Eco-Kosher's Biblical Roots

R'eih, Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Melanie Aron

For almost twenty-five years, since his article, "Toward an Ethical Kashrut," was published with Rebecca Alpert in the journal Reconstructionist in the spring of 1987,1 Rabbi Arthur Waskow has been talking about standards of kashrut that extend beyond the traditional ritual requirements. In his book Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life,2 he asks some questions that illustrate his extended definition of what could be included in an expanded, more contemporary understanding of kashrut:

1. Are tomatoes grown by drenching the earth in pesticides "kosher" to eat, at home, or at a synagogue wedding reception?
2. Is newsprint made by chopping down ancient and irreplaceable forest "kosher" to use to make a Jewish newspaper?
3. What about windows and doors so built that the warm air flows out through them and the furnace keeps burning all night? Are such doors and windows "kosher" for a home or for a Jewish Community Center building?
4. Is a bank that deposits its depositor's money in an oil company that befouls the ocean a "kosher" place for me or for the UJA to deposit money?

When Rabbi Waskow began his campaign for a broadened definition of kashrut, his was a voice from the periphery of the Jewish community. Today, his call has been embraced by all of the major non-Haredi movements of Judaism.

The concept of ethical kashrut has become quite mainstream. In recent years we have seen it embraced by the Conservative Movement in their Magen Tzedek Campaign. According to the union organizer, Louis Nayman, Magen Tzedek is:3

. . . intended to assure purchasers that a kashrus-compliant product also conforms to Biblical and Talmudic ethical values and standards regarding the treatment of workers, animal welfare, environmental impact and fair business dealings. Criteria for product certification include: living-wage compensation and decent benefits, neutrality in labor organizing drives, documented compliance with EPA and OSHA regulations, adherence to humane animal treatment and farm standards, responsible energy and water consumption, use of sustainable materials and alternative fuels, and fair treatment of immigrant workers.

Uri LeTzedek, an Orthodox organization that lead the charge against Agriprocessors, has developed its own standard, the Tav HaYosher, which requires that a kosher restaurant comply with American civil law with regard to minimum wage, overtime pay, breaks, discrimination, and a safe and sanitary work environment.

Of course in our own movement, we have seen this extended understanding of kashrut highlighted in Rabbi Eric Yoffie's sermon at the Toronto Biennial, 4 November 7, 2009, and in the recent work of our movement through the Religious Action Center in the area of food justice. Rabbi Yoffie began by reminding us what was at stake morally in the boycotting of grapes in earlier decades: "We do not bless or consume food produced by acts of injustice, by mistreating animals, or by despoiling the environment."

He also urged a decrease in meat consumption, pointing out that one fifth of all human-produced greenhouse emissions come from the meat industry and that a meat meal requires five times the fossil fuel as compared to a vegan meal. The Religious Action Center has a variety of materials available for those interested in sustainability and food justice.

Actually the relationship between ritual standards and social responsibility with regard to foodstuffs is not new. In this week's Torah portion, we move directly from the laws of kashrut into the laws of tithes, concluding with the third tithe, which was to provide for the landless Levite, and the stranger, orphan, and widow. Chapter 14 begins with a reminder that the Israelites are a people consecrated to God. Therefore they should not gash themselves in mourning their dead (Deuteronomy 14:2) nor should they "eat anything abhorrent" (14:3). After listing the permitted and prohibited animals, fish, and birds (14:4-20), the chapter continues with the prohibition on eating "anything that has died a natural death" and on boiling "a kid in its mother's milk" (14:21). Without a pause, the text continues with a discussion of tithes. First we read about the rituals associated with bringing the tithe up to Jerusalem (14:22-26), but then the text continues with social concerns:

But do not neglect the [family of the] Levite in your community, for he has no hereditary portion as you have. Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your yield of that year, but leave it within your settlements. Then the (family of the) Levite, who has no hereditary portion as you have, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your settlements shall come and eat their fill so that the Eternal your God may bless you in all the enterprises you undertake. (14:27-29)

Traditional Jewish commentaries would not accept the juxtaposition of two topics as random but saw propinquity in the text as an indication of an inner relationship. True kashrut, one could argue, must have some relationship with our caring for the vulnerable members of our society, otherwise these two topics would not follow, one upon the other, in the Torah text.

I find support for this idea too in the Pharisees, the early rabbis of the early Christian era, known for their stringency in terms of tithes. They formed chavurot or eating circles so that they might be assured that their food was not only kosher (in the sense of coming from an appropriate animal, slaughtered and prepared properly), but also that it had been tithed, and that which should have been set aside for the Temple or shared with others had been removed. Since they ate mostly agricultural products, tithing of these products was an important issue.5

Our Torah portion this week points us in the direction of understanding that which is kasher, that is, fit to eat, as being not only ritually compliant, but also morally defensible.

1 Arthur Waskow and Rebecca T. Alpert, "Toward an Ethical Kashrut,"Reconstructionist (March-April, 1987), pp. 9-13
2 Arthur Waskow, Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life(New York: William Morrow, 1995), p. 117
3 Louis Nayman, "Kosher Gets Ethical: A New Standard Is about to Remake American Jews' Dietary Code," Monday January 10, 2010
4 Eric Yoffie, "Toronto Biennial Sermon," November 7, 2009
5 Jacob Neusner, The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees Before 70: Part I, The Masters [Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1971) p. 289

Tithing: A Modern-Day Mitzvah

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Vicki Tuckman, z"l

In discussing ethical kashrut, Rabbi Aron demonstrates how we can find new meaning in an ancient concept. There are times when I read about a concept in the Torah that seems antiquated, unable to serve a modern purpose. For Reform Judaism, "tithing" is one of those seemingly obsolete ideas. This week's Torah portion, R'eih, tells that the Israelites are commanded to tithe (place aside) a certain amount of sustenance for the Levites (Deuteronomy 14:22?28), who were in charge of the Tabernacle of the Pact and its furnishings (Numbers 1:50?1), and for the priests. Without this portion of food, the Levites would literally starve as they were not landowners and, therefore, had no ability to grow food for themselves.

We are taught earlier in the Torah that when the Israelites were building the Tabernacle Moses was told by God: "Tell the Israelites people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every heart is so moved" (Exodus 25:2). This was a voluntary offering. In today's society we are, perhaps, more comfortable with the idea of volunteering at a soup kitchen orchoosing to donate a certain portion of our paycheck to a worthy cause.

But to tithe is to give a piece of yourself to another; whether in the form of money, clothing, time, or energy. Tithing is not voluntary; it is a commandment, an ethical mitzvah. As Reform Jews, we define the word mitzvah as "sacred obligation." While Reform Jews have a choice as to whether to observe a ritual, such as lighting Shabbat candles, we are obligated to participate in the broad "mitzvah" categories of tikkun olam, "repairing the world," and tikkun middot, "character development and self-improvement." To share some of our good fortune with others is to honor God. May all of our hearts be so moved to fulfill this obligatory mitzvah.

Reference Materials

R'eih, Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,417–1,450; Revised Edition, pp. 1,255–1,289;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,115–1,140

Originally published: