Thursday, 04 Apr 2013

Written by Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris

On a recent trip to our local farmers’ market, I discovered a stall selling goose eggs. They are, to put it mildly, enormous. They are, in fact, so large that when I brought it home a visiting friend inquired whether they were ostrich eggs. “Of course not,” I replied, “Ostriches aren’t kosher.” “Why not?” my friend asked. “Because it says so in the Bible,” I explained. “But why aren’t they kosher?” asked another friend, jumping into the conversation, “Ostrich meat is a low fat red meat and apparently very tasty as well as relatively healthy. Why shouldn’t they be kosher?”   “Because,” I patiently explained, “it says so in Leviticus chapter 11.”“But why shouldn’t they be kosher?” asked my friends once again, as though they had not heard me the first two times.
“Ostrich is not kosher because the Bible states very explicitly that ostrich is not kosher. Neither for that matter are herons or owls or sea gulls or ravens or a variety of other birds specifically listed in the Levitical text.”“But why not?” went the chorus of my friends.

At this point in the conversation, I realised that we were talking at cross purposes. My friends had assumed that the Bible would give some reasoning or, at the very least, some sort of categorization as is the case with mammals to explain why ostriches should not be kosher. But the levitical text gives no explanation for the laws of kashrut; the laws are simply stated and we are expected to follow them. Many of us may be familiar with the ‘pigs carry tricnosis’ theory or the ‘seafood went off easily in the Mediterranean heat’ theory or the ‘to ensure that Jews have to eat separately from other peoples’ theory or even the ‘its somehow all about ethics’ theory to explain the laws of kashrut, but the reality is that in this morning’s torah portion all we read about kashrut is the do’s and don’t’s, not the whys or the why nots. And while with mammals, sea creatures and insects the method to explain what is kosher and what is not is a form of categorization, with birds it is different. All birds are kosher except for the ones specifically listed in Lv 11:13-19.

And that is it. There is no deeper explanation. The Bible does not appear to care one iota if ostrich is a low fat red meat that is relatively easy to domestically rear at good profit margins for the well-heeled, health conscious, Western market. Ostrich is not kosher for the same reason that herons, storks and falcons are not kosher; the Bible says so unambiguously.

And yet that surely is the problem. We no longer look at food with the same eyes that the original readers of the Bible did. We, modern Jews living in the developed first world, have a far different set of concerns about food than is likely the peoples of the ancient world did. One need only pick up any newspaper to see what issues concern us about our food and diet – childhood obesity, food miles, environmental degradadtion and destruction, GM crops, giant agribusinesses, food additives, chemical pesticides and other polluntants entering the food chain, collapse of fishing stocks, battery farming, treatment of agricultural workers, the farming of monocrops, and more. This list could go on and on. Every day we hear another story of danger and disfunction in modern food production and every day we read another story about the potentially life saving attributes of some food or another – drink more red wine, eat dark chocolate in moderation, drink tea, eat broccoli, so-called superfoods like blueberries or pomegranates. The messages are always confusing and contradictory – eat more oily fish, but not farmed salmon which is terrible for the environment, but on the other hand not wild Alaskan salmon from Marine Conservation Society certified fisheries because it has to be air freighted from Alaska causing terrifying environmental pollution, so really only wild caught Scottish salmon (if you are in the UK), which is still not certified as sustainable, only available at limited times during the year and so prohibitively expensive that only the very wealthiest in our already comparatively wealthy society can afford to eat it at all, let alone the once or twice week championed by health authorities. And then there’s the recent controversy over mackerel, which has been championed in the UK as an inexpensive, oily fish sustainably fished in local waters. Instead, we now hear about complications around quotas in the North Sea between the UK and Iceland causing huge concern over mackerel stocks. What is a consumer to do?

All in all it makes a person crave the simplicity of the biblical system – no to ostrich, yes to chicken – no disctinction between free range, organic chickens and battery chickens, just chickens are fine. The kind of chicken is really left up to you, largely, one imagines, because the biblical author could not conceive of a world where chickens were anything other than free range and what else did you feed your chickens on if it wasn’t organic?

Maybe this is why so many commentators, old and new alike, have sought to look for reason in the text of the Bible. If only an overriding principle, especially for us progressive Jews some moral or ethical overriding principle, could be established, it would make it all much easier. The Bible isn’t trying to tell us something specific about commorants or falcons; the Bible is really trying to tell us about….about what? That’s the problem, about what? What is it that we want the Bible to be telling us?

Sure, I’d like to stand here and tell you, as some rabbis I know would like to argue, that the Bible tells us to only eat free range, organic chickens reared in small flocks managed by small local farmers who only distribute within a 50 mile radius of the farm delivered by fully electric vehicles whose electricity was powered locally by the wind turbine erected at the back of the farm so that their energy needs would be fully self-sufficient. Or perhaps we should all keep our own small flocks of lovingly looked after chickens sufficient for our own needs and those of our families and we should employ a wandering shochet who rides his bicycle to our houses to slaughter the chickens on the rare occassions when we treat ourselves to a roast chicken dinner. Or even better perhaps the Bible should enjoin us against eating any sort of animal protein at all as the production of animals for human consumption appears to be so environmentally damaging as to make it completely unsustainable. But I cannot stand here and tell you that any of this is what the Bible says or even that these presumptions are the underlying principles in the system of kashrut or that kashrut as a system of food production and comsumption is particularly more or less ethical than any other posited.

In point of fact, when I peruse the variety of products with kosher hechshers, I generally feel huge despair. The overpackaging, the heavy use of chemical additives (including MSG), the likelihood of huge food miles travelled per packet of kosher food, the lack of emphasis on fresh ingredients locally produced typified by the fear of insects lurking in the lettuce, for example, drive me to despair. I find it hard to believe that the rather terse descriptions of what is and is not kosher as found in this week’s parasha can actually translate into a box of kosher strawberry jelly, sealed in cardboard and then wrapped in plastic wrap, with a list of ingredients that is made up of sugar,carrageenan, edible acid, acidity regulators, food colouring and flavourings is in any way what the Bible had in mind. True none of these ingredients in any way contravene the Levitical text; it’s just that neither do they appear to reflect in any way the main concerns of the text as we have it. And yet somehow this jelly is more kosher than a strawberry I might grow in my backgarden which I then find a snail nibbling at.

So where does that leave us? Year before last I found myself in Bournemouth for seventh day pesach. My colleague, Rabbi Neil Amswych, preached on this very topic – suggesting that foods produced with MSG (owing to the health risks associated with it) or with palm oil (owing to its lack of tracibility and the current overwhelming risk to Indonesian rainforests and the orangutan population as a result), that food produced with either of these items should not be kosher. I commend Rabbi Amswych’s convinctions, his thoughtfulness and his challenge to his community. Indeed, I agree with his ultimate aims, after all we are both on the side of the orangutans and the wider environment even if we arrive at our decisions from slightly different angles, because I wonder if kashrut is really the right rubric to use when discussing these issues.

I am fully prepared to accept that there are moral and ethical imperatives, many of them based on sound Jewish values, that require me to consider again the ways in which I and my family obtain and consume food. I am simply not prepared to accept that these imperatives have anything at all to do with kashrut. We, as progressive Jews, are often relcutant to accept that the biblical text rarely gives explanations for its behavioural laws; we insist on understanding, cogitating, considering all the angles and then making up our own minds. So be it. That is the way of our community, a method that I employ myself. But sometimes we have to accept that there is little to cogitate upon – we either accept that ostrich is not kosher and agree to that binding principle or we say that though we understand that is the biblical requirement we have no intention of living by it. And that is it.

As for eating MSG or palm oil or farmed salmon or conventially produced fruit and veg or anything overpackaged and airfreighted etc., it seems to me that we need to look to the wide variety of Jewish legal ethics upon which we might draw. For example, a person is forbidden, under Jewish law, from knowingly doing something that might harm them. This rule is the one under which the banning of smoking usally comes; why not also the comsumption of a wide range of comsumables that we know to have heath problems, transfatty acids, for example. What about drawing on the Jewish people’s deep relation with the land in order to create some clear ethical boundaries about what sorts of foods we produce at what cost to the environment? If we believe the numerous commentators who suggest that Gn 1: 28 gives us stewardship over the natural world, then why not use that as a peg on which to hang any number of concerns about food production. I could go on and on.

The reason I do is simply this. If we insist that everything that comes under the rubric of food must somehow refer back to a handful of verses in Leviticus (and one or two elsewhere in Torah), then I believe we restrict the wealth of possibilities for ethical and moral engagement from which we can draw on our Judaism; we needlessly circumscribe ourselves and belittle our own arguments to the larger Jewish community. At the end of the day, ostriches are not kosher because the Bible says so. Palm oil sourced from palm plantations, which thus are rapidly decreasing the rainforests of Borneo, should also never touch our lips, but not because anything in Leviticus chapter 11 tells us so explicitly, but rather because when the last wild orangutan vanishes from the earth, we will have failed in our divinely ordained role as stewards of the world. And when the last wild cod swims free, we will have failed again. And when we knowingly endanger our health through the consumption of transfatty acids in our margarine or our biscuits, we damage the bodies that God has loaned to us. And when we do anything of these things and more, we are doing nothing more than slapping God in the face.

So I ask each of you, in this minefield that is modern Western consumption of food, to look at again at what you eat and how you eat it and where you source it from and how you dispose of it. I ask you to engage in this terrifying activity because we as Jews know what it means to circumscribe our eating; we have practice at it and we can, therefore, do it. We can avoid the ostriches and the kites and the commorants and the ravens as easily as we can avoid palm oil and pesticides if only we set our minds to it. And set our minds to it we must, not really for the sake of Leviticus and a set of arcane kashrut rules, but, as Rabbi Amswych and I undoubtedly agree upon, more urgently for the sake of what may be one of the greatest moral imperatives of our generation.

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris
Principal Leo Baeck College
April 2013

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.