A Wake-Up Call for Kashrut and Tradition

By Roberta Rosenthal Kwall

Kosher products made the news at least twice so far this year. First, the Orthodox Union gave its blessing to the medical marijuana products made by Vireo Health of New York. Then the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Kansas announced plans to ship 1,500 of its healthy and genetically pure bred chickens to a rabbinically-supervised slaughterhouse in upstate New York. For the first time since the advent of factory farming more than fifty years ago, kosher heritage poultry will be available for commercial sale.

I suspect that the reaction among Jews to these two announcements was generally very different. Even those Jews somewhat familiar with the Jewish dietary laws probably were somewhat puzzled by the Vireo Health development. Many Jews probably did not realize that the capsules and all other manufactured forms of cannabis must be certified kosher according to the letter of the dietary laws. On the other hand, the need for chickens to be ritually slaughtered still is well-known among many Jews. And I would not be surprised if the news about the upcoming availability of ethically produced and certified kosher chickens was warmly received by most Jews, even those who do not keep kosher.

Across American generally, there has been a huge surge of interest in organic and sustainable eating, and in the ethical treatment of animals. But Judaism’s concern for animals is not new – it dates to the Torah. The Jewish Initiative for Animals builds on this foundation by educating Jews about humane eating and the problems with factory farming.

These themes should resonate with all Jews, not just those who strictly adhere to the dietary laws. The proprietor of the Good Shepherd ranch, Frank Reese Jr., is Catholic but recently learned of some Jewish lineage on his mother’s side. He says he loves that his animals “are going to people who respect their food, and who realize that what they choose to eat affects creation for the next generation.”

This intelligent framing of kashrut should serve as a wake-up call for the majority of Jewish Americans who do not keep kosher. According to the 2013 Pew Report, although 94 percent of American Jews say they are proud to be Jewish, only 22 percent say they keep a kosher home. Keeping kosher is mandated by Jewish law, which covers not only ritualistic practices but also virtually all aspects of human behavior including ethics, sex, and even the order in which one puts on and ties shoes.

A major problem is that for the vast majority of American Jews, including many who say they believe in God, is that the concept of Jewish law as binding authority simply does not resonate. I co-directed a center for Jewish Law and Jewish Studies at my university for six years and the most common question I received, even from somewhat knowledgeable Jews, was “why is Jewish law binding today?” This question is not surprising given that we live in a society infused by autonomy and customization. The prevalence of “cafeteria Judaism” is part of what frustrates so many Jewish professionals in their search for how to promote a greater interest in Judaism among their constituencies.

In my conversations with Jews from a variety of backgrounds and levels of education, I began to notice a shift in understanding when I replaced the off-putting language of “Jewish law” with the more comfortable and familiar language of “Jewish tradition.” The language of “law” suggests iron-clad rules and consequences for disobedience that are foreign to all but the most observant Jews. But “tradition” connotes positive associations and the desire for transmission.

Those Jews who are proud to be Jewish and desire to transmit this pride and sense of peoplehood to their children and grandchildren need to consider their obligation to the Jewish tradition, even if they do not feel bound to observe the law in the same way as Jews who would not consume medical marijuana without a kosher certification. This concept of having an obligation to preserve the tradition can also help Jewish educators instill a sense of accountability to maintain the fundamentals of the tradition that have shaped and molded the Jewish people throughout the millennia. As Frank Reese well knows, the dietary laws are a core element of this tradition.

Kosher practice means different things to different people. Some Jews just buy kosher meat but do not keep two sets of dishes or otherwise separate meat from dairy; some Jews buy only foods that are certified as kosher while others read ingredients on food labels and avoid those products that contain blatantly non-kosher items. Some Jews keep kosher homes but for wine, despite the tradition’s requirement that wine be certified kosher. Also, there are more than a few Jews who keep a kosher home to some extent but are more liberal in their practices when eating outside their homes.

These liberal variations ought not be seen as a negative. I see this diversity as a way to open the door for more Jews to begin thinking seriously about their obligation to perpetuate the Jewish tradition and how adhering to some aspects of kashrut fit within this obligation.

Jews who are proud to be Jewish, and who want to instill this pride in the next generation, must address the reality that the Jewish tradition can only survive if Jews embrace those elements of the tradition, such as kashrut, that make it uniquely Jewish. Although the majority of Jews may never be concerned with whether medical marijuana is kosher, the news from Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch provides a welcome reminder of why keeping kosher is an important means of expressing one’s Jewish identity.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law. She is the author of “The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition” (Oxford University Press, 2015) and is a 2016 fellow of the Public Voices Fellowship of The Oped Project.