Keepin’ Kosher in the Free World, and Connecting With Muslims Through Meat

While Jews were victorious in the Netherlands last week, those in the U.S. face a threat with the potential extinction Hebrew National’s viable kosher alternative.

Tucked away in the back pages of newspapers this week was important news from the Netherlands. After three years of discussions, the Dutch Senate assertively struck down a bill that would have outlawed the slaughter of animals without first stunning them, a practice that The Party for the Animals considered to be more humane. If passed, this law would not only have impacted Jews by effectively banning kosher slaughter, but Muslims too, as it would have also banned halal ritual slaughter. Due to the hard work of Dutch chief rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, and a covenant signed by the Jewish and Muslim communities to fight this ban together, the bill was defeated. Let them eat meat!

This story is significant for a few reasons. First, the defeat of this bill headed off what could have been a wider movement in Europe to curtail ritual slaughter. Though there are certainly animal rights groups who think they have the best interest of animals in mind, there are others with less than noble motives. In Jewish history, arguments against ritual slaughter have often been thinly veiled attempts to demonize Jews and their practices. The rejection of this law is a strong statement for freedom of religion for Jews, Muslims, and all other religions in Europe.

Secondly, in a world where the differences between Jews and Muslims often seem irreconcilable, here we have a wonderful example of cooperation. Jewish and Muslims leaders joined together to defeat a bill that would have been detrimental to both communities. Though it took a common threat to bring the two groups together, hopefully this situation will lead to a stronger relationship between the two groups.

Building off of shared practices can be an important first step in bringing two communities together – not only in the Netherlands, but elsewhere as well. In the U.S., there are already a number of colleges, such as Oberlin, Emory, and Mount Holyoke, that offer joint kosher and halal dining plans or facilities for students. Since anything that is kosher is also halal, but anything halal is not necessarily kosher, we have an opportunity as a Jewish community to invite our Muslim friends into our kosher restaurants and dining halls. And then the Muslim community would have an opportunity to accept our invitation to break bread together. The partnerships in the Netherlands and on college campuses around food issues reminds us that working together to help people eat according to their religious practice can be a point of cooperation between people.

Finally, this story is significant because it is a piece of positive kosher news in the midst of a number of troubling stories about the topic. Of course a few years ago there was the raid at Agriprocessors, the kosher meat factory in Postville, Iowa. It was the largest single raid of a workplace in U.S. history, and resulted in hundreds of arrests of workers and managers on charges of identity theft, document fraud, and child labor violations. More recently, a class action lawsuit has been filed against Hebrew National by 11 unidentified plaintiffs who live around the U.S. They claim that Hebrew National hot dogs and other products are not kosher. This has caused a stir because Hebrew National is one of the only companies in the U.S. that still sells meat that is kosher, but not glatt kosher. Glatt is a Yiddish word that means smooth, and technically refers to the lungs of an animal. Many Ashkenazi rabbis agree that if a slaughtered animal’s lungs are not smooth, that is if they are perforated in any way, that animal is still kosher. If the lungs are smooth, then it is glatt. Today, however, glatt has come to mean a general higher standard of kashrut. While in Israel there still exists kosher meat that is glatt and kosher meat that is not, in the U.S. it is difficult to find non-glatt kosher meat. This is significant because it cuts off a potentially less expensive option for people who want to buy kosher meat. The lawsuit against Hebrew National threatens to eliminate one of the last affordable options for kosher consumers today.

As a teacher of mine at the Jewish Theological Seminary once observed, the irony today is that the laws of kashrut, which seem at least in part originally designed to separate Jews from non-Jews, now more often separate Jews from Jews. This is true especially for Jews who keep kosher – as differing standards, or perceived standards, of kashrut limit whose home, whose restaurants, and even whose synagogue one will eat in. While keeping kosher is important, the Jewish people would be better served if we remembered that these laws were meant to keep us together, not apart.

Kosher slaughter lives on in the Netherlands because Jews there were able to work with each other, and with the Muslim community, for an important common cause. Let’s hope that this cooperation is not limited by situation or geography, but rather serves as an example for collaboration in other countries and circumstances as well.

 Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.