Adrienne Krone began thinking about the entire system of kashrut—Jewish dietary laws—and how to relate ethically to food while researching historical religious diet movements as a Duke University graduate student. Today Krone is assistant professor of religious studies and director of Jewish life at Allegheny College, and her class “Judaism, Justice, and Food” examines the complex justice issues related to food, Jewish biblical dietary laws and rabbinic regulations, and the various aspects of food production.
“The kosher system gives you a moment to pause and ask whether it’s something you should be eating. It’s also an opportunity to see how people’s ethics inform their actions,” said Krone. And those ethical issues, she said, arise when discussing agriculture’s role in carbon emissions.
Indeed, gas emissions from food production adversely affect climate change, reports the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, meat and dairy account for approximately 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Increasingly, Jewish institutions are voicing concern and taking action on ethical food practices—beyond traditional notions of kashrut. Citing animal agriculture’s contribution to worker injustice, climate change, and pandemic risk, more than 200 Jewish clergy and organizational leaders say that kosher certifications, as they currently stand, do not meet Jewish ethical standards. As part of a campaign by the Jewish Initiative for Animals, they are calling for institutions and events to adopt more sustainable food practices out of concern that nearly all kosher animal products, like those that are nonkosher, are produced on factory farms.
On factory farms—whether kosher or nonkosher—chickens, cattle, fish, and other animals are confined in tight quarters, and injected with hormones and antibiotics that cause suffering and arrest their natural development. The Sentient Institute, a nonprofit think tank, estimates that 99% of U.S. farmed animals (70.4% of cows, 99.8% of turkeys, 98.2% of chickens raised for eggs, and over 99.9% of chickens raised for meat) live on factory farms, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture data. The Sentient Institute also estimates that, based on the confinement and living conditions of farmed fish, virtually all U.S. fish farms are suitably described as factory farms—though currently there is limited data on fish farm conditions.
“You have a responsibility to be aware of any chains of pain that you contribute to,” said David Wolpe, Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and one of the JIFA signatories. “I don’t think it is intrinsically wrong to eat animals but I think that the way animals are farmed and killed is appallingly inhumane … You have the choice of the products that you support and the meat that you eat. If you choose to eat meat, don’t deceive yourself that the animal hasn’t suffered to find its way to your plate. It doesn’t matter if it is a free-range chicken—the suffering is enormous and unrelenting. Make an ethically aware choice and do not pretend to sleep.”
The push for kashrut to comply with strict ethical standards is nothing new but has assumed greater urgency given the current climate crisis. More than two decades ago, in September 2000, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards published a teshuva, or rabbinical Jewish legal response, ruling that the “shackling and hoisting” method of slaughtering animals—where a fully conscious animal is shackled with a chain around its back and hoisted into the air, where it hangs upside down for minutes prior to slaughter—is a violation of Jewish law because the Talmudic principle of tza’ar ba’alei hayyim (Bava Metzia 31a) prohibits causing pain to animals. Since 2017, Israel no longer allows the importing of beef from slaughterhouses that use this method. And in 2018, in the U.S., the Orthodox Union committed to no longer certifying shackle-and-hoist meat as kosher.
“If consumers are buying kosher animal products, everything they are likely to find with a kosher label in grocery stores is factory farmed, from chicken to dairy to eggs,” explained Melissa Hoffman, director of JIFA—an organization founded in 2016 to help Jewish communities align food choices with Jewish values, including animal welfare as a core Jewish value. “The goal is to raise awareness about the phenomena of kosher health-washing and humane-washing, when kosher labels promote the faulty consumer belief that products are safer and healthier and come from farms that treat animals more humanely.”
Some may dismiss concern for animal welfare as impassioned advocacy by animal rights activists. But the Torah explicitly teaches to prevent suffering of animals and treat them compassionately, with numerous commandments such as: “You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen by the wayside, and hide yourself from them; you shall lift them with him” (Deuteronomy 22:4).
“It became entirely clear to me as a Torah-rooted Jew that God is concerned with suffering and that the rabbis and Halacha are concerned with the suffering of animals,” said Shmuly Yanklowitz, the rabbi who founded and leads Shamayim: Jewish Animal Advocacy, the Orthodox Jewish social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek, and other Jewish communal initiatives.
“As an Orthodox rabbi, I want to defend kashrut publicly and have found it increasingly difficult to do so, given the ethical standards in the kosher industry, including worker treatment and animal welfare,” said Yanklowitz, who is distressed that the Halachic community is often more concerned about the cost and taste of kosher meat rather than the moral message of kashrut. “I believe that kashrut emerged from Torah as a vehicle for the sanctity of life, to bring the Jewish people closer to God, and closer to one another.”
Shamayim (“heaven” in Hebrew) organizes programs, campaigns, and education about animal advocacy and veganism. “If you think this is radical, then you think the Torah is radical. All we are doing is to bring together values that emerge from [the] Torah and Talmud,” said Yanklowitz. “One of the most profound messages from the Thirteen Attributes is that God is compassionate and merciful and it is something to emulate. We learn from our Jewish practice that the best leaders are compassionate; that extends to animals, which means doing all possible to reduce suffering to animals. That should be at the center of what it means to be a Torah Jew.”
Ethical kashrut is not just a matter of food but also workers’ rights. That’s why in 2009 Yanklowitz also created the Tav HaYosher, or Ethical Seal, program, which certifies, free of charge, kosher restaurants that comply with ethical workplace practices such as paying workers on time, providing time off, and treating them with dignity.
Jewish communal organizations have begun implementing ethical kashrut policies. Avodah, a Jewish social justice organization, has adopted DefaultVeg, i.e., serving plant-based meals by default as a way to align with Jewish values such as protecting the earth, preventing cruelty to animals, labor justice, and repairing the world, said Amanda Lindner, director of communications: “We see adopting DefaultVeg as a simple and inclusive way to leverage our power toward building more just food systems while promoting Jewish teachings of compassion and sustainability.”
Allegheny Hillel, too, has defaulted to plant-based food, except on Erev Rosh Hashanah and Passover, when it serves meat with a vegan option; it also uses only pasture-raised eggs, i.e., from chickens that roam freely on pastures. Since last year, to reduce meat consumption, Hillel at the University of Central Florida has hosted a monthly vegan Shabbat meal (socially distanced outside) that introduced students to plant-based meals, said Adam Bershad, director of Jewish student life. And last year, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh in Boca Raton, Florida—one of six congregations chosen for Shamayim’s 2020-21 Synagogue Vegan Challenge—hosted over Zoom more than a half-dozen programs about the connection between plant-based diets and Jewish teachings about protecting the environment and one’s health; participants received prepackaged bags containing vegan food and raw materials for cooking. “We connected the different aspects of plant-based diets to Judaism. We learned that a plant-based diet is not only healthy but also holy,” said Rabbi David Baum.
Ethical kashrut assumes special significance in 5782, which marks shmita, or the sabbatical year of the agricultural cycle mandated in the Torah, when the land in Israel lies fallow (Exodus 23:10-11) “Shmita is one of the deepest and most profound teachings and mandates of the Torah. How do we invest in regenerative, sustainable agriculture that lets us have a sustainable food system for the other years of the cycle?” said Jakir Manela, CEO of Hazon, which works to create a more sustainable world. “Think about our food practices in a way that prioritizes social and ecological well-being.”
“When we think about kashrut, it is about what is fit to eat. Amid this climate crisis, what is fit to eat takes on new meaning,” Manela explained. “For Jewish institutions and thought leaders, embrace that definition as to what is fit to eat from a health, sustainability, and climate perspective.”
Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.