In the last few months, kashrut (Jewish dietary law) has become quite a celebrity in Israel, the United States and Europe. From countries questioning the legality of kosher slaughter to Israeli restaurants choosing to abide by the laws of kashrut without rabbinic supervision, it seems that no more than a few months can go by before kashrut pops its head up in the news.
The latest scandal comes to us from Los Angeles, where a large kosher butcher called Doheny's had its rabbinic supervision suddenly and very publicly revoked shortly before Passover. While the details of the story continue to emerge, on one side there is a claim that the owner was selling non-kosher meat, and on the other side is a claim that the butcher's competitors sought to set him up because of his lower prices. The scandal apparently affects not only the Jewish community; there is talk over the federal authorities getting involved.
Underneath the surface of both the Doheny's scandal and the movement to promote kosher restaurants without rabbinic supervision is the question of how strict one must be in his approach to kashrut and why Jews keep kosher at all. The difference between the biblical label and the rabbinic label provides a useful framework for us to understand this difference. The rabbinic label, kosher, means "fit", as in fit for consumption. This label has remained with us and has even found its way into general English, where it means that it "fits" the appropriate standards. The Bible, on the other hand, does not talk about food being kosher but about its being pure or impure. According to this understanding, there are absolutes in dietary laws, as opposed to the dynamic scale of rabbinic law, and there is also an implied value judgment, in which adhering to a strict dietary law makes humans "purer" and therefore closer to God.
Adhering to dietary laws helps inform my personal feeling of holiness, but an obsession with holiness may turn others away from eating kosher food altogether. The owners of one Jerusalem restaurant chose to shun rabbinic supervision because the overseeing organization forced them to buy a certain kind of lettuce, considered to be the least likely to include impurities, rather than relying on the established laws of halakha to check a wide variety of lettuce. While this may seem like a minor issue, it points to a worldview that is not interested in whether or not food but can be made fit for consumption unless it meets the most stringent way of approaching purity. Similarly, we see this issue in the tension between Doheny's and competing meat markets. If Doheny's was selling kosher meat that was simply cheaper than what the local Rabbinate expected, then they too were trying to market food that was "fit", even if not perfect or pure.
These issues point to a general controversy in the world of kosher food over the last years which are part of a greater problem. As a stricter adherence to dietary laws has been perceived as preferable, the ability to keep kosher has become more expensive. Are the kashrut supervisors and other rabbinic authorities interested in pursuing such an end? Are they more interested in protecting the interest of kashrut as an institution, making it as pure as possible, that they are putting up a roadblock to more people eating food that is fit? To use the rabbinic term of the Ethics of our Fathers, have the authorities built so many fences around the Torah that they are preventing people from learning from it and living its values?
Those who wish to abide by the stringencies of kashrut should certainly be entitled to do so, but the Jewish establishment - in Israel and abroad - needs to make sure that is only one option among many. There are also many ethical considerations. For one example, if a rabbinical supervisor is going to require a full-time salary, he (unfortunately, if there are female supervisors, it is a rare exception) must be expected to do full-time work, and if he is not doing full-time work, he should be paid accordingly. Similarly, if kosher meat is to be more expensive, the workers in the factories or the animals themselves should not be made to suffer to cut costs by paying below living wages to laborers or using particularly cruel methods of slaughter to increase production.
Since I returned home from Camp Ramah at the age of 11 and decided to keep kosher even out of the house (our kitchen was already kosher for some time), the Jewish dietary laws have been one of the most meaningful aspects of my Jewish observance, reminding me of how lucky I am that I have the ability to be picky in my eating every time I eat. Those who provide kosher food, whether in the slaughterhouse, the supermarket, or the rabbinic establishment, have all made that choice possible. It is up to each of them to make sure that there continues to be food for consumption - morally, financially, and according to the spectrum of opinions within Jewish law.
Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.
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