Jewish values support humane attitudes towards food

Hannah Cropf is a senior at Ladue High School and a member of the Jewish Environmental Initiative (JEI) Teen Group. JEI is a committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council. 

By Hannah Cropf

It’s no secret that Jews love food. Whether it’s a b’nai mitzvah celebration or breaking fast, no Jewish event is complete without a full stomach. 

But we don’t just love food because we love to eat. We genuinely care about where our meals come from. The guidelines of kashrut remind us to treat livestock humanely, even during slaughter. The famous phrase, “don’t cook a baby goat in its mother’s milk” reflects more than dietary restrictions; it asks that we respect the animal that gives us sustenance.  Whether or not every Jew abides by these rules, the mere fact our faith places such emphasis on animal rights indicates the Jewish culture’s dedication to all of Earth’s creatures.

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However, it’s been a while since we received those rules. In today’s corporate age, perhaps the idea of keeping kosher needs an update. 

Consider modern meat farming conditions. Documentaries like 2008’s “Food, Inc” expose the horrific practices of the meat industry, from crowding chickens in dark, disease-riddled pens to locking cows in torturous confinement. Sure, these animals fulfill the laws of kashrut on an anatomical level, but does it really matter if they chew their cud when they spend their entire life suffering? Does a painless death compensate for a painful life? 

Whether or not we strictly adhere to kosher eating restrictions, we can all agree that the original laws date back to a very different time. When these rules came about, the food supply was managed by farmers and shepherds allowing a greater intimacy to our food sources than today. Farmers raised livestock by the dozens, not the thousands. Automated machinery was unthinkable. There was no need to specify a kosher way to farm, because natural, ethical animal care came with the job description. 

Today, there are a handful of small, independent farms that carry out those traditions. Community-supported agriculture (CSAs) and co-ops harken back to the days where farmers actually had relationships with their products. With a little research or a consultation with the Jewish Environmental Initiative anyone can find a local farm to suit his or her needs, without paying the price of animal cruelty. Supermarkets, too, can supplement the new kosher diet. Just shop with more discretion and keep an eye out for foodstuff labeled “free range” or “organic.” Obviously, markets like Trader Joe’s will have a broader selection than your average Schnucks, but most places carry at least some organic brands. 

With such a plethora of options, there’s no excuse not to partake of farm-fresh food. Go vegetarian. Maybe not permanently, but start forgoing meat at least once a week, if not more. It’s easy! Lentils, rice, and beans all offer meatless nutrition at a low price, and can be coupled with a variety of other vegetables and spices to create healthy and cruelty-free (not to mention delicious) meals.

Maimonides 3:48 explains that “There is no difference…between the pain of people and the pain of other living beings.” If we are to truly honor the tenets of Judaism, we must put aside immediate convenience in order to pursue environmental justice. Then and only then can we truly consider ourselves kosher.