Picture this: A ritual butcher at a kosher slaughterhouse dances with other employees while waving and shaking a bleeding chicken in its last moments of life. This image is not a scene out of a horror film. It is the description of one of many forms of cruelty toward animals captured by a hidden camera at the Soglowek kosher slaughterhouse. Despite this blatant display of inhumanity, the animals killed at Soglowek retain their kosher status. This disturbing irony highlights the need to redefine what it means for food to be kosher today.
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Keeping kosher has always been about incorporating our deepest values into the choices we make about food. The 13th-century Torah scholar Nachmanides and the 15th-century philosopher Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel, both emphasized the ways in which maintaining a kosher diet habituates people to be more humane. Complementing this view, Maimonides explained that the purpose of keeping kosher is to maintain good health, and that the distinguishing characteristic of kosher food is its wholesomeness.
Over time, the kosher rules have diverged from these purposes. Instead of encouraging people to eat morally and healthily, kashrut has become a complex web of arbitrary, legalistic rules. Ritual slaughterers focus their attention on where on an animal’s throat they should slice their knife, while ignoring the cruel conditions under which the same animal was raised and handled before its death. The recent abuses, including those by the kosher supervisors at the Soglowek slaughterhouse (the second set of such incidents at the factory in two years) highlight the extent to which the kosher rules have become divorced from Nachmanides’ and Rabbi Abravanel’s focus on morality.
Similarly, Maimonides’ emphasis on health has become an obsolete category when deciding what food is kosher. The truth is that wholesomeness is not even considered by rabbinic authorities when making decisions on kashrut. This is exemplified by the fact that kosher supervisors have certified lettuce doused in pesticides, in order to ensure the lack of microscopic insects.
The gulf between the purpose of keeping kosher and the practice of keeping kosher is now greater than ever. It has therefore become urgent for new criteria of what constitutes kosher food to be developed, in an effort to realign purpose with practice. New rules for kashrut could look exactly like the existing ones, and should be informed heavily by Jewish tradition and wisdom, but should also incorporate modern understandings of health and morality. They must address fair wages for food preparers, ethical living conditions for animals, protective treatment of the environment, and impacts on the health of the human body. Only by incorporating modern understandings and technologies into the laws of kashrut can we ensure that kosher practice returns to reflecting the values it originally set out to uphold.
This project of updating the rules of kashrut to reflect the needs of the current generation has always been an integral part of the development of what constitutes kosher food: When the ancient Israelites arrived in the Land of Israel after sojourning in the wilderness, the ban on slaughtering animals outside of the Tabernacle was lifted so as to make meat consumption possible in a more diffuse society (Leviticus 17:1-5; Deuteronomy 12:15); when the rabbis of the Talmud found that people were not able to abstain from eating oil prepared by idol worshippers, they nullified the prohibition on such oil (Babylonian Talmud, Avoda Zara 36a); and when the United States Food and Drug Administration required explicit labelling of any dairy products derived from non-kosher animals, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein canceled the requirement that all kosher milking be supervised by a Jew.
Letting the kosher guidelines stagnate into a set of arbitrary rules undermines this tradition of progress. Anyone interested in the future of this ancient tradition should take an active role in developing what it means to be kosher to meet the ethical and health standards of this moment in history. This is no small project and it demands input from people of various fields: scientists, ethicists, dieticians, farmers, rabbis, chefs, doctors and all of us who eat.
The next time a kosher slaughterhouse commits abuses like those at Soglowek, hopefully it will be shut down by the rabbinic authorities before the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry needs to intervene.
Ayalon Eliach is a lawyer and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from Yale University and a JD from Harvard Law School. He is passionate about using religion as a source of connection rather than separation in the world. He tweets at @Ayalon83.