Are bugs kosher? What about CBD/THC edibles or Impossible Pork? Can entirely new substances - like lab grown meat - be categorized and certified? How does social justice interact with kosher restrictions?
In this episode, join host Erin Phillips and guest scholars Roger Horowitz, David Zvi Kalman, and Jordan D. Rosenblum as they seek answers to these questions and consider what those answers might mean for the future of kosher eating.
David Zvi Kalman
Jordan D. Rosenblum
Erin Phillips: Welcome to Season 4 of the “Adventures in Jewish Studies,” the podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. In every episode, we take you on an entertaining and intellectual journey about Jewish life, history and culture, with the help of some of the world’s leading Jewish studies scholars. I’m one of your hosts this season, Erin Phillips. And today, we’re getting in our time machine and taking a sneak peek at the future of kosher food.
But first, if you’re a regular listener of “Adventures in Jewish Studies,” you might be interested in a show that explores the Jewish experience from another angle. It’s “The Jewish Lives Podcast”—a monthly show about the lives of influential Jews from antiquity to the present, through the lens of Yale’s prizewinning “Jewish Lives” biography series. Hear from acclaimed authors and wander through the desert with Moses. Overcome stage fright with Barbra Streisand. Roam the tough streets with Bugsy Siegel. Stage a protest with Emma Goldman. Explore a chapter of the Jewish experience in each episode. You can find The Jewish Lives Podcast at JewishLives.org/Podcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
The system of laws that guides kosher eating, known as kashrut, has been around since ancient times. Like many elements of Jewish life, the rules for keeping kosher appear in the Torah, and are refined in later Rabbinic commentaries.
But it wasn’t until the 16th century that a Jewish mystic from Tzfat, Israel named Joseph Caro turned the bits and pieces of food guidance in the Torah into a practical manual for the kitchen. In 1563, Caro wrote the Shulchan Aruch, which literally translates to “the Set Table.” It was a comprehensive document that outlined the biblical and talmudic laws for every area of Jewish life, including kashrut.
Looking at documents like the Shulchan Aruch helps give us a sense of how much food, and subsequently, the laws that govern what is and isn’t kosher, have changed over the past few centuries. From the invention of the fork to the commercialization of food production, kashrut has had to adapt to increasingly challenging questions of precedent, technology, and ethics. Today, rabbis from Israel to the United States are grappling with new questions. Questions like: Can eating bugs be kosher? What about CBD and THC products, or Impossible Pork? How do we categorize and certify entirely new substances like lab-grown meat? And can Jewish values and ethics ever become a central part of kashrut? There are many ways to answer all of these questions. In this episode we’re going to hear how leading Jewish studies scholars are approaching them, and what that might mean for the future of kosher eating.
From the time the Torah was written down, all the way into the 16th century when kosher laws were codified, food production was much simpler than it is today.
Roger Horowitz: Then it all changes when we get to the modern era because of this new type of food that we call processed food. That's all new. The debates earlier on, you know, we're talking 16th, 17th, 18th centuries were about this animal, this thing, this there -- whole things.
Erin Phillips: This is Roger Horowitz, a historian and author. In his seminal book Kosher USA, he describes how an ancient system of food laws from Israel became transformed over the course of just one century in America.
Roger Horowitz: Suddenly we have these cocktails that are created by modern industry where you have not just, you know, issues of what's in there, but what is it that's derived from? What is the source of it? How is it manufactured, how is it created? And this generates a whole new set of challenges for rabbis to deal with this world of modern food processing. And that's really what creates the challenges of the 20th century for kashrut rules.
Erin Phillips: These challenges also sewed distrust among kosher-observant consumers. They had less visibility into the food production process, and many were afraid manufacturers would cut corrupt deals with Rabbis in exchange for false assurances that their food was kosher. Many stopped buying food from gentile-owned brands entirely.
Roger Horowitz: The Orthodox Union and the O.K. – Organized Kashers – really emerge in the 1920s and 1930s because of the challenges of industrial food, and the dilemma is this: How do you pay the rabbis? How do you pay for supervision? One way was that a firm would contract with a local synagogue rabbi and ask him to certify the food – long Jewish tradition of doing that. Of course, the problem there is that the person who is asking for the supervision is paying the supervisor. The idea of a certification organization was to separate that; that the payments went to the certification organization, not to the individual rabbi. And the certification organization paid the rabbi to – whether or not the food was kosher, you weren't, you were – you didn't have to say it's kosher to get paid.
Erin Phillips: And with that, a whole new world of foods and brands opened up for kosher-keeping Jews. It marked the birth of the kosher certification industry we know today. And these organizations hit the ground running. They were so successful, in fact, that rabbis soon began to notice something unusual…
Roger Horowitz: Then these studies start coming out in the 1980s by marketing people that go, wait a second. The majority of kosher consumers, that is consumers who look for kosher food, aren't Jewish. What's with that? And it turns out that consumers, pretty much on their own, have figured out that if a product is certified kosher by the O.U. or similar organization, they can have certain guarantees about the food that they cannot get otherwise. So, for example, if you are lactose intolerant and you know anything about Jewish law, you figure, well, if it's–unless it says it's dairy, it's probably not dairy, because that really, really matters to Jews and it does to observant Jews. And then there's a more diffuse set by the 80s of distrust of the food manufacturers. It's widespread. But there's lots of disputes about quality of food in the 70s, especially in position of food inspection standards or scandals. And so there's more of a generalized belief that if the rabbis are looking at the food, it's going to be safer.
Erin Phillips: So, yeah, if you were to poll consumers today, you’d find similar results. Whether it’s deserved or not, that kosher stamp has somehow become a mark of quality for Jews and non-Jews alike. This has opened doors for organizations like the O.U. and O.K. to enter new markets around the world, which is why more than 40 percent of the products in the grocery store today are kosher certified.
But what about that other 60 percent? In order to understand the full spectrum of kosher food and get insight on where it’s headed, I set out for my local kosher grocery store not too long ago. I walked in with lots of questions about what foods can and can’t be considered kosher.
Erin Phillips (at the grocery store): Alright, I’m at the kosher grocery store. Like any good grocery store we start in the produce section. And you’d think vegetables will be pretty much the same, right? But right away, I’m noticing the bagged salads, there are shelves with big signs that say “checked” and “unchecked.”
Erin Phillips: Here’s Dr. Jordan D. Rosenblum, Chair of the Department of Art History, and Professor of Classical Judaism and Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin Madison, to explain what these “checked” and “unchecked” signs mean.
Jordan D. Rosenblum: The biggest issue in kashrut since 1994 has been microscopic bugs. And that, you know, this scandal broke in New York City with vegetables and were there are bugs in it. And this has led to all sorts of issues of looking at each piece of lettuce to see if there's any bug in it. Broccoli and bagged salad are some of the hardest things to certify as kosher.
Erin Phillips: So, the kinds of bugs we find in our produce by accident – mostly worms and spiders – NOT kosher. Understood. But, I’m an environmental nerd, so this discussion immediately got me thinking about other kinds of bugs, ones people eat on purpose. If you didn’t know, some climate-conscious folks have recently realized that certain types of bugs, mainly crickets, are a remarkably sustainable and healthy protein source. They’ve started turning them into protein powder and granola bars – seriously, you can buy them at Whole Foods now. I’m not sponsored by the edible bug industry, but I have read the science: insects don’t take a lot of resources to cultivate, they’re easy to process, and they provide an amount of protein that’s on par with supplements or even certain types of meat. That’s why startups have formed in the U.S. and even Israel dedicated to producing insect proteins. But, can these crickets be kosher? Here’s Roger Horowitz again.
Roger Horowitz: There are certain kinds of insects that are permitted under kosher law. The problem is, we're not sure which ones they are. Again, it’s in a listing in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. You can't have animals that creep and crawl. That's a general prohibition, but there are some that are excepted to that. The names used are names of the era. So this is, you know, we're talking, you know, 8th century C.E. and what those animals are. So it may be that locusts are kosher, maybe unsure. And so you could have these as a form of protein. But by and large, this is one of those issues that the certifiers are conservative about. Conservative in the sense, I guess I should say stringent, where unless they're absolutely certain the insects can be kosher–and they're not certain – they're not going to accept it.
Erin Phillips: Professor Rosenblum also raises this point about not knowing which species of bugs are referred to in the Torah, but he sees the ultimate possibilities for insects a bit differently.
Jordan D. Rosenblum: There's a large swath of bugs that are kosher biblically and without a problem. I mean, there are some that clearly aren't, and it points it out, but it spends a lot more time talking about bugs than people realize. Some people say, “Oh, well, we don't know which bugs are or aren't,” but there are – you could say that for some, but there's some that's pretty clear that there's enough information in the peshat. The most basic clear explanation you could – there are many bugs you could easily say, “kosher” or “not kosher.” And there have been – you can consult Rav Google and find tons of instances of – some people who've tried to bring that back. It's totally doable. It's totally kosher, certifiable as long as it's the right thing and it can be done.
Erin Phillips: Okay, so while some would argue crickets, locusts, and similar bugs are capable of being certified, as of right now they are tentatively not kosher. The O.U. and O.K. have not looked at certifying any insect products, and their general guidance is, “no bugs.” If these products continue to gain popularity, we’ll likely see the rabbis take on this issue more earnestly. But until then, don’t serve cricket canapés to your kosher dinner guests. And if you keep kosher yourself, proceed with caution when it comes to creepy crawlies.
Erin Phillips (at the grocery store): Okay, we’ve got our veggies. Naturally, the next stop is the candy aisle. I know, I know, we’re skipping from something really simple to certify – plants – to the aisle with some of the most complicated processed ingredients. But hear me out, because there’s a plant that is often turned into a candy that I have questions about. Can you guess what it is?
Erin Phillips: That’s right, pretty recently, rabbis began certifying a whole range of marijuana and hemp products, including kosher edibles. We’re talking CBD and THC. Here’s Dr. David Zvi Kalman, Scholar in Residence and Director of New Media at the Shalom Hartman Institute:
David Zvi Kalman: There is a really interesting situation right now where you have rabbis certifying a significant number of CBD products. They're totally fine with it – a few THC products also, as long as they're labeled as medical. And they're operating in an environment that is like a wild west of regulation, or like the federal government's not on the ball. Some state governments are taking, you know, are interested, some are not. And yet you have like these kosher supervisors going to these factories in the same way that you would go into any other factory. At the moment, I think they're kind of in over their heads, meaning I think they don't quite appreciate how little regulation is happening beyond the things that they are specifically focusing on. And you can see that in that, you know, there are products which are certified as being kosher, which have significant issues, like have been tested to have a significant issue with the amount of CBD in them. Like there, the labels are inaccurate, even if they are kosher.
Erin Phillips: As both medical and recreational marijuana is legalized in a growing number of states, consumable products are making their way from the streets, to dispensaries, and finally to grocery stores. And when something appears on supermarket shelves, the rabbis have to start making decisions about whether or not it can be kosher. But how on Earth could the same set of food laws that prohibits things like oysters possibly allow for products derived from wacky tobacky? Here’s Dr. Rosenblum again:
Jordan D. Rosenblum: I could find you tradition that would say that, you know, drugs that are not medical, there are rabbinic texts that have problems with it and then there are Rabbinic texts that don't have problems with it. I mean, much of medieval mysticism – Jewish mysticism, right? – was drinking or taking substances to alter your, or fasting or staying up for a long time to basically, to alter what's going on chemically in your mind and then thinking about God. We have to ask separate questions. One is: Why are you taking the drug? If you're taking the drug for medicinal reasons, let's look at the easiest thing. One person has cancer and they're using it to reduce pain and increase appetite. That's going to get the most lenient opinion possible, right? Because at that case, there's a clear medical good. So even if it were impermissible other ways, right? The idea of saving the life the same way if you needed to use a pig – a chemical derived from a pig – to save your life; if you needed to have your heart valve come from a pig, right? That’s very different. I remember explaining to my bubbe – zikhrono livrakha – about getting a pig valve, and explaining to her that was 100 percent kosher, right? That pikuach nefesh – saving life – is much more important than the fact of some pig.
Erin Phillips: Pikuach nefesh is the Jewish law that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious rule of Judaism. It’s this precedent that makes medical marijuana products kosher when they can help preserve life for the consumer. So, back to Dr. Kalman’s point, it’s even more concerning that kosher organizations are certifying products without closely studying what’s in them and the impact it can have on consumers, especially those turning to THC or CBD to help treat medical conditions.
David Zvi Kalman: I can imagine a situation where those kosher organizations, if they like, went a little bit outside of their comfort zone and they said, “Okay, well, we are going to ask for a third-party lab testing for every product we certify,” all of a sudden, kosher certification becomes the, you know, unofficial mark of quality for cannabis products. It's another situation where, you know, the kind of narrowness of kosher supervision ends up meaning that it kind of ignores things that are of obvious interest to everybody else. In this particular case, I think it's a shame because people already look to kosher as a sign of quality, especially people who are not Jewish. So, given that's the case, and given that this is an area where quality is a big problem, it seems like it would make sense for kosher companies to go the extra mile to actually say, like, “Oh yeah, we actually did check them out – not just like the three things we care about, but like we checked them out to find out whether the things in their product are actually the things in their product, whether there's insecticides in their products, whether you have a CBD product that actually has THC in it, like all that stuff.” You can do that relatively easily. I think it remains to be seen whether kosher companies will actually take that up.
Erin Phillips (at the grocery store): I personally don’t need any edibles to preserve life, and I don’t think I’d find kosher-certified ones here anyways, So, I am moving on to try and find some dinner. I know I have ice cream in the freezer at home, so let’s check out the aisle with meat substitutes. I was actually vegan in college so this aisle brings me back to the days of pretty gross fake chicken nuggets. Those types of products have long been a kosher staple, even the slightly more realistic ones. But today, the options are a lot more sophisticated. The one I’m looking for right now is… yup, there it is, Impossible Burgers.
Erin Phillips: Despite the name, the Impossible Burger is totally pareve, meaning it doesn’t contain dairy or meat, so it’s safe to eat with anything. In fact, the Impossible brand is kind of revolutionizing meat substitutes – its goal is to produce products that smell, taste and feel just like the real thing. And Dr. Kalman says it’s that goal that’s made their newest product line, Impossible Pork, a sticky topic among kosher certifiers.
David Zvi Kalman: Impossible Pork contains exactly the same ingredients as Impossible Beef. One is certified as kosher. One is not. The reason is that one is called “beef” and one is called “pork.” This is a kind of unusual move for a kosher organization to make, because most of the time, these companies make decisions on very narrow grounds of: Are the ingredients fine, or are they not fine? But in this instance, the Orthodox Union decided, actually, we are sufficiently uncomfortable with certifying a product that is called Impossible Pork. And so, we are not saying it's not kosher. I think they’re very careful about how they did it – saying, like, “We are not going to certify it.” I actually don't know if this is going to be a permanent decision. [It] could be that they'll turn around tomorrow and say that they will certify it eventually. But I think at least initially, there was a concern that it would cause confusion among kosher consumers to have a product which is marketed as being just as good as pork to be called kosher. It's a little bit different from, say, I mean, certainly there's no end of meat substitutes that have been around for a long time. This one's a little bit different because this new wave of meat substitutes isn't just trying to say, like, “Here's a product you can give to your annoying vegan friend who's coming to your barbecue. But it's actually terrible, and it's just there because you need to give them something.” This is a new wave of products. They're saying, like, “We are actually trying for concern about the environment reasons, to create products that are as good as the real thing that can allow you to become vegetarian if you would not have otherwise become vegetarian, and to kind of take over meat's exalted and important place in, you know, in popular culture,” which is a new thing to do. So, I think because of that framing, the O.U. decided to take the extraordinary step of not certifying this product.
Erin Phillips: I found no shortage of fake pork products inside the kosher grocery store: Vegan bacon substitutes, the classic Morningstar Farms sausage. So, it does seem like an odd place to draw the line. But, Roger Horowitz sees this modern dilemma as part of a storied tradition in kashrut.
Roger Horowitz: What's going on in the resistance to certifying Impossible Pork actually has a long tradition of what's called protecting the fences of the sages. That's the phrase. In other words, that you adopt rulings that are strict – stringent is the language – in order to protect, if you will, the actual fences of Jewish law. And a lot of kosher rules have that feature where you're not sure. Maybe what you're saying isn't acceptable could be acceptable, but you're afraid that if you accept it, it might lead to deterioration of the fences of the sages, these kosher laws there. The best example of this we have in kosher traditions are the rules or special rules for Passover and what the Ashkenazi called kitniyot, where you're not supposed to consume a range of, you know, if you will, legumes and products that, because they might encourage you to break the rules of Passover against eating leavened bread. The best example of this is corn, how corn cannot not be consumed on Passover under the Ashkenazi rules. Now, corn is not prescribed in the Torah or the Talmud because corn didn't exist to them. Corn is a product of the new world and doesn't go to Europe until the 16th century. So it's a new product, so it cannot be under the prohibition for Passover that goes back there. But, corn can be turned into bread. It can be turned into products that look like wheat based products. So the rabbis said, “No, you can't have corn because it might lead people to confuse the fences.”
Erin Phillips: There’s another product in the meat substitutes aisle at the kosher grocery store that throws a bit of a wrench in this argument. Dynasea is a company that has been making extremely realistic fake shellfish products for years–crab, lobster, shrimp. Why are these products okay, but this new, hyper-realistic pork isn’t? Roger sees this as an indicator of pork’s special taboo status among Jews.
Roger Horowitz: I think it's very important to think about how pork occupies a special place as a Jewish food prohibition. It really has become a taboo. It's a very basic sense that you should not eat pork. Sure, maybe Jews in the early 20th century that were becoming more liberal would eat oysters, you know, because it was so widespread they would eat seafood, lobster, things like that, but they wouldn't eat pork. And one of the reasons is that pork was such a defining line for Jews in medieval Europe. It was what defined a Jew as being a Jew is that you did not eat pork. You were not defined as a Jew because you didn't eat oysters. That was no big deal.
Erin Phillips: Despite these strong arguments against Impossible Pork, it's important to note that the Orthodox Union didn’t actually come to a decision on the product. They simply declined to certify it as kosher. So, you won’t find it in the kosher grocery store, but some may still choose to eat it at home. It’s part of the tricky political and social balance of kosher rulings.
Roger Horowitz: What you eat has always been a political matter for Jews, and certainly, the issue of what how you legislate has always colored, you know, Jewish traditions. Something like the waiting period, between when you can have a milk meal and a meat meal: Is it one hour, three hour, six hours and all that? It's pretty clear that at a certain point, the reason for the stricter prohibitions was to distinguish Jews who want to feel more frum, more observant, from those who they felt were lax. So that's always been an element of kosher law, those kind of politics and social issues. It's also thinking about Jews as a social group – a minority group – in a large society. And how do you help use the kosher laws to provide cohesion within the side population? So it might seem a contradiction and maybe in a strictly scientific sense it is, but it's not if you think that one of the main purposes of ritual practice was to create a cohesion among the population that was a minority in a Christian and Islamic world that did not have a nation state that had no no other way of pulling together. You needed to have instead law and practice as a way to define what you were as a Jew.
Erin Phillips (at the grocery store): Alright, I’ve got my Impossible Burgers and a few other meat substitutes. I’m feeling more knowledgeable about what emerging foods rabbis do and don’t consider kosher. But, all this talk of fake meat has me a little curious about a sort of new food technology. I saw a news headline the other day about lab-grown meat – scientists that have actually been able to grow a meat substitute using cultured cells. This is unlike anything we’ve ever seen or certified. And while this stuff isn’t available commercially yet, I wonder if I could ever see it in a store like this, and if so, what aisle it would end up in.
Erin Phillips: Turns out, Dr. Rosenblum has been thinking about this, too. He had some ideas.
Jordan D. Rosenblum: So, I should actually step back first and say: Do you believe that a cell itself has to follow all the rules of meat or is it a totally different thing? And, is it so small that it doesn't matter? Right? Which you could see how you could argue either way, right? That it's so tiny, a cell is so tiny – it's less than one 60th, which is the safety standard of if something is less than one 60th, not allowed, you know, then it's – and it's mixed in then – and the vast majority is kosher. You can ignore it. So the question is, does it count at all? But if it does, then you have those next questions asked, was: Where does it come from? Is it a kosher animal, or a non-kosher animal? Was it slaughtered or not? And all of these questions will divert off answers. Some will say yes, it matters. Some will say no. Right? And so, before we get anywhere else, we have to start with what: What do you understand it as? Is this so different than anything else that the rules don't apply in that way? Well, then that's an easy answer. If it's not, well, then you have to decide all of these other things. Does it matter? Like if it's a pig cell versus a cow cell?
Erin Phillips: In order to make their ruling, the Rabbis will have to determine if a cell is significant enough to count as a piece of meat on its own. And along that line, they’ll have to decide whether a pig cell could ever be kosher in that microscopic amount. Dr. Kalman raises some additional questions:
David Zvi Kalman: And then there are questions around, you know, are there certain conditions in which it has to be grown, right? One of the things that makes meat kosher is not just like what animal comes from, but is it prepared properly? Is it slaughtered properly? So are there going to be similar kinds of conditions put on lab grown meat? And then there are questions around, okay, even assuming it is kosher, is it considered meat, meaning can you not eat it with dairy products? Do you have to wait, you know, one or three or six hours after eating it, before eating a dairy product? Or is it considered pareve? So like, it's neutral, it's neither dairy nor meat. I don't know that there's a firm answer to that. There probably won't be a firm answer to that until the products come onto the shelves. My suspicion is that there will be an inclination to treat it as meat. And, I don't know whether, you know, we'll start suddenly seeing a lot of people eat cellular pork products or not. I'm curious to find out, too.
Erin Phillips: This is futuristic stuff. But, Roger Horowitz reminds us that like all future-looking debates on kashrut, there are some historical precedents we can look to for reference. Here, one that stands out is panim hadoshot, a theory about how kosher laws apply to a product that’s been transformed beyond recognition.
Roger Horowitz: There is a strand of Jewish law which says that if the product is transformed into something utterly different than what it was, that the earlier prohibitions on it do not apply. Panim hadoshot is the theory behind it. And that is a theory that justifies considering meat-based gelatin as kosher because the gelatin is no longer any resemblance to the meat that they came from. That's a minority opinion among Orthodox Jews today. Most Orthodox Jews do not accept panim hadoshot as having much salience for the meat industry today. But it is a kosher tradition, and we do have some respected 14th 15th 16th century rabbis accepting certain products as that. So there is a tradition there. The most important tradition there, which is again very complicated, has to do with creating cheese, where to create cheese in a pre-industrial era, you use rennin to curdle milk. The rennin comes from an animal's stomach, and so you pump the milk into the stomach of a slaughtered animal, and that would turn it into cheese. Well, is this an improper mixture of meat and milk putting this together there? And since this was the only way to make cheese, rabbis had really figured – were trying to figure – out a way to let this happen. And the argument here is that when this happens, the rennin undergoes a fundamental transformation when it turns into the cheese. It's not – it becomes dissociated from the animal that was its source. So therefore, you can do it.
Erin Phillips: Despite the abundance of historical examples we can draw on, there’s still no clear answer about how the Rabbis will rule on lab-grown meat. And that’s because, again, there are social and political factors to consider. Here’s Dr. Rosenblum again
Jordan D. Rosenblum This comes to what you want the answer to be. I can find you precedents that can unmeat-ify it and that can meat-ify it. This is what studying any legal system requires you to do is, is and then it becomes the argument that you find most persuasive. And in a decentralized religion, like Judaism, if you find one argument more persuasive and your community doesn't support it, at a certain point, you might say, “Well, this community isn't my community anymore. That community is.”
Erin Phillips: Cellular meat is far off on the horizon, so for the time being, I don’t see anyone leaving their community over it. But the technology will eventually make its way to store shelves. And because of all the questions it raises, Dr. Kalman says it’s unlikely the Rabbis will get a chance to rule on it before it becomes available.
Dr. Kaman: Rabbis are never the first on almost any technological question. Maybe that'll change down the road. But for many reasons, rabbis are often – and Jewish leaders in general – are often a little bit late to the game. Now, sometimes there is interesting speculation about how a certain area of law will develop, but it's often Jewish people, you know, living their Jewish lives, whether that's observant Jewish lives or not, who end up deciding whether things are or are not acceptable.
Erin Phillips: Dr. Kalman’s point here really gets to a wider conversation that is happening in and outside of the kosher world. As consumers become more aware of the environmental and social impacts of their food choices, they’re beginning to think about and act on a different set of Jewish laws, those around justice, and how they intersect with kashrut. But, in a lot of cases, the answer is: They still don’t.
David Zvi Kalman: You know, there was a kind of decision made – I don't think anyone decided this intentionally, but there was a decision made – at the beginning of the 20th century to treat kosher as as basically valueless, not always valueless, but as being, like more likely to be valueless than the opposite. And so it is hard to move away from that, whereas you know, other technologies like, for example, electricity around Shabbat is very much a value-laden technology, right? Like rabbis make decisions about appropriate and inappropriate uses of new technologies on Shabbat all the time. And those are almost always connected to the central question of: What will this do to the experience of Shabbat in ways that questions around kashrut are not connected to like, the question of like: What will this do to ethical consumption? They're not really connected to anything. They're just connected to, like some abstract set of rules within Jewish law, with some exceptions. So, it's really hard to break out of that paradigm, in part because like there is no consensus on what kashrut is about. There have long been, you know, within Jewish thought attempts to make sense of kosher regulations. You know, there have been rabbis who’ve attempted to say like, “Oh yeah, it's because it's healthier in some way, “you know? Oh, like, yes, there's diseases in pigs that God was trying to help the Jewish people avoid. It's interesting, even if it's interesting, I think most people, even most people who keep kosher, take it as exactly about observing Jewish law, no more, no less.
Erin Phillips: While this way of thinking came into focus in the early 20th century with the rise of industrial agriculture and concentrated animal feeding operations, we can trace it all the way back to our 16th century kosher handbook, the Shulchan Aruch. Here’s Roger Horowitz again:
Roger Horowitz: So, you had a variety of Jewish rules and practices that were in the Shulchan Aruch – in the Talmud – about business, for example, things you should do in business, things you should do for the farmer, things you should do in society. That's like a separate book – literally a separate book of the Shulchan Aruch. By and large, it's not been connected to kosher practice. Kosher practice was based upon traditions unique to that set of rules. So, if you were trying to figure out if, say, a cow killed in the 16th century is kosher, you looked at the Shulchan Aruch section on what made it kosher and you worry about: Thee lungs; and the content and deformities; and was the throat slit or whatever? You didn't worry about how it was purchased, you didn't worry about how it was raised, that was irrelevant. So there's a long tradition for good or for bad in kashrut being separate from issues of ethics. And ethics is a very important part of Jewish law. That may contribute to some of the disputes today, that you have that separation.
Erin Phillips: Despite this historical separation, the past two decades has seen a rise in ethical kosher activism. Throughout the 2000s, several organizations were founded to address issues such as the ethical treatment of kosher livestock animals and fair labor practices for kosher restaurant workers. It’s been a long and arduous fight for these groups, with lots of pushback from mainstream kosher certifiers. But, more recently, they’ve won a few major victories.
In 2018, for example, the Orthodox Union stopped certifying meat produced using shackle-and-hoist, a method of slaughter that causes pain and distress for animals. Israel also banned imports of this type of meat around the same time. Today, a number of Jewish institutions – synagogues, farms, Hillel groups on college campuses – are adopting ethical or plant-based food policies for catered events. As we’ve learned, the kosher certifying organizations take cues from their consumer base. So, as these ideas continue to spread, we could see more decisions like the 2018 shackle-and-hoist ban that blend ethics with Jewish law. Dr. Rosenblum sees this as a natural progression – Jews, like many other communities today, are thinking more deeply about the social and environmental impacts of their food.
Jordan D. Rosenblum: Everyone communicates messages with the way they eat, intentionally or unintentionally. And that's something that – I think it's important for many communities, reform or otherwise; Jewish, or non-Jewish; et cetera to take a moment to think about what message they're communicating through their food and if it matches up with their broader ethics.
Erin Phillips: Kosher laws may be ancient, but the way we interpret them is constantly changing. Kosher practice is adapted according to what foods, tools and cooking methods are available. And the social and political context matters. Just like many parts of Jewish identity, kashrut is a conversation, a debate between different sets of Rabbis, the consumers making choices at the grocery store and in the kitchen, the food producers, whether they’re Jewish or just looking for a kosher stamp. So I, for one, hope the Jewish community continues to discuss – and even disagree about – unexplored protein sources, lab-grown food, and how kosher eating can become a way to live Jewish values.
Erin Phillips (at the grocery store): And that’s it, that’s my trip. Hope you learned a little something. Go get a snack, maybe think a little deeper about the cultural or ethical motivations behind your snack choice, whether you’re Jewish or not. I’m going to have a nice, non-controversial kosher knish. And we will see you next time.
“Adventures in Jewish Studies” is made possible with generous support from The Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation. The executive producer of the podcast is Warren Hoffman. I’m the lead producer for this episode.
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Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD