Making kosher green

A new movement says that kashrut should pay more attention to ethics

July 8, 2010
More than 40 synagogues are now only using Fairtrade tea and coffee

More than 40 synagogues are now only using Fairtrade tea and coffee

Two weeks ago, Sholom Rubashkin, the former CEO of America's largest kosher slaughterhouse, was jailed for 27 years.

Rubashkin's business, Agriprocessors, was raided in May 2008. Almost 400 illegal immigrants were discovered and a massive fraud operation was uncovered. Last November he was found guilty of 86 fraud charges and he now faces 83 charges for alleged child labour violations.

The case has forced the Jewish community worldwide to examine what it means for food to be kosher, and whether we have a duty to be conscious of the production involved in what we consume in addition to halachah.

According to Rabbi Natan Levy, the Chief Rabbi's liaison on the environment, there is the potential to see kashrut as an ethical issue.

"Kashrut is all about sensitivity towards what we eat," he explains. "It's about making us holy. It makes sense that it's difficult to get to a higher level of holiness if it's made by people in very difficult conditions."

But much of the food we eat is being produced without great regard for the treatment of workers, the environmental impact, animal welfare and justice in the marketplace. Yet at the core of our charitable giving is the notion of justice; indeed the word "tzedakah" has "tzedek" - "justice" at its root. We were once slaves in Egypt and our collective history is set to remind us to always do justice in the world.

"Kosher food is not any less ethical than any other food group," explains Rabbi Levy. "It's just that no questions are being asked about where our food comes from.

"But while you're not going to find one law or text that says it's bad to eat food that is being produced unethically, it is intuitive that we as Jews are required to live life to a very high ethical standard," he adds. "We should all try to contribute to making the situation better because we can all make a difference."

And recently the American Conservative Jewish community created the first ever ethical certification for kosher food; the Magen Tzedek. The seal is given to kosher food produced with due ethical concern that begins at the farm or field and continues through every step of the food production process.

The mission of the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission, which produces the seal, is to bring Jewish commitment to ethics and social justice into the marketplace. It claims to be borne from a "burgeoning international movement for sustainable, responsible consumption".

It seems that while for 3,000 years we have discussed what it means for food to be kosher, only now are people are choosing to see kashrut as not just food that is ritually appropriate, but also ethically sound.

"Many people are now buying food based on Jewish values rather than just kashrut," explains Poppy Berelowitz, who runs the Big Green Jewish website. "By educating the community on issues of sustainability we can engage all generations to be greener and more conscious of where our food comes from."

As such, in conjunction with organisations including the UJIA, Board of Deputies and Tzedek, Big Green Jewish recently launched a Fairtrade campaign to encourage British Jewry to choose Fairtrade options wherever possible.

As well as involving individuals, schools and youth movements, more than 40 synagogues across the country are now only using Fairtrade tea and coffee and are moving towards other Fairtrade products including, sugar, juice and fruit.

"We all want to live and be part of an ethically just community which takes these issues into consideration," says Hannah Weisfeld, chair of the Social Action Forum, a cross-communal forum of 20 organisations. "But just because something is kosher it doesn't make it Jewish. Being Jewish involves the ethics and the values that surround the produce and just because we might be eating halachically kosher food, I would argue that for it to be truly Jewish we must broaden our perspective."

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Last updated: 11:19am, July 8 2010