Approaching Kashrut from a Liberal Perspective

In my last post, I laid out my understanding of the central message of Humanistic and progressive Judaism. The central purpose of living a Jewish life is to live ethically and to help make the world a better place while maintaining a connection to Jewish culture and values. Since the beginning of the Reform Movement, Jews who have rejected the authority of halakha have typically abandoned kashrut as irrelevant and burdensome. Under my understanding of liberal Judaism, there can be no argument for the acceptance of traditional kashrut on an institutional or movement-wide scale because it is grounded solely in the authority of the Torah and Talmud. However, it is important to examine the relationship between food consumption, ethics, and tikkun olam. If my understanding of Humanistic Judaism’s central purpose is accepted, it will be necessary for a new form of kashrut to evolve which addresses ways in which to consume food and other products in ethical and environmentally friendly ways.

We consume food and other products every day. Our food choices, particularly, have profound ethical and ecological significance since most of us eat at least three times a day. While it is true that a few people cannot make a large impact on production in an industrialized, capitalist society, the food economy is still theoretically based on the underlying concept of supply and demand. It is therefore an ethical imperative to demand and consume products which are produced ethically and do minimal harm to the environment. While there is debate regarding what is most important when determining what choices are the most ethical or environmentally friendly, there are certain practices and products which most people agree are damaging and unethical. Plastics and other non-biodegradable packaging should be avoided as much as possible, which includes individually wrapped products within larger packages, plastic shopping bags, and plastic and Styrofoam utensils. When these products are used, they should be recycled after use. Certain pesticides are ecologically devastating, and produce from these fields should be avoided if possible. Immigrant workers are often mistreated and abused, and companies that benefit from these practices should be boycotted. The meat, dairy, and egg industry is the single largest destructive industry for the environment, and the animals which are used are abused, tortured, and killed daily. Animal products should be avoided to the extent a person’s health and ability allows. Under the current system of food production it may even be necessary for progressive forms of Judaism to embrace vegetarianism at the institutional level, even if they do not otherwise demand it of their members.

An engaged Humanistic Judaism must address the problems surrounding consumption and promote a new form of kashrut grounded in ethics and environmentalism rather than ritual and tradition. (This does not have to compete with traditional kosher observance, which could simply be expanded to include these considerations.) Consumption is unavoidable in our society, and the way we consume shapes our lives and reflects our values as progressive Jews. In my understanding of a Humanistic kashrut, this includes avoiding animal products as much as possible (in my case veganism), reducing my use of plastics, recycling and using recycled products as much as possible, purchasing organic foods and products when economically feasible, and avoiding companies that are known to be complicit in the abuse of workers. It may not be possible for all progressive Jews or all people to abide by every aspect of this understanding of kashrut, but this is not an all or nothing approach. Doing something is always better than doing nothing. Even if individuals cannot do everything, they still have an ethical responsibility to do what they can. If we are truly committed to a Jewish practice that promotes an ethical lifestyle and the repair of the world, a new progressive interpretation of kashrut must be embraced.