What Can You Learn From a Label?

We rely on labels to give us important information about products we’re buying.  When it comes to food, labels tell us not only if the item meets the government’s standards for nutrition but also if it answers to a higher authority.  Buying kosher food usually involves the experience of reading labels, which can be, for some, maddening (“is that small dot a kosher symbol or the trademark sign?”).  If the label bears a “hechsher,” a symbol that a rabbi has supervised its production, then it is deemed to be kosher, edible according to Jewish law.  The term kosher, meaning “proper,” has made its way into America’s vocabulary and signals a standard for food consumption that, for many, represents piety and religious devotion.  The Torah, in this week’s parasha, promises the attainment of holiness to those who restrict their diet according to God’s laws.  But is there more to keeping kosher than pious devotion to God?

Scholars and sages have offered other reasons for keeping kosher.  These include demonstrating an understanding and acceptance of the sacredness of other living creatures, a means for reinforcing Jewish identity in a mostly non-Jewish society by adopting unique ritual practices, and the practice of self-restraint as a way to prepare to make tough moral choices and resist temptation.  These are all valid and worthy explanations for following Jewish dietary laws.

But perhaps the dietary laws find their greatest relevance not as a ritual practice (or an exercise in reading labels in small print), but as one part of a larger approach to food consumption that might be called the “Jewish ethic of eating.”  Placed in the broader context of a commitment to social and environmental justice, kashrut becomes a compelling way of life.  Here, then, are some aspects of a Jewish approach to the broader experience of food consumption.

  • Environmental Awareness – We ought to develop an awareness of the impact of our food consumption on the environment.  Such awareness would include a commitment to recycling, and even composting.  The “kashrut” of a meal should be judged not only by the ingredients in the food but also by the environmental impact of the meal.  Did you use disposable materials that have a negative and harmful impact on the environment?   Were there ways that food preparation and consumption could have minimized that impact?
  • Charity – The kashrut of a meal should also be judged by the extent to which we share our bread with the hungry.  Can we really walk away from the table satisfied without some awareness of the fact that millions of people, including children, go to bed hungry?  A Jewish ethic of eating should compel us to find ways to alleviate the problem of hunger.
  • Social Justice – The Conservative Movement has developed “Magen Tzedek” (Shield of Righteousness), a type of rabbinic certification meant to be placed on food packages that addresses not the ingredients of the food but workers’ conditions and the treatment of animals.  Can we really be satisfied with our food consumption if another human being, desperate for employment, is forced to work in substandard conditions for insufficient wages? 
  • Humility and Gratitude – At our best, human beings- in distinction to animals- pause before eating to express gratitude for the food we are about to consume and do not end the experience of eating before we have thanked God for the bounty of the world made available to us.  Reciting blessings before and after we eat may seem like unnecessary ritual to some, and many do not have adequate knowledge of what blessings are meant to be recited when eating particular foods.  But expressing humility and gratitude for what we have is not ritual, it’s a matter of ethics.  Consider washing before a major meal (one that includes bread)—this is a moving and worthwhile way to mark the transition to a more spiritual state of being before taking a bite out of your sandwich.  Think about pausing before you eat and expressing thanks for what you are about to enjoy.  Savor the words of the blessing as much as you hope to savor the food you will eat.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement, an early modern movement of ethical revival, taught that discarding an egg with a blood spot (something commonly done by those who keep kosher) is an insignificant act if the same person who observes that law is willing to take money that is tainted with blood.  In other words, if keeping kosher is seen only as ritual practice and has no impact on ethical behavior, it is pointless.  Keeping kosher must be part of a broader Jewish ethic of food consumption and a catalyst to living a life marked by a commitment to ethics and justice.  In short, it’s not just about reading labels.

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