Eco-Kashrut Has Everything to Do With the Healing of the Earth

Philadelphia Jewish EXPONENT
September 13, 2007

- Bryan Schwartzman, Staff Writer

Pushing for reductions in fossil-fuel emissions and trying to reverse the global-warming trend nationally and throughout the world may make perfect sense, but what on earth do energy-policy goals have to do with Judaism?

That question was posed to Rabbi Arthur Waskow -- who's written several books that examine how Judaism and the environment intersect -- after he'd delivered a recent talk on the subject at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park.

His answer? Everything!

The founder of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center replied that, first of all, a concern for stewardship over the earth is rooted in Judaism's biblical tradition, and is, in fact, a central component of it.

"Rabbinic Judaism turned away from biblical Judaism's profound concern for the earth," explained Waskow, referring to the period after the destruction of the Second Temple, when Jews no longer controlled the land of Israel.

Secondly, Waskow argued, if Judaism is to have any resonance at all with the next generation, the tradition must be deeply engaged in confronting one of the biggest challenges of our times -- confronting what he called "global scorching."

He tossed in another practical reason.

"Jews have serious political power in a big country that is doing a lot of damage to the environment," said Waskow, whose presentation was called "What Is Eco-Kosher?"

'Food for Thought'

The program was part of the Tuv Ha'aretz "Food for Thought" series. Kol Ami takes part in the national Tuv Ha'aretz program, in which members support local agriculture cooperatives, in addition to the concept of locally grown produce, by purchasing shares of the farmers' output.

This type of project has a far less adverse impact on the environment because produce is not shipped long distances, according to Robin Rifkin, who coordinates the program at Kol Ami.

Waskow said that the term "Eco-Kosher" was coined in the 1970s by his mentor, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement. Waskow said that the ancient notion of kosher stemmed from a time when the relationship between humans and the earth centered on obtaining food.

But in today's world, humans depend on extractions from the earth to literally fuel a modern lifestyle. Eco-kosher poses the question, "Is there a sacred way of doing that?"

Actually, the concept has a few things to say about comestibles as well, he added. While traditionally, the manner in which an animal was slaughtered largely determined whether or not it was kosher, Waskow said that today, people should consider how an animal was treated prior to its slaughter.

For instance, was a chicken cooped up in a cage its entire life? Was it pumped full of artificial chemicals? In short, did the chicken have a chance to experience life as a chicken before it became food?

Waskow admitted that, roughly seven years ago, he'd considered switching from eating kosher chicken to purchasing free-range chickens -- a designation that ensures that animals were allowed to roam relatively freely prior to slaughter -- until a free-range, organic, kosher chicken became available in the marketplace.

"There's a halachic will that says, 'It ain't kosher any longer, if it's drenched in pesticides,' " he said.

He went on to note that the idea of eco-kosher can apply to a wide range of personal lifestyle choices -- for example, whether or not to sign up for wind power or check home insulation for optimum efficiency -- and encompasses communal and even national policies regarding the use of various natural resources.

Unlike the traditional concept of kosher, where something is either pure or treif, Waskow argued that the parameters determining whether or not something is eco-kosher are inherently fluid.

"What about an eco-kashrut that 'moves'? So that this year, if you're using zero-percent recycled paper in the synagogue, next year 25 percent recycled paper and two years after that, 100 percent recycled paper," posed Waskow. "It's a motion in the direction of healing the earth, instead of destroying it."