What We Eat: Looking at Kashrut Through a Conservative Lens

For RABBI EDWARD FELD, kashrut must interweave ritual rules and regulations with modern challenges

by Rabbi Edward Feld

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What is the Conservative movement’s approach to kashrut? It is the observance of traditional food laws as seen through the lens of a set of values that is central to our contemporary understanding of Judaism.

The hallmark of Conservative Judaism is its appreciation of both tradition and modernity. It is a Judaism that lives within contemporary society and culture. In North America, it embraces the promise of the new world, the blessings of freedom, democracy, and equal opportunity. At the same time, its commitment to Jewish religious life creates community, develops Jews whose values include a sense of responsibility to others, upholds the sacredness of life, and informs a personal spiritual practice that allows an ongoing relationship with God.

To navigate the Jewish heritage within this North American matrix, Conservative Judaism turns to the tradition in all its fullness – to the minority opinion as well as the majority, to roads taken and not taken. Talmudic texts, medieval philosophic formulations, mystical understandings, folk stories, and more all are grist for this mill. Conservative Judaism has an approach to religious practice that is deeply informed by history, the knowledge of change, and the multiplicity of opinions and perspectives, along with a sense of purpose derived from our contemporary situation.

This formula ought to be played out in our observance of kashrut. We need an American Jewish approach to our traditional food laws that also takes into account the circumstances of Jews in an open democratic society. We engage with society at large over drinks, at dinner, at parties, in restaurants, and at home. We Conservative Jews need not separate ourselves from life by eating only in establishments under rabbinic supervision. Rather, we can participate in the larger culture while maintaining our distinctive Jewish consciousness. Thus, entering a restaurant and checking which items conform to kashrut – what we may order within a broad reading of the law – is a way of integrating into society while maintaining our particular religious consciousness.

It is not accidental that the Talmud includes many of its food laws in the tractate Avodah Zorah, the volume dealing with relations with the surrounding pagan culture. Food laws in the Talmud are a way of constructing a barrier between Jews and the larger society. Roman and Persian cultures were perceived as threatening. Restricting diet minimized the contact between Jews and non-Jews.

We now live with a different relationship to the society around us, so the regulations governing what and how we may eat must be adjusted to reflect that reality. This is not a matter of changing our relation to the mitzvot spelled out in the Torah but of recognizing that many rabbinic laws are responsive to specific social conditions. Many rabbinic rules are meant to regulate a person’s relationship to society, so it is reasonable to assume that as conditions change these regulations must change to reflect the new reality.

In the tractate Hulin, which deals directly with laws of kashrut, the Talmud adopts a more liberal position than the one enunciated in Avodah Zorah. There, a taste test is set as the standard of kashrut: Food cooked in a pot that had been used to cook nonkosher meat is considered to be kosher if no taste of the non-kosher food remains. This standard can be applied easily to eating in a restaurant that uses the same pots and pans to cook non-kosher meat and vegetarian offerings. It demands care and still permits openness.

But the way Conservative Jews keep kosher is not simply a matter of finding leniencies. There is no “Conservative kashrut.” Kashrut is kashrut, at least as it relates to shechita – ritual slaughter. But for Conservative Jews, it is also much more. One of the hallmarks of the Conservative approach to Jewish law is its sensitivity to ethical issues. The recent creation of Magen Tzedek, a certification that kosher meat has been processed in a way that is both halachic and not abusive to the labor force, is an important example. Judaism’s strong opposition to cruelty to animals underlays many aspects of kashrut. The Rabbinical Assembly has passed resolutions condemning hoisting and shackling animals as a means of kosher slaughter, so it should be relatively easy for Conservative synagogues to insist that their caterers not use meat slaughtered in this way. Indeed, if Conservative synagogues brought the full weight of their collective purchasing power to bear they could effect a major change in the industry.

On the same ethical grounds, we can insure that the proper treatment of animals becomes a standard for personal practice. Families should buy eggs laid by free-range chickens. We should oppose farming practices that turn chickens into factories, housing them in tight cages, with fluorescent lights shining on them 24 hours a day, so that they will produce the maximum number of eggs with the smallest possible amount of human labor. Similarly, as much as we can we should buy the meat of free-range chickens. It is one thing to feel that eating meat is necessary, but quite another to deprive animals of their natural life. We need not consume food produced through cruelty. Interestingly, Empire Kosher, the largest commercial producer of kosher chickens, proudly announces that its chickens are all free roaming.

For the same reasons, we should buy grassfed beef. American cattle growers often use feed that cows never would eat in nature. Sometimes the feed contains ground up blood and animal products, though cows are vegetarian by nature.

A congregant of mine who had thought about keeping kosher, but worried about how difficult his life would become were he to try, once saw my wife and me eating in a Chinese restaurant. It inspired him. “I didn’t realize that it was so easy to keep kosher,” he said, and went on to adopt kashrut as a standard for his own life. For Conservative Jews, keeping kosher is both easy and demanding. It is an exciting and responsible way to live in the modern world Jewishly and to live a life that is holy.

Rabbi Edward Feld is the senior editor of the new Conservative machzor, Lev Shalem, and is now at work on a siddur for Shabbat and holidays.