I’ve never eaten the much vaunted In-N-Out hamburger; I’ve never tasted the rumored deliciousness of a sizzling slice of bacon; and I’ve certainly never bit into a savory ribeye steak at an upscale restaurant. As a product of a conservative Jewish household and extensive Jewish education, I have for my entire life joined with my family in keeping kashrut (to the commonly accepted conservative standard). Paradoxically, as a product of that same education, I have come to question why it is that I keep it.
By this understanding of kashrut — part of whose problem lies in its lack of uniform definition — I mean the following: I refrain from eating meat products and dairy products in the same meal. I wait three hours after eating a meat product before I will eat a dairy product, and wait thirty minutes after consuming a dairy product before I will consume a meat product. I will only eat land animals with split hooves that chew their cuds and marine animals with fins and scales. I will only eat these animals if they have been certified as kosher by a mashgiach, or a Jewish person who has been trained to verify that the animal, its slaughter and its preparation all abide by the orthodox movement’s standard of kashrut. I will, however, eat both dairy and parve (non-dairy and non-meat items) at restaurants without a kosher certificate.
Most of the customs I’ve espoused in keeping kashrut align with those prescribed by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which contends that the purpose of kashrut is to “bring holiness into our lives” by considering the “ethical concerns for all of G-d’s creatures.” In a similar vein, Chabad notes that the Torah “expressly forbid[s]” cruelty to animals, and that treating animals “as compassionately as possible” is a paramount concern of kashrut.
Ethical Violations of Kashrut
And yet, sadly, kosher food providers are sometimes the worst offenders of the ethical violations they profess to abhor. A 2004 PETA investigation, with follow-ups in 2007 and 2008, revealed that Agriprocessors, “the world’s largest glatt kosher slaughterhouse,” has perpetrated egregious animal rights abuses in violation of federal law, which proponents of kashrut frequently argue holds slaughterers to more lenient standards than does Jewish law. Indeed, even though kashrut supposedly aims to exceed ethical standards of the non-kosher food industry, this slaughterhouse actually failed to meet even the lower standards. According to PETA’s report, workers at the facility flouted the kosher standard of slaughter — which in principle should kill the animal quickly and painlessly — and instead took to such repugnant practices as removing the tracheas from live and conscious cows with meat hooks and leaving them to “writhe in pools of their own blood, trying desperately to stand for up to three minutes as blood poured from their throats.” PETA found similar conditions at other slaughterhouses, like the Local Pride kosher slaughterhouse in Nebraska.
The gross maltreatment did not stop there. According to the same PETA report, these same slaughterhouses pleaded guilty to child labor allegations in 2008 and were revealed to have verbally abused and underpaid workers. They also failed to provide employees with proper training with and adequate protections from the dangerous machinery they operated as part of their jobs. If kashrut is concerned with ethical treatment, then surely ethical treatment of the workers slaughtering the animals is important. Yet in direct defiance of their governing principles, administrators willfully neglected their workers’ well-being and casually dismissed the value thereof.
Ethical Violations Within Kashrut
If these unethical violations seem too anomalous an occurrence to judge the entirety of kashrut on, though, consider the fact that within the system itself there abound examples of unethical practices. For example, veal is a common kosher dish served on Jewish dinner tables across the country, but its production is anything but humane. According to the American Humane Society, hundreds of thousands of calves raised for veal are confined in cages so compact that they cannot move their bodies for their entire sixteen-week lives. While this is the case for both kosher and non-kosher veal production, if there is no distinction between the ways in which kosher and non-kosher factory farms raise veal, what other factors distinguish kosher veal from non-kosher veal? In what sense is it more moral to eat kosher veal?
Unfortunately, plenty of other recent incidents have rocked the kosher food industry, perhaps none more notorious than the Doheny Glatt Kosher Meats scandal in March of 2013. The drama unfolded when a private investigator revealed that the owner of Doheny Glatt Kosher Meats in Los Angeles had intentionally waited for the supervising mashgiach to leave the premises before mandating that workers bring in boxes of apparently unkosher food from his SUV. The investigator claimed that the owner had been acting behind the back of the presiding mashgiach for some time, and accordingly, had deceived hundreds if not thousands of unsuspecting customers into buying unkosher food. To those who may not understand the gravity of this action, the reveal of the owner’s deception literally sickened customers from the knowledge that they had unwittingly eaten unkosher food, and in their minds, desecrated their religion and their God.
Religious Ritual or Opportunity for Profit?
On a related note, those customers had also paid more for the meat they bought over the years — even though it was not actually kosher — because kosher meat is significantly more expensive than its non-kosher counterpart. The extra expense allegedly emanates from kosher slaughterhouses treating animals and workers well, as well as the extra input costs of the supervision of the mashgiach. Whether this is true or not is impossible to verify, but it is worth noting that the kosher food industry is estimated to be worth more than 4 billion dollars.
I believe that workers involved in kosher food production ought to be paid fairly, but such exorbitant profits of the companies and producers for whom they work invites a fundamental question: aren’t these companies profiting unfairly from a religious obligation, which consumers would pay any price necessary to fulfill? Many observant Jews feel religiously obligated to eat only kosher foods, so who is to say there is a price they would not pay to do so? Ironically, observant Jews tend to disproportionately administer and own kosher food companies, and yet it seems they ignore the Halacha and many of its ethical obligations. In so doing, they profit from people that could very well be their own neighbors and friends. When religious ritual — which aims to foster spiritual growth — devolves into industry — which aims to foster financial growth — there is a clear issue, and it is one the industry has not taken any steps to solve.
Even on a less contentious scale, Rabbi Andy Kastner argues in a New York Times special article on kashrut that “the core of kashrut is the idea of limiting oneself, that not everything that we can consume should be consumed.” By that logic, then, why may we eat fast food, or sugar-filled sodas, or even exotic fruits? Shouldn’t those be unkosher?
Evidently, I struggle tremendously with kashrut. There is an ample supply of reasons to not keep it in today’s world. And yet, as always, the next time I go to the UCLA dining halls, I will pass on that bison burger and instead opt for the tofu stacker; I will reach past the bacon strips and instead pour myself a bowl of cereal; I will walk right by the chicken soup and instead pick up a bowl of its vegetarian substitute. Because, as Rabbi Moshe Rothblum of Adat Ari El Synagouge told Ha’Am, kashrut “is a means of identifying with [his] people.” In a world where I find myself increasingly averse to Jewish ritual, keeping kosher is but one of a few I still follow that connects me as a link in the chain of the Jewish tradition. And for the profundity in that, I am willing to sacrifice some bacon, and even some reason, too.
To read the counterargument, You are why you eat; or why I keep kosher by Devorah Friedman, click here.