innovative. In 1925, the average American housewife

made all her food at home. By 1965, 75 to 90 percent of the food she prepared had

undergone some sort of factory processing. Today, Jewish consumers can buy almost

everything prepared.”47

Instead of walking down the block to a familiar, local, kosher butcher, Jews began buying

their meat anonymously. As “Kosher Wars” points out: “Jews no longer know that their

meat is kosher because they know the person who killed it but because of the symbol that

appears on the shrink-wrap at the grocery story.”48 Buying packaged meat and products

in the “kosher aisle” of a supermarket constitutes an experience completely contrasting

with the food values established during ages of local production and consumption. The

consumer is removed from the product in this process: she does not witness the slaughter;

does not know where the meat comes from; and does not interact with its producer. The

traditional character of kosher consumption- familiar butcher, local produce, educated

acknowledgement and approval of the production process- was no longer necessary or

included in purchasing kosher fare. Understandably, with this transition in mass

consumption habits, the tendency to abide by the laws of kashrut wavered.

American mass-production techniques include the creation of factory farming.

Foer cites that “99% of all animals eaten in this country come from “factory farms,”” a

term used to describe the system of raising and slaughtering mass amounts of animals for

meat and dairy production.49 This agribusiness model relies on the most cost-effective

means of producing the maximum amount of meat; a system which, to its many vocal

protestors, depends on a business plan where “factory farmers calculate how close to

death they can keep the animals without killing them… how quickly they can be made to

grow, how tightly they can be packed, how much or little they can eat.”50 While the

45 Shapiro, "Kosher Wars," 52.

46 Jenna Weissman Joselit, "Food Fight: The Americanization of Kashrut in Twentieth Century America,"

in Food and Judaism, ed. Ronald Simkins Leonard J Greenspoon, Gerald Shapiro (Omaha: Creighton UP,

2005), 336.

47 Nathan, "A Social History of Jewish Food in America," 7.

48 Shapiro, "Kosher Wars," 53.

49 Foer, Eating Animals, 12.

50 Ibid., 93.

ethical treatment of animals at factory farms should undoubtedly come under scrutiny,

American modernity and mass production relies on this level of fast and cheap and

production. As one factory farmer reminds us, other smaller methods of production “ain’t

gonna feed the world. Never. You simply can’t feed billions of people free-range eggs.”51

Factory farms and slaughterhouses now include the manufacture of kosher meat,

consequently changing the standards of religious intention in meat production. As

Roberta Kalechofsky points out, "modernity has proven a formidable foe of kashruth,

making it all but impossible for kashruth and shechitah to function meaningfully in the

way that they were historically meant to function."52 There are many laws involved with

kosher meat, but the contradictions entailed in shechita are most relevant to this

discussion because of the extensive way humane slaughter alters with mass production

processes. Shechita in the mass production environment has ceased to be the most

humane form of slaughter because shackling and hoisting, combined with declining to

stun the animals before slaughter, change shechita irreparably. As Kalechofsky explains:

“as far as historical evidence permits us to know, shechita was the least painful way to

slaughter food animals for two millennia, until this century… the system was generally

corrupted in the West under the impact of governmentally mandated laws that require

animals to be shackled and hoisted in the air to prevent the contagion of blood-borne


Even the use of trained slaughterers has fallen aside; since most animals are now

butchered on assembly lines, shechita is rarely even taught at rabbinical schools now.54

Yet, none of these potentially inhumane and unethical practices actually violate the laws

of kosher slaughter, so despite the alterations in meat production techniques, each

package is still stamped with a ubiquitous kosher symbol.

This symbol often misleads customers, since many kosher eaters presume the

presence of an ethical/kosher relationship. Unfortunately, many kosher consumers did not

understand that changes in mass food production affected the kosher marketplace as well.

Recent first-hand accounts of realizing the effect of factory production on kosher foods

often include reactions of surprise and disgust, as consumers wonder how kosher values

became so watered down in the new production environment. The Forward reports that

Naf Hanau, founder of “Grow and Behold Foods” that currently produces pasture-raised

kosher chicken and prominent Jewish food activist, reconfigured his eating habits after

realizing that kosher standards had changed with the advent of new production


“As he was growing up in an Orthodox household with the “butcher just around the

corner,” eating kosher meat was a given for Hanau. It was not until he learned about

51 Ibid., 95.

52 Roberta Kalechofsky, ed. Rabbis and Vegetarianism: An Evolving Tradition (Marblehead: Micah

Publications, INC,1995), iii.

53 ———, ed. Judaism and Animal Rights: Classical and Contemporary Responses (Marblehead: Micah

Publications, INC,1992), 71.

54 Shapiro, "Kosher Wars," 52. As I understand it, slaughter is no longer a component of vocational training

at rabbinical school because numerous trained slaughterers for individual communities are not required.

Only one trained slaughterer is needed on the assembly line, whereas in the past, each local kosher butcher

has been a trained shochet. However, despite the decline in shechita training, now an increasing number of

rabbinical students and those active in the New Jewish Food Movement are seeking slaughter training,

often from individual mentors, as a means of establishing personal connections to their food and

maintaining standards of conscientious consumption.

factory farms, feedlots, antibiotic use and other practices common to the conventional

meat industry that he began to re-examine his eating habits. “At first I was outraged and

thought, ‘How could this be kosher?’” he said. “Then I realized it was because kashrut

dictates how an animal is killed and processed, not how it is raised. But I still did not

want to eat it.””55

As these truths of slaughterhouses emerged in national media, the debate began as

to what values should constitute kashrut in modernity. On the one hand, inhumane

treatment of animals does not violate the kosher laws. Yet, on the other hand, is this the

single most important demarcation of kosher meat? As “Kosher Wars” reports: “Shechita

impacts only the last few minutes of an animal’s life… so while ensuring a humane

slaughter is important, Hanau believes that the rest of the process – how the animal is

raised, fed, and transported- may have a greater proportional impact on its quality of

life.”56 This view represents a shift in focus. Some Jews modified their understanding of

tza’ar ba’ale chayim as no longer upheld by the moment of slaughter; in fact, the

majority of the animal’s life, in this new production system, becomes more important to

fulfilling the mitzvah than the slaughter itself. Foer echoes this notion, implying that the

ethical basis of kashrut should remain the focus under the current circumstance:

“As I was taught them, in Hebrew school and at home, the Jewish dietary laws were

devised as a compromise: if humans absolutely must eat animals, we should do so

humanely, with respect for the other creatures in the world and with humility. Don’t

subject animals you eat to unnecessary suffering, either in their lives or in their slaughter.

It’s a way of thinking that made me proud to be Jewish as a child, and that continues to

make me proud.”57

Yet, despite this pride, Foer asks: “In our world – not the shephard-and-flock

world of the Bible, but our overpopulated one in which animals are treated legally and

socially as commodities – is it even possible to eat meat without “causing pain to one of

God’s living creatures,” to avoid (even after going to great and sincere lengths) “the

desecration of God’s name”? Has the very concept of kosher meat become a

contradiction in terms?”58 With factory farming and other money-driven food operations

reshaping the kosher marketplace, kashrut no longer appeared congruent with American

food culture. The question arises, then, of how to sustain Jewish tradition in an

environment when the practices may seem outdated or impractical. Yet maintaining these

ethics is crucial for Jewish eaters, especially since ethical human subjectivity is

influenced by the very act of eating.

Kosher Reformation: Arthur Waskow and Eco-Kosher

In order to preserve the Jewish dietary laws as many began to reject them, kosher

reformation movements began to surface throughout the 1970s and 80s. These ideologies

did not attain mass appeal until the 1990s. In 1991, Rabbi Arthur Waskow published an

essay titled “What is Eco-Kosher?” using a phrase actually coined by Rabbi Zalman

55 Leah Koenig, "Grow and Behold," The Forward 2010.

56 Ibid.

57 Foer, Eating Animals, 69.

58 Ibid., 70.

Schachter-Shalomi.59 In this essay, Waskow heralds the destruction and desolation of the

earth by human behavior, calling on conscientious consumers, and Jews in particular, to

live in an “eco-kosher” manner.

Eco-Kashrut extends beyond the factors that traditional laws regulate. For

instance, he asks the questions: “Are tomatoes that have been grown by drenching the

earth in pesticides eco-kosher to eat at a wedding reception?” and, “is newspaper that has

been made by chopping down an ancient and irreplaceable forest eco-kosher to use for a

newspaper?”60 Waskow’s concept of eco-kosher broadens the traditional halacha,

dubbing food and other actions non-kosher based on a variety of criteria including

ethical, sustainable, and organic considerations. How animals are raised, how food is

produced, how workers are treated, among other assessments, all become elements to

consider when leading an eco-kosher life.

The eco-kosher movement engages with Judaism’s most basic ethical tenets,

including respect for animals, protection of the environment, protection of one’s own

body, sharing food with the poor, and blessings.61 Each of these precepts apply to the

food itself, as well as other areas of consumption like “consuming energy, using paper,

buying machines, investing money,” when choosing products that do not violate these

tenets during any step of their production.62 Since combining all these factors into a

redefined system of kashrut might “run the danger of obsessiveness,” Waskow urges

consumers to weigh these value systems and choose which are most relevant.63 Waskow

believes that consumers should synthesize the components of ethical consumption in

order to operate with fluid conceptions of ethical behavior.64 Eco-kosher living, then,

does not have one concrete set of rules; rather, it provides a guideline for how kosher

choices can contain ethical sensibilities. This gives consumers agency in following the

rules of kashrut based on their own value systems.65

Waskow does not explicitly eliminate elements of traditional halacha when

constructing eco-kashrut. Instead, he reorients certain actions in order to preserve what he

perceives as their original purpose. For example, Waskow reworks the hierarchy

presented earlier. If traditional kashrut sought to elevate humans toward holiness, ecokashrut

seeks to connect and unify humanity with the earth. He writes:

“we are the one species that is able to rise “above” the earth, see it as a whole, and

therefore choose to act as if we were not really embedded within it. Since as biological

beings we are in fact still embedded in the earth’s biology, when we act as if we were

“beyond” earth, we ourselves are shattered”66

59 Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement and an activist for

Jewish vegetarianism. His original name was Zalman Schachter, but he added “Shalomi” to his name in the

1970s. His last name now translates to “peaceful slaughter”.

60 Arthur Waskow, "What Is Eco-Kosher?," in This Sacred Earth, ed. Roger S Gottlieb (New York:

Routledge, 1991), 297.

61 ———, Down to Earth Judaism (New York: William Morrow and Company, INC, 1995), 122.

62 Ibid., 121.

63 Ibid., 123.

64 Ibid. 123.

65 Ibid. 123

66 Ibid., 119.

Since Waskow notes that human behavior so far has created vast environmental hazards,

Waskow here shifts the human goal from ascension to descent. Instead of perpetuating

human status above animals and vegetation, humans must now descend back toward

earth, reclaiming our earthly origin for the sake of preservation.

While this move does not eliminate any halacha in particular, it reorients the

halacha in a direction more relevant to contemporary circumstances. His undertaking

derives from a long history of Jewish interpretation, rooted even earlier than the


“The shift from Biblical to Rabbinic Judaism is one of the most useful histories of how

culture can renew and transform itself without losing its own identity. Now when the

world is being profoundly transformed, every religious tradition needs to examine how

best to renew and transform itself, neither abandoning its own deepest wisdom nor

getting stuck in the transient versions of itself that worked in a departed past.”67

In adapting kashrut to the modern context, Waskow attempts to uphold halacha in new

and meaningful ways through consequential action. This new approach to kashrut stems

from the understanding that kosher laws are no longer fully compatible with the modern

context, and must be altered or expanded in order to remain meaningful. While staunch

followers of Orthodoxy and tradition may find this re-appropriation of the laws

objectionable, Waskow’s engagement with halacha indicates a continued engagement

with these laws despite his flexible interpretation of the text. He strikes a balance

between the Reform tendency to eliminate rules and the Orthodox impetus to keep each

letter of the Torah in its place.68 Waskow’s undertaking invokes halacha dynamically,

adding to places where the rules need shifting for modern circumstances. He sees himself

as one of “many Jews today who are wrestling with tradition- not turning away from it

and not bowing down to it, but wrestling and dancing with it- [seeking] to incorporate

these truths into a deeper, renewed, reshaped version of Judaism.”69 Adapting the laws to

the contemporary context so they are no longer outdated, he believes, is the most

effective way of maintaining Jewish tradition and living a modern Jewish life. Waskow


“Modernity has shattered the Jewish life that had become traditional, has liberated and

empowered women, has transformed the very chemistry and biology of the Earth, and

threatens to bring about a mass death of many species. Under these conditions, we must

reexamine the content of the precepts that sought for harmony under old conditions,

while drawing on the wisdom of the entire Jewish past in order to shape the new


67 ———, "What Is Eco-Kosher?," 300.

68 This paradigm is no longer quite so extreme. Reform Judaism today is experiencing a re-emergence of

traditional observance, like wearing kippot, talit, tzitzit and keeping kosher. Reevaluating halacha today,

for Reform Judaism, is more centered on progressive views on feminism and homosexuality, as well as

egalitarian prayer experiences and individual understandings of God. Waskow, explaining his views on the

various options of engaging with modernity, says he values “creating a transformed post-Rabbinic Judaismfeminist,

holistic, eco-centered, body-affirming, yet deeply rooted in the Jewish past, both affirming and

affirmed by most of the Jewish people. (This is analogous to the Rabbis’ creation of Judaism without the

central Shrine or land, profoundly different from the Biblical world, yet deeply rooted in the Biblical

tradition.) Many Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jews are moving in this direction.” Ibid. 110

69 Ibid., 110.

70 Waskow, "What Is Eco-Kosher?," 297.

Many Orthodox thinkers opposed this intellectual move, worrying that overinterpreting

kosher laws might eventually lead to neglecting them all together.71 Since

Jewish tradition posits God as everlasting truth, His word (the Torah and its laws) could

not be a product of history. Viewing the text as a shapeable document that was not

transcendently delivered by God undermines its authority. Therefore, the Orthodox

opposition sees re-interpreting the laws for a modern context as indicating a human

element in the creation of Jewish tradition, destabilizing God Himself.72 Waskow

sympathizes with this fear: “if this is the way religious practice evolved, out of the

changing life of the people, then it means there is no religious significance, no whiff of

the Eternal, no holiness, no God in the process. It is mere anthropology, mere sociology,

mere history.”73 Yet, despite this concern, Waskow believes that reworking the tradition

with modern sensibilities allows for a process of renewal and revival, not dismissal and


Waskow understands the progression of Jewish thought as following a five-step

model of adaptation. He explains this model as a spiral, seeing the past, present and

future as working together to continually reformat each other. He explains the spiral of

Jewish history:

“1. A story or practice that the Jewish people has received from the past

2. influences what it sees as most salient and most important in its present life.

3. Out of its present situation, the people then

4. chooses what to emphasize for the next generation. Not only what to emphasize in

what it will do next, but also

5. what to enrich and embroider in what it used to be- that is, in the stories and life-paths

it has inherited.

So the past shapes the present, and then the present not only shapes the future but also

reshapes the past.”74

This understanding of Jewish history is influential for Jews who choose to keep the laws

relevant in contemporary contexts through reinterpretation, and directly applies to

contemporary Jewish engagement with food issues. Since various considerations besides

strict adherence to religion emerge in modernity as critical to individual formations of

identity, the eating traditions need to undergo a similar metamorphosis, incorporating

new criteria in order to remain relevant and influential. Viewing the progression of

Jewish history as a mutable trajectory, many Jews are able to keep food traditions alive

despite their potential to appear anachronistic. Keeping the tradition flexible, then, allows

eating to continue as a crucial aspect of subjectivity.

Waskow’s Eco-Kosher movement set the stage for a mass reevaluation of the role

of kashrut for modern, liberal, and even secular, Jews. When eating ethically and

sustainably becomes more important to many consumers than following outdated laws of

slaughter, Waskow shows how the halacha of kashrut can be expanded to preserve

Jewish beliefs. Reshaping old traditions to better fit the new engagement with food issues

prompted a re-emergence of kosher eating habits. In fact, redefining kashrut to

incorporate these contemporary sensibilities set the stage for, as one scholar explains, “a

71 Shapiro, "Kosher Wars," 54.

72 Raphael, Profiles in American Judaism, 161.

73 Waskow, Down to Earth Judaism, 37.

74 ———, Down to Earth Judaism, 36.

kind of counter-narrative that focuses on the efforts of those American Jews who not only

continued to keep kosher but who explained their retention of an affinity for this hoary

practice in avowedly modern, twentieth century terms.”75 The movement garnered mass

appeal when practiced in conjunction with sustainability movements, since they both

share a concern for how food is produced. Foer calls this ideology the “eat with care

ethic,” implying that Jewish food sensibilities expanded to include much more than just

prohibiting mixing meat and milk.76 I will continue to discuss the New Jewish Food

Movement at the end this essay.

While the debate between Orthodox and liberal interpretations of halacha remains

potent, there is a growing consensus that eating in a Jewish manner requires certain

criteria that tradition does not include. These might incorporate, depending on varying

value systems, vegetarianism, sustainability, organic production, humane treatment of

animals, or ethical treatment of workers, among other criteria. Asking, “is this fit for me

to consume?” has become a wider consideration than the constructors of Jewish tradition

may have intended, yet Jewish values continue to inform these decisions. Schachter-

Shalomi proclaims: “We now read the words of Leviticus with a new consciousness: “Be

ye a holy people. Do not defile yourself.””77 With this perspective, Jewish eating

traditions remain relevant because they can incorporate and support new understandings

of proper consumption.

The AgriProcessors Event

The AgriProcessors scandal of 2004-2008 is a critical moment for much of the

conversation about redefining kashrut. While Arthur Waskow and other small Jewish

communities had previously engaged with issues of ethical consumption, mass awareness

escalated after the national media revealed AgriProcessors’ inhumane slaughter of

animals and illegal treatment of workers. Joan Nathan reminds us that since “to many

Americans the word ‘kosher’ has become synonymous with ‘better’ and ‘safer,’” the

AgriProcessors event was a slap in the face to kosher consumers who upheld the kosher

production moral high ground.78 Yet, this outrage became productive as broadcasting the

truth behind a major supplier of kosher food prompted many scholars and kosher eaters to

stretch the ideological bounds of kosher laws to include ethical sensibilities as well. Since

involvement with food activism was already growing nationally, the AgriProcessors

event became a catalyst for a broader range of Jewish responses and increased Jewish

engagement with ethical food concerns.79 As Rabbi Jacob Fine, Hillel Rabbi at University

of Washington in Seattle explains,

“this isn’t the first time the Jewish community has been talking about ethics and kashrut,

but until recently the conversations were marginal, small, and fairly limited to the

Renewal community. We have now reached the tipping point. There is no part of the

75 Joselit, "Food Fight: The Americanization of Kashrut in Twentieth Century America," 337.

76 Foer, Eating Animals, 103.

77 Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, "Foreward to Vegetarianism: The Perspective of a Reform Jew by

Louis Berman," in Rabbis and Vegetarianism: An Evolving Tradition, ed. Roberta Kalechofsky

(Marblehead: Micah Publications, Inc, 1982), 78.

78 Nathan, "A Social History of Jewish Food in America," 11.

79 Gross, "The Question of the Animal and Religion", 114.

Jewish community, from Reform to Orthodox, where the conversation about kashrut and

ethics is not taking place.”80

Rabbi Fine here indicates that although the events at AgriProcessors did not begin the

conversation about the potential for ethical concerns and kosher laws to intersect, the

scandal opened the door for institutionalized activism. Post 2008, when the factory’s

abuses were revealed, involvement in these discussions of ethics became a widespread


The AgriProcessors plant opened in Postville, Iowa in 1987. Bought by Aaron

Rubashkin, a Haredi Jew, the factory changed the landscape of Postville, bringing to

middle America a Chabad-Lubavitch community, as well as many Hispanic laborers. At

its highest point of productivity, AgriProcessors was the world’s largest glatt-kosher

slaughterhouse, employing hundreds of ethnically diverse workers.81 Sue Fishkoff, who

published Kosher Nation last month, reports:

“At one time AgriProcessors was the powerhouse of the country’s kosher meat industry,

at its peak producing 60 percent of the kosher beef and 40 percent of the kosher poultry

sold nationwide. Its nearly one thousand employees processed up to five hundred head of

cattle a day, moving them from flatbed trucks to hanging quarters in less than an hour.

Annual sales were estimated at $250 million.”82

This factory was also the first to organize all the elements of kosher production at one

site, from the slaughtering to the packaging, all in one place.83 The AgriProcessors plant

perpetuated the transition from local kosher butchers to kosher mass-production.

AgriProcessors’ national success came under scrutiny starting in 2004 when

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) conducted an undercover

investigation of the AgriProcessors plant. PETA subsequently released video footage of

the factory’s inhumane treatment of its livestock and unethical forms of slaughter- in this

case, shechita. The video showed gruesome footage of systematic removal of cattle’s

trachea and esophagi, as well as forcing cattle into a “rotating pen” in order to invert the

animals during shechita. Careful viewing also showed that the animals remain conscious

for up to three minutes after slaughter.84 After the investigation, PETA released a

statement on their website revealing the findings: “every day, hundreds of animals

endured unimaginable cruelty at this AgriProcessors slaughterhouse. Maybe after seeing

the fear and pain on the faces of the animals we captured on videotape, you will go


Aaron Gross, who advised PETA before they conducted their investigation of

AgriProcessors, views PETA’s raid as a turning point in the prominence of Jewish

activism on animal issues.86 Since much of the Jewish community perceived kosher

slaughter to be humane, he expected the repulsive footage from AgriProcessors to insight

public response. He was correct; the video’s release garnered a national uproar and

heated debate, especially after the November 30, 2004 New York Times article “Video

Cited in Calling Kosher Slaughter Inhumane.” The debate ranged across Jewish

80 Sue Fishkoff, Kosher Nation (New York: Random House, 2010), 294.

81 Glatt Kosher, ironically, indicates that the food was processed under the strictest standards of kashrut.

82 Fishkoff, Kosher Nation, 279.

83 Ibid., 281.

84 Gross, "The Question of the Animal and Religion", 73.

85 Ibid., 65.

86 Ibid., 66.

communities, one side arguing that inhumane treatment of animals does not render meat

non-kosher, the other side disputing that kashrut and ethics are inextricably bound.

The debate intensified in 2006 when Nathaniel Popper published an article in The

Forward focusing on worker abuse at AgriProcessors. His own undercover investigation

revealed that the plant did not offer adequate safety training, Spanish translators, or care

for sickness or injury.87 While some of the concerned Jewish community reacted with

outrage, defenders cited halacha to proclaim, “in the Jewish legal system, rules about the

treatment of workers and animals are not directly linked to kashrut.”88 Already in 2006,

factions of the Jewish community divided in their reactions to the brutality at

AgriProcessors, signifying again the different methods of evaluating the conflict between

tradition and modern processes.

On May 12, 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted the largest

single-site immigration raid in US history at the AgriProcessors plant. 389 illegal

immigrant workers were arrested.89 The factory owner, Sholom Rubashkin, was charged

with human rights abuses including: unsafe working conditions; child labor; sexual

harassment; forced labor under threat of deportation; and cheating workers out of

compensation for injuries.90 The Rubashkins were fined over ten million dollars for tax

and wage violations, and filed bankruptcy in November, 2008.91 In June 2010, Sholom

Rubashkin was sentenced to twenty-seven years in prison, and was denied a new trial in

October, 2010.

The raid made the controversy regarding kosher standards unavoidable. Fishkoff

writes, “in the first days and weeks after the raid, the Jewish and secular press were filled

with articles about the ethics of kashrut, something that had rarely been discussed in such

a public forum.”92 Yet, despite the disclosure of the undeniable and extensive brutalities

at AgriProcessors, the responses remained divided. Haredi leaders maintained their stance

that inhumane slaughter and unethical labor practices do not affect the kosher status of

the meat.93 Despite some Modern Orthodox opposition to this stance, the Haredi defense

of Agriprocessors was highlighted in the debate, and Orthodox challenges to the plant

seem to have been silenced.94 Yet, despite the vocal Haredi defense of AgriProcessors’

procedures, much of the non-Orthodox Jewish community expressed outrage and surprise

at the plant’s abuses. Since the Jewish folk explanation for kashrut relied on tropes of

ethics and humanity, the truths of AgriProcessors’ procedures exposed an egregious

affront to popular conceptions of kashrut’s higher authority.

The Conservative movement expressed the most vocal dissent. Since most

Reform Jews do not keep kosher, their responses were less influential to the broader

discussion. Much of the Conservative discussion focused on the violation of tza’ar ba’ale

87 Ibid., 78.

88 Shapiro, "Kosher Wars," 53.

89 Fishkoff, Kosher Nation, 279.

90 Gross, "The Question of the Animal and Religion", 79.

91 Ibid. 79

92 Fishkoff, Kosher Nation, 290.

93 Gross, "The Question of the Animal and Religion", 80.

94 Ibid., 87. While this statement is mainly accurate, and Orthodox voices of dissent were largely not

acknowledged throughout the public discussion, I would like to note that Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social

justice non-profit, was a vocal presence in the New York Orthodox community decrying the

AgriProcessors’ abuses. I will further discuss Uri L’Tzedek in my next section.

chayim (kindness to animals), proclaiming that any violence to animals automatically

opposes kosher standards.95 Furthermore, Conservative rabbi Julie Schonfeld states, “the

life and well-being of the person who prepares and handles our food is as central to its

holiness as the rituals involved in its preparation”, indicating that worker treatment

should become a component of how consumers define kashrut.96 The Conservative

movement also strategically used this opportunity to move forward with their Heksher

Tzedek program, a seal of social justice, which I will further discuss in my next section. 97

The various responses to the kosher status of the meat produced at AgriProcessors

are compelling because they indicate varying value systems across Jewish communities.

Some denominations privilege explicit halacha, while others prioritize ethical intention in

Jewish codes of conduct. Yet, in addition to this debate, the AgriProcessors scandal also

reveals the continued relationship between the act of proper eating and the formation of

Jewish identity. Gross highlights the important connection between reactions to the

scandal and the larger conversation about food and identity, pushing scholars to “interpret

the intensity and meaning of the Jewish responses to the suffering depicted on the videoresponses

that are significant not only because of what they reveal about Jewish attitudes

toward food, farming, and, of course, animals, but because of what they reveal about

deeper structures of Jewish thinking, self-understanding, and ethics.”98 This analysis

indicates that the gravity of reactions to AgriProcessors arose because of the event’s

attack on self-conceptions of Jewish life.

When the atrocities of AgriProcessors’ slaughter procedures and worker abuses

were revealed, each side of the debate felt that the ambiguity regarding food ethics

related to a formative element of the community itself.99 The attacks on the factory

served, in the opinion of the Orthodox defenders, to destabilize the meaning constructed

from Jewish eating. Since proper eating relies on the hierarchy of God/humans/animals,

where humans are situated above animals, Haredi voices such as those quoted below

argued that PETA’s moral codes were incongruent with the Jewish concept of humanity.

Gross summarizes the Haredi argument: “PETA sees the ultimate ontological value of

humans and animals as equal.”100 Orthodox rabbi Rabbi Avi Shafran expounds on this

concept, saying, “the moral equating of animals and humans, is an affront to the very

essence of Jewish belief, which exalts the human being, along among G-d’s creations…

That distinction is introduced in Genesis, where the first man is commanded to ‘rule

over’ the animal world.”101 These quotes represent the opinion that the assailment against

95 Ibid., 111. Gross later elaborates on this theory, “in Bava Metzia (32a-33a) we encounter what is

arguably the most important legal discussion of animal life in the Talmud: a debate about whether tza’ar

ba’ale chayim is a Torah law. This debate is generally interpreted by later rabbinic tradition has having

been resolved in the affirmative, although this is not obvious in the Talmudic text” (311). Therefore, while

Orthodox defenders of AgriProcessors’ treatment of animals may proclaim the abuses as irrelevant to the

kosher status of the meat, Conservative opposition is justified in citing disregard for tza’ar ba’ale chayim

as a violation of halachic standards.

96 Fishkoff, Kosher Nation, 293.

97 The Heksher Tzedek has since changed names to the Magen Tzedek, in order to differentiate itself from

offical halachic kosher certification.

98 Gross, "The Question of the Animal and Religion", 3.

99 Ibid., 282.

100 Ibid., 99.

101 Ibid., 102.

AgriProcessors was not just a discrete assault on the Postville site, but an entire argument

against the traditional worldview on human positionality, which, as I explained, is

intrinsically bound with eating. If PETA imagines humans and animals as equal, the

Haredi stance would argue, then PETA’s standards are inherently incongruous with

Jewish conceptions of the world, and therefore, irrelevant.

However, I understand PETA’s conception of ethical animal treatment as

reminiscent of traditional Jewish ethics about the human/animal relationship. PETA does

not see humans and animals as ontologically equal, yet views them as deserving an

“equality of consideration.”102 This motto implies caring for animal suffering, which

resonates with the Jewish value of tza’ar ba’ale chayim. Furthermore, since PETA views

humans as “the only animal that can, if they choose, actualize PETA’s ethical ideals,”

PETA elevates humanity in a similar way Jewish teaching does.103 Reminiscent of the

concept of the am ha’aretz, the learned person who uses knowledge to intellectually

discriminate food sources before consumption, “humans are, for PETA, unique in that

they can choose to act upon the principle, as PETA’s motto goes, that “animals are not

ours, to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment.””104 I understand this motto as

presenting the same ethic as Jewish teaching does about human eating choices: humans

can make educated choices about consumption, and therefore must consider the ethics of

their eating habits. PETA’s perspective, therefore, agrees with the Conservative and

Reform disgust at AgriProcessors’ procedures. The movements similarly charge humans

with the responsibility of treating animals with respect, because humans are the only ones

who can. Eating meat produced in ways that correspond with this ethical impetus, then,

further establishes the Jewishness of the practice, and reaffirms the Jewish identity of the


The discussion surrounding the ethics of Jewish food was beginning to surface

already, but the AgriProcessors event brought the issue to the fore. In the aftermath of the

2008 raid, Jewish food activism flooded the public, expanding from smaller community

activism to a national movement. While different Jewish denominations continued to

confront the issues with various value systems and motivations, the AgriProcessors event

remained a crucial aspect of each organization’s justification for action. Despite the range

of perspectives, one thing was agreed upon: for Jewish consumers, the moral element of

eating could no longer be ignored.

V. The New Jewish Food Movement

In the wake of the AgriProcessors scandal, Jewish food activism has become

institutionalized across America. Even before 2008, Jews dedicated to conscientious

eating were forming small, local and sustainable Community Supported Agriculture

(CSA) cooperatives, but these initiatives have burgeoned in the past two years, creating a

vast network of Jewish food movement venues. Many of these mindful-eating projects

now include youth education, farmer training programs, conferences, and retreats. The

CSAs have also expanded to include projects of ethical kosher meat production.

102 Ibid., 101.

103 Ibid., 100.

104 Ibid. 100.

Organizations like Mitzvah Meat, which provides ethically raised and slaughtered meat

from New York farms, or KOL foods, which produces Glatt-Kosher, Organic, and Local

meat “so you can feel good about the meat you eat,”105 are gaining prestige in the

northeast as better ways to buy kosher meat, even with their elevated prices. These local

projects are reinforced by organized efforts on a national scale, including the

conservative movement’s Magen Tzedek, elaborated below. Furthermore, Hazon, the

flagship organization for sustainable and ethical Jewish consumption, provides grant

money and educational resources for smaller community projects and individual farms.

These farming initiatives include Adamah, Teva, Jewish Farm School, and Kayam Farm.

Since their founding just a few years ago, over 10,000 people have participated in classes

run by these farm schools.106

All of these projects are part of the New Jewish Food Movement. As Kosher

Wars explains: “the movement emphasizes the natural intersections between the

sustainable-food movement and kashrut: a shared concern for purity and an awareness of

the process food goes through before it reaches the table.”107 Jews involved with the

movement negotiate their ingrained sense of proper Jewish eating with the modern

environmental situation and meat production processes, reevaluating what and how they

eat to combine both value systems. Jewish food activism applies Jewish food traditions to

today’s food issues, engaging in a persistent process of reshaping tradition for the modern

context. Heralding the inevitability that the majority of American food is not produced

ethically, sustainably, organically and locally, these activists are calling for Jews to note

that Jewish values demand the effort for conscientious consumption. The New Jewish

Food Movement seeks alternatives to the harms of mass-production, promoting care and

consideration as a prerequisite for Jewish consumption. The movement also broadcasts

these issues to the nation, leading to increased awareness of Jewish food activism and,

hopefully, eventual mass engagement with the American food revolution.

While there are many innovative and impressive projects in the New Jewish Food

Movement, I would like to focus on just a few in order to better understand particular

motivations used in the movement.


Hazon, which means vision, aims to create “healthy and sustainable communities

in the Jewish world and beyond.”108 Founded in 2000 by Nigel Savage, Hazon’s

programs include outdoor physical activities, like their annual environmental bike rides,

and food-related work. Hazon created the first Jewish CSA in North America.109 They

also publish The Jew and the Carrot, a Jewish environmental blog that serves as a forum

for discussion about contemporary environmental issues and Jewish tradition. All of these

programs are elements of Hazon’s seven-year plan for the New Jewish Food Movement.

By September 2015, Hazon hopes to enact several goals for the American Jewish

105 https://www.kolfoods.com/default.asp

106 Fishkoff, Kosher Nation, 317.

107 Shapiro, "Kosher Wars," 52.

108 Hazon, "Hazon: Jewish Inspiration. Sustainable Communities. ," Hazon, www.hazon.org.

109 Ibid.

community, including a broad CSA network, an active food advocacy system, and an

institutionalized Jewish food education curriculum.

Education is a large component of Hazon’s plan for increasing sustainable

communities. Hazon believes that with increased awareness of how Jewish values

intersect with protecting the environment, Jewish activists will play a crucial role in

helping the world become more sustainable. Therefore, Hazon intellectually grounds its

activism in deep connections to Torah and Jewish learning. Its food-related sustainability

work is reinforced by the sense that contemporary food activism relates to a long heritage

of Jewish focus on food.

Hoping to bring these issues to the national consciousness, Hazon is attempting to

create a Jewish education program connected to food activism. In 2008, Hazon published

Food for Thought, a workbook for Jews on “food and contemporary life.” The books

preface states:

“Our food journeys are still evolving. Our backgrounds and our relationships to food and

to Jewish tradition are quite distinct. But we share a love of food and of learning, and the

deep belief that learning about food and doing so though the double prism of Jewish

tradition and contemporary challenges is vital to the creation of healthier relationships to

food in the broadest sense.”110

Divided into chapters including “Gratitude, Mindfullness, and Blessing our Food”,

“Kashrut”, “Food and Ethics: The Implications of Our Food Choices,” Food for Thought

elaborates on the basic platforms of the New Jewish Food Movement by connecting the

movement’s ideals to traditional Jewish thought and relevant texts. By grounding its

philosophy in text, Hazon indicates the Jewish identity of its vision. While many of its

platforms are relevant for the American conscientious consumer in general, Hazon’s

sourcebook shows the inherently Jewish nature of these environmental concerns.

Enhancing the success of sustainable communities is important for the world at large, and

Hazon ventures that Judaism requires active participation in this global process: “we were

once slaves in Egypt; our memory of our experience of injustice is intended to be a

constant reminder to do justice in the world.”111

Once a year, Hazon hosts a food conference. Due to the popularity of the

conference, there will be two conferences this year, one on the East Coast, and one on the

West Coast. Hazon’s website describes:

“The four-day conference will celebrate New Jewish Food Movement…. The Hazon

Food Conference is the only place where farmers and rabbis, nutritionists and chefs,

vegans and omnivores come together to explore the dynamic interplay of food, Jewish

traditions, and contemporary life.”112

The food conference includes lectures from leading activists about contemporary

environmental issues and Jewish food values, workshops about future programs and

activism opportunities, as well as do-it-yourself activities like “Goat Milking and Cheese

Making.” These events indicate Hazon’s emphasis on intellectualizing the New Jewish

Food Movement, making sure that participants’ food choices are based in knowledge and

purposefulness. Reports from previous food conferences express excitement about the

110 Anna Stevenson Nigel Savage, Food for Thought: Hazon's Sourcebook on Jews, Food & Contemporary

Life, Second Edition ed. (New York: Hazon, 2009), xi.

111 Ibid., 93.

112 Hazon, "Hazon: Jewish Inspiration. Sustainable Communities. ."

opportunities Hazon provides for education and participation in the movement, praising

Hazon’s variety of options for involvement.113

One of the most poignant moments in Hazon’s Food Conference history is the

infamous “goat schechting” event. For the 2007 Food Conference, Savage announced

that Hazon would demonstrate a live shechita of a goat.114 The exercise produced much

controversy and discussion, as many vegetarian participants saw meat slaughter as

counter to Hazon’s principles of ethical consumption, saying that Hazon should not

promote “unnecessary animal cruelty in the name of Jewish environmentalism.”115 Posts

on The Jew and the Carrot related to meat eating at the conference and the goat slaughter

in particular garnered hundreds of reader comments. Yet Hazon’s controversial goat

slaughtering is inherently connected to their vision for educated action. Only through

seeing a live slaughter, or through personally slaughtering meat herself, can a

conscientious Jewish consumer make a truly informed decision about her eating habits.

Furthermore, through performing the slaughter with a halachically glatt-kosher

procedure, Hazon highlights the potential for Jewish food practices to coincide with

modern ethical food ideologies. This demonstration shows the ability for modern Jews to

eat in a traditional Jewish manner, as long as proper intention, knowledge, and action are

all involved in the exercise.

Hazon’s effort to highlight the Jewish character of their action is significant since

many involved in Hazon are not religious Jews. Much of Hazon’s target audience

consists of liberal, progressive Jews, who identify more as culturally Jewish than as

religious. For example, during Nigel Savage’s opening remarks at the 2008 Food

Conference, Fishkoff reports, “Looking out at the room, Savage asks how many have

read the entire Torah, all five books. About a third raise their hands. “And how many of

you have read The Omnivore’s Dilemma?” he asks. Virtually every hand goes up.”116 For

many in this group, God has less bearing on their practical eating decisions than Michael

Pollan. In response to this particular consciousness and identity of many active in Hazon,

Savage continued with his opening remarks:

“We’re here to talk about how our Jewish traditions influences how we should think

about food and the policies around food. This conference will help us galvanize the

building of a new Jewish food movement… Not only did we want to put Jewish

purchasing power behind local organic farms, which is a moral good, not only did we

want people to buy local organic produce at fair prices, but we also wanted to do

something about reframing what it means to be Jewish. Being Jewish means not only

going to shul on Shabbat, but going on Wednesday and Thursday to pick up your fresh

fruits and vegetables. We are heirs to a three-thousand-year-old tradition of keeping

113 Aaron Lerman, "What the Hazon Food Conference Means to Me," in The Jew and the Carrot (Hazon,

2010).For example, this blog post a few days after the conference reads: “This idea of bringing positive

change struck a chord in me – and obviously the 600 other participants at the conference, since this

enthusiasm was a tangible force visible on everyone’s faces – from the lectures on urban farming and

vegetarianism, to composting and how to make sourdough bagels, I walked away with a real sense of

Jewish community.”

114 The goats came from the Adamah Farm

115 Pete Cohon, "The Debate: Eating Meat (or Not) at the Hazon Food Conference," in The Jew and the

Carrot (Hazon, 2009).

116 Fishkoff, Kosher Nation, 317.

kosher, of asking whether food is fit to be consumed, and surely in the twenty-first

century that raises new questions.”117

Savage sees that many Jewish food activists are interested in the New Jewish

Food Movement because of political and social priorities, not religious intention. Yet he

hopes to show those involved that these secular concerns relate to Jewish values,

understanding that blending these two systems will lead to more meaningful action.

Hazon’s ideology reflects the Jewish value from Talmud Bavli, Masechet Kiddushim

40b: “Which is greater, learning or action? Learning, because it leads to action.” For

Hazon, conscientious Jewish food activism today begins with a base in Jewish tradition

that will lead to personal action and institutionalized change for the modern Jewish

consumer. Although many participants in Hazon might have already eaten locally,

ethically and sustainably, Hazon urges these consumers to understand the connection

between these priorities and Judaism. Hazon sees the most meaningful action as growing

out of thoughtful Jewish learning and dynamic conversation with other educated actors.

With these Jewish values applied to tangible deeds, activists acquire the tools to spread

these food values to a national audience.

Magen Tzedek, Uri L’Tzedek

Religious movements are now joining the cause for new considerations in kosher

consumption. The Conservative movement and certain members of the Modern Orthodox

movement are authorizing and supporting conscientious consumption, specifically from

the perspective of modernizing kashrut. The Conservative movement launched the

Magen Tzedek, a seal of social justice program spearheaded by Rabbi Morris Allen.

Members of the Modern Orthodox movement founded Uri L’Tzedek, Awaken to Justice,

a non-profit social justice organization. Uri L’Tzdek’s programs include the Tav

HaYosher, ethical seal, which approves kosher restaurants as meeting standards for

ethical treatment of workers. These two programs are significant because they identify as

part of religious movements first and foremost, indicating increased involvement by

official religious communities with issues of ethical consumption.

The Magen Tzedek was pushed to the front of the Conservative agenda just days

after the AgriProcessors raid. Hazon, along with other Jewish activism organizations,

publically endorsed the seal, stating: “the group is also united in endorsing Hekhsher

Tzedek, viewing it as an ethical guideline for companies that produce kosher food. The

disturbing allegations against Agriprocessors and Rubashkins present a compelling case

for the necessity of certification process such as Hekhsher Tzedek.”118 The Magen

Tzedek, which will resemble a Jewish star on kosher product packaging, will ensure

certain qualifications for kosher production, including that the company pays fair wages

and benefits; provides safe working conditions; avoids undue pollution of the

environment; engages in honest business practices; and if its products include meat, treats

animals humanely before and during the slaughtering process.119

117 Ibid., 316.

118 Hazon, "Hazon: Jewish Inspiration. Sustainable Communities. ."

119 Fishkoff, Kosher Nation, 291.

Identifying as part of the New Jewish Food movement,120 the Magen Tzedek is

important because it will call attention to modern food issues for a wider audience. When

kosher consumers buy packaged food, they will notice a new symbol on certain items,

hopefully bringing awareness that the ubiquitous kosher symbols do not certify every

qualification for kosher fare. As the website explains, this seal is meant to coexist with

the typical certification seal, indicating that the two value systems- halachic kashrut and

ethical kashrut- are working together to provide the consumer a fuller picture of the

processes entailed in production. The Magen Tzedek indicates that the Conservative

movement cares about other aspects of kosher production beside the strict halacha, and

that consumers should make choices about their food based on these considerations as


This initiative penetrates the issue of ethical consumption from a different

direction than Hazon’s work does; while Hazon urges conscientious consumers to view

their action from a Jewish lens, the Magen Tzedek demands religious consumers to

contemplate the ethical implications of their eating habits. As Rabbi Allen explains: “Our

initiative has captured the hearts and minds of American Jews, reflecting deeply-held

social and religious values. Magen Tzedek presents people with an opportunity to deepen

their observance of kashrut while emphasizing the importance of social responsibility.”121

While social justice is already an important platform for Conservative Judaism,

expanding kosher sensibilities to include ethical concerns indicates a new way of

understanding the halacha.

Conservative Judaism’s incorporation of this interpretation of kashrut signifies a

novel venture for the movement, one that seeks to blend traditional halacha with

contemporary social justice issues in new and meaningful ways. Since the conservative

movement has typically remained more traditional in its interpretation of text, this is a

significant change for its religious community. Rabbi Allen has so far been mostly

applauded for his undertaking,122 but the seal’s popularity will be tested upon its release

at the beginning of 2011.

Members of the Orthodox movement are also trying to expand kashrut to include

these ethical concerns. Especially since the Orthodox movement in general experienced

such a vocal backlash after the AgriProcessors scandal, some members of the Orthodox

community are hoping to reestablish kashrut’s reputation as appealing to ethics. The best

example of tangible Orthodox action for social justice and ethical food comes from Rabbi

Shmuly Yanklowitz, who founded Uri L’Tzedek. Uri L’Tzedek focuses on Orthodox

action for many national social justice infractions, and one of their main projects

specifically combats injustice in kosher restaurants. The Tav HaYosher, an ethical seal,

120 Magen Tzedek, "Magen Tzedek," http://magentzedek.org/. The website states: “The Magen Tzedek, the

world’s first Jewish ethical certification seal, synthesizes the aspirations of a burgeoning international

movement for sustainable, responsible consumption and promotes increased sensitivity to the vast and

complex web of global relationships that bring food to our tables.”

121 United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, "The Hekhsher Tzedek Commission Announces the

Creation of Magen Tzedek," http://www.uscj.org/The_Hekhsher_Tzedek_7905.html.

122 Rabbi Allen’s blog, http://rabbimorrisallen2.blogspot.com/, reports that Newsweek named Rabbi Allen

one of the fifty most influential rabbis of 2010: “10. Morris Allen—As program director for Magen

Tzedek, the ethical kosher seal, Allen is changing the way the world thinks about kashrut and the ethical

issues surrounding the hechsher”

was created to uphold ethical treatment of workers in kosher restaurants. Unrelated to the

food itself since food certification remains a strict halachic issue in the Orthodox

community, the Tav HaYosher intends to protect ethical worker treatment in the kosher

restaurant industry. Restaurants who do not meet Uri L’Tzedek’s standards, such as

paying fair wages and providing safe work environments, do not receive the seal and are

publicized as unethical to the surrounding Jewish community. As the seal’s mission

statement reads:

“Recent studies have revealed widespread abuse and exploitation of workers in the New

York restaurant industry. Thousands of workers are paid below minimum wage. Even

more are denied their legal rights to overtime pay and time off. Workers are often

subjected to unsafe and abusive working conditions. Given recent events in the kashrut

industry, it is imperative that we implement a system that will prevent abuse and

exploitation. It is critical we stand up for tzedek and mishpat as a Jewish community! We

must ensure these abuses are not taking place in kosher restaurants. Tav HaYosher is an

opportunity to harness some of the power and influence we have as an observant

community to strengthen tzedek in our world and create a true Kiddush Hashem

(sanctification of G-d's name).”123

The religious language of the Tav HaYosher mission statement indicates its

intention to appeal to the Orthodox community. Uri L’Tzedek highligthts the direct

intersections of its initiative with established Jewish values, like justice and sanctification

of God’s name. This language allows for Uri L’Tzedek to demand social justice for the

kosher industry without implying that kosher laws are not enough on their own. Still, Uri

L’Tzedek manages to implicate the Orthodox movement for its involvement with

AgriProcessors, demanding that Orthodox Jews stand up for Jewish values amid the


Shmuly Yanklowitz founded Uri L’Tzedek in order to rally his community to

“adhere to the Torah and place domestic and global justice at the top of our theological

and moral agendas.”124 With ethical consumption at the core of his social agenda,

Yanklowitz’s activism highlights the importance of connecting Jewish values to ethical

food. Yanklowitz explains that he incorporates new sensibilities to his established Jewish

eating practices:

“There are a couple of ways I experience kashrut now. A sense of spiritual awareness,

that when I eat something I say a bracha [blessing] on it. That’s a way of elevating it for

me. I also have a spiritual awareness of understanding how the food has reached my

plate. Everything from the slaughtering process, to the country it originated in, to what

part of the text deals with how that was handled. I feel commanded by the individual who

produced the food; I hear that person crying out to me. And that is the moral aspect of


With this understanding of kosher eating in mind, Uri L’Tzedek asks Orthodox

consumers to consider the broader implications of their food, especially the consequences

of human labor involved with production. While keeping the tenets of kashrut unbending,

incorporating wider sensibilities to the eating process adds to the experience of eating.

123 http://utzedek.org/tavhayosher.html

124 Shmuly Yanklowitz, "A Jewish Call for Social Justice," The Jewish Press,


125 Fishkoff, Kosher Nation, 294.

Eating justly, Yanklowitz implies, elevates the modern Orthodox consumer to a higher

spirituality, one that incorporates justice in every aspect of daily life.

Adamah and Kayam

Jewish farming provides an entirely different way of engaging the New Jewish

Food Movement. Instead of implementing institutionalized or national change, these

farms start small, putting the values of the movement to work on the ground with models

of sustainable communities. Both the Adamah and Kayam Farms, in Connecticut and

Maryland, respectively, approach Jewish food activism through hands-on work. The

values of the American sustainable food movement are performed at these farms through

Jewish practices. Their farming methods derive from ancient Jewish tradition, and are

coupled with, especially at Kayam, Talmud study about agricultural activities.

Many Jewish farmers propose that contemporary environmental concerns are

congruent with Jewish tradition; therefore, the most meaningful way of engaging the

contemporary situation actually resides in their own Jewish past. Fishkoff explains:

“some in the ethical-kashrut movement describe it as a return to the traditional values of

kashrut: community-based supervision of the food supply, reverence for agriculture and

animal husbandry and attention to detail.”126 However, this retrospective character of the

Jewish farms is coupled with modern motivations, understanding the need for sustainable

communities today more than ever.

Apart from their extensive vegetative offerings, Kayam and Adamah also raise

animals, chickens mostly, and periodically perform shechita. Using shechita at the farms

provides a specific example of how the farms uphold Jewish tradition with a modern

consciousness. The animals are raised ethically, treated humanely, and slaughtered with

consideration. This is a difficult process: finding trained slaughterers willing to perform

on-site slaughters at the farms proves is rare. However, with the growing interest in

ethical Jewish food, there is a burgeoning trend of learning kosher slaughter practices so

that the process can become more localized. Two of these newly trained slaughterers,

Rabbi Shalom Kantor and Andy Kastner, believe that killing an animal oneself endows

the act with added meaning. This meaning is so crucial to maintaining ethics during the

act of slaughter that Rabbi Kantor even goes so far as to say that perhaps a Jew should

not eat meat unless they were present for the animal’s life or slaughter:

“There’s a piece of me that thinks a Jew who can’t participate at least to some degree in

the processing of an animal shouldn’t necessarily eat that animal. Maybe God and our

tradition call upon us to be more involved in our food. When you have to transform an

animal from fur and feathers to a piece of meat on your plate, you tend to have much

greater respect for what you’re eating”127

While the Jewish farms do not demand personal slaughtering before meat consumption,

and in fact many of the volunteers are actually vegetarian, Rabbi Kantor’s reflection

relates to Jewish farming’s philosophy of personal interaction with food.

126 Shapiro, "Kosher Wars," 54.

127 Fishkoff, Kosher Nation, 297.

Through growing and harvesting food before consumption, a relationship is

established between producer and product that elevates consideration before eating.

Kastner expounds: “I believe that food is meat to help us cultivate a consciousness of the

moment. As a rabbi and a shochet, I’d like to bring people closer to what they eat.”128 At

Kayam and Adamah, volunteers are brought closer to the food by participating in its

production. The consideration involved in this process is reflective of the Jewish values

of blessing food before eating: just as a blessing compels the consumer not to take food

for granted, being a part of the production process forces awareness of where food comes


I spoke with Dan Kieval, a Wesleyan student who worked at Kayam for six

months in 2010. He explained that Kayam bases its actions in Talmud, and actualizes

these values in the field. Kayam represents a more religious bent than its counterpart,

Adamah. Adamah’s Jewish connection to farming is slightly more spiritually-based, a

less technical version than that enacted by the Talmudic-agriculture practiced at Kayam.

Generally speaking, volunteers at Adamah are more likely to enter the farm without preexisting

Jewish objectives for farming. Instead, these volunteers explore Judaism while

on the farm. Volunteers who are less religiously identified, yet feel a strong pull toward

eco-conscious organizations and actions, might begin their Jewish farming experiences at

Adamah, and then “fall in love with the Jewish aspect of farming”, says Kieval. The

Jewish values learned at the farm then propel further action. After the relationship

between Judaism and farming is established at Adamah, farmers might wish to add to

their Jewish knowledge through the study sessions available at Kayam.

Despite the farms’ attempts to blend traditional Jewish farming and modern ecosensibilities,

Kieval explained that the Jewish relationship to community farming is not

always straightforward in the modern context. For example, Kayam’s communal kitchen

is designated as vegetarian and kosher, and no product without a heksher is allowed in the

kitchen. When volunteers wish to buy jam at a local farmer’s market, the farm’s rules

demand that the jam not be consumed inside the kitchen because the product is not

halachically certified. However, this prohibition meant that jam needed to be bought at

the supermarket, violating the community’s ethical standards of eating locally,

sustainably and organically. Debate raged at the farm: which value system should take

precedence? Eventually a pluralistic set of guidelines was created, with precepts like

keeping jam in an outside space; yet, as Kieval succinctly noted, these rules resulted in a

compromise where “no one was happy.” Despite the farm’s intention to build a modern,

ethical, and environmentally conscious community based on Jewish values, blending the

essential values of each system is not always as utopian a process as volunteers might


Despite these setbacks as the farms codify their principles, Jewish farming is

gaining prestige. Kayam’s December newsletter reads:

“We hope you had a beautiful Chanukah- our holiday was solid frozen fun out here at the

farm! And even though winter is here, we have a whole lot going on at Kayam. Wer’re

publishing amazing curriculum resources for Jewish education, growing greenhouse

lettuce almost ready for harvest, and taking care of 51 baby chicks about to move outside!

128 Ibid., 298.

We’re also excited to celebrate an award to Ellie Brown, Kayam super-hero, and the

launch of two outstanding eco-online resources, Jewcology & Eco-Campus.”129

As this quote indicates, Kayam, and Jewish farming in general, is expanding. With

summer fellowships and an annual beit midrash, increasing numbers of Jewish food

activists are spending time at Adamah and Kayam, learning how to farm and

strengthening their connection to the land. Jewish farming is garnering a reputation in the

movement for adding a tangible personal component to food activism. To further this

type of activism, Kayam’s new education curriculum will be published soon,

demonstrating Talmud-based activities including ancient ceremonies for picking fruit.

This “return-to-the-land” element brings a material component to the New Jewish

Food Movement. Activists are demanded to use their hands, touching the earth and

bringing forth its vegetation. The especially daring volunteers even perform their own

slaughters, personally relating to an animal before allowing themselves to consume it.

Jewish farmers hope to connect their modern eco-eating considerations with the

principles of traditional Jewish agriculture. Combining these two value systems,

participants reshape ancient Jewish eating rituals by endowing these actions with

contemporary motivations. This serves to reconstruct Jewish identity as a blend of

ancient tradition and modern sensibility. Tali Weinberg, former farm manager at

Adamah, explains:

“When humans are disconnected from the earth, we are not only separated from an

intimate knowledge of the sources of our food, medicine, shelter, and all the things we

need to sustain our lives, we are separated from our sense of human identity. This is

equally true for Jews with regard to an authentic sense of Jewish identity. Jews cannot

know their Jewish selves without this connection.”130

As this quote states, returning to the land reestablishes humanity as part of the earth,

tangibly connected to life-sustaining forces. Understanding food as intrinsically part of

human’s connection to life, Jewish farmers unite themselves to the production process,

thus showing great reverence for their food. Moreover, these farms rely on Jewish

agricultural techniques in order to emphasize the need for ethical and mindful production

processes. In following this tradition, these farms emphasize the Jewish relationship to

ethical consumption, reaffirming the farmer’s Jewish identities in this activism.

These four examples of institutionalized activism in the New Jewish Food

Movement indicate the breadth and depth of the movement. Engaging with the social

issues of our time, these projects seek to merge Jewish values and ethical consumption in

a variety of ways. Whether this means increased education and learning opportunities,

religious reshaping of kosher standards, or return-to-the-land Jewish farming and

slaughtering initiatives, these programs together compose a full spectrum of ways to reimagine

Jewish eating in modernity while still clinging to the traditional Jewish vision for

ethical consumption. The variety of methods of involvement add to the wide appeal of

the movement; the movement offers opportunities to engage with manners of Jewish

129 Manela, Jakir. <yoshi@pearlstonecenter.org> “Tevet 5771 Update From Kayam Farm at Pearlstone!” 9

December 2010. Personal Email. 9 December 2010

130 Zelig Golden, "Earth Based Judaism- Reclaiming Our Roots, Reconnecting to Nature," in The Jew and

the Carrot (Hazon, 2010).

eating no matter one’s personal investment or interest. Each activist’s involvement with

the New Jewish Food Movement is reflective of their individual positionality;

approaching the issues with fluid value structures, conscientious Jewish consumers blend

Jewish sensibilities with ethical and environmental concerns in order to best avow new

meaning in their consumption practices. There are ways to be involved with the

movement for eaters who come to the table hoping to change their Jewish practices to

better fit the modern situation, or for those who wish to mold their modern sensibilities to

coincide with Jewish intention. Whatever one’s primary motivation for engaging with

these issues might be, these programs reinforce an eater’s identity by providing

opportunities for involvement that emphasize whatever aspect of the movement each

activist relates to most. Practicing mindful eating allows participants to define themselves

through the lens of how they eat, sculpting their humanity through their eating habits.

This process not only protects the earth and the environment, it is also very personal: the

self-reflective nature of the process indicates conscious meaning making for one’s

individual self-construction of Jewish identity.

VI. Conclusion

I find it appropriate to conclude this essay with a quote from Michael Pollan, the

idolized guru of the American sustainable agriculture movement. In an interview with

The Jew and The Carrot- Pollan is the guru of Hazon, as well- he comments on the

popularity of Jewish engagement with contemporary food issues:

“I guess what’s surprised me has been people’s receptivity to these issues. There are a lot

of other problems in the world these days and people seem to want to talk about food. I

was pleasantly surprised by that, though somewhat baffled given that we have a war

going on in Iraq and climate change and so many other issues that are in some ways more

momentous. I interpret it that we can do something about food here and now in a way that

we can’t about other issues. WE can make changes in our lives that will have a profound

effect – and we can see it. We’ve seen the organic market grow by consumers making

choices, and we’ve seen the market for pasture animal protein grow. I think that’s very

empowering for people at a time when they generally feel kind of powerless. In this

political moment it’s no accident that people are looking to food, because in a way it’s

our most primal political power, meaning “I will take this in my body, or not.””131

Pollan is apt in noting the pervasive presence of Jews in food activism, yet his surprise is

unfounded. What Pollan neglects in his analysis is the central relationship between Jews

and food that propels Jews to the fore of food activism. In this essay, I aimed to highlight

the food tropes that compose the essence of Jewish life, showing how Jews emphasize

their eating practices as core elements of their identity. Especially when these practices

are called into question, Jews struggle with the laws in order to preserve traditional

intention in times when these practices might no longer seem relevant. Food activites

parse through the text and tradition in order to adapt Jewish eating for increased

congruence with ethical intention. Striving to maintain the integrity of Jewish eating

traditions, Jews indicate that their very selves rely on these tropes, and a piece of Jewish

life would be lost if Jewish eating rituals are not upheld.

131 Leah Koenig, "The View from Your Fork: An Interview with Michael Pollan," in The Jew and the

Carrot, Hazon (2007).

So, with this connection established, we see that the Jewish relationship to food

will remain pervasive, even as it transforms over time. How will this future Jewish

connection to food appear, though, since the symbols of Jewish food culture are

changing? Bagels are safe for now, but will conscientious consumers continue to buy lox

if salmon becomes endangered? Vegetarians certainly don’t serve brisket at their holiday

tables anymore, even for the sake of a traditional Passover meal. Nigel Savage notes: “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.”132 Yet the changing nature of Jewish food does not necessarily indicate a

loss of culture, or communal memory. Jews will still dip parsley in salt water at the

Passover Seder, and some might even find this ritual increasingly meaningful knowing

that the herbs were grown organically, at a local farm. In the footsteps of Jewish tradition,

reinterpretation of this symbolism for the sake of conscientious consumption indicates the

importance of the heritage, not a dismissal of the past. As Foer succinctly purports: “I’m

all for compromising tradition for a good cause, but perhaps in these situations tradition

wasn’t compromised so much as fulfilled.”133 Purposeful eating, conscientious

consumption, and preserving Jewish eating traditions all accumulate into creating lasting

Jewish eating identities; an identity that seeks to define itself through maintaining Jewish

values in the most necessary of daily activities. If we are what we eat, we’d better do it


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