So what is kashrut?

Jewcy has a great article up about undercover investigations into the Lubavitcher Rubashkin-owned Agriprocessors and what passed for “kosher” slaughtering. This post is not specifically about the Potsville controversies, but just general observations about kashrut.

The popular idea of kashrut does seem to be that it’s cleaner, that it is in fact more healthy and just plain tastes better, and this includes reported (though second-hand and admittedly, unconfirmed) instances of pareve food being marketed as kosher in order to sell it to a more health-conscious crowd. And on a level, this makes sense – the laws of kashrut are frequently explained as having animal welfare in mind, not to be cruel, etc., so those kinds of associations are likely bound to happen over the years.

Except that, really, the abuses outlined in the article ultimately point to one thing: kashrut, really, refers to a specific ritual method of animal killing, and as long as those rules are followed, all other concerns (human or animal) are really only peripheral, since the concern of the hechsher is to make sure the rules are followed and not much else, apparently.

So then the question becomes: what happened to the spirit of humanity and concern for the animals eaten? I came to Judaism believing it to be a religion mainly of compassion for everyone but the insistence, ultimately, of ritual before all else dulls that compassion and, I think, takes us away from our “light unto the nations directive”. The message of the prophets, apparently, has been lost and missed, and it’s a damn shame for so many reasons.

8 Responses

  1. Rituals that we understand as being vaguely about compassion, even though they aren’t in themselves compassionate, often help us to deepen our sense of compassion. It creates mind-habit.

    Certainly an attitude that ritual always trumps everything else wouldn’t necessarily serve that function, but I don’t know how prominent that sort of view is in Judaism. My experience with Judaism (as a religion) is very limited, but that isn’t the impression I have of it.

  2. I agree with you in theory, actually – the idea that ritual creates mindset definitely is the drive behind following ritual mitzvot, which by the way is why I don’t find them to be meaningless.

    I think I was just noting how sad it is when this doesn’t end up being the case, and people end up sort-of derailed from the deepened sense of compassion and hung up on the purely ritual end.

  3. Ritual, like any other human endeavor, can be perverted to serve as an instrument of power and status. When that happens, the kavanah is lost and so is the compassion.

    I experience kashrut in our community as divisive and demeaning, but that has nothing to do with the laws of kashrut specifically and everything to do with the people who use it that way.

  4. Yes, that’s probably a better way to say what I was trying to, I think. Good to hear from you!

  5. A number of Reform rabbis have taken this tack — kosher meat is *ethically treated*, because that was (in part) the initial reasoning for specific kinds of killing. I mean, it’s also no doubt because Reform congregations tend to be lefty green kinda people, but it’s a nice movement.

  6. Well, I think it’s in keeping with the spirit of Judaism overall to update these ideas for the times while not dispensing with the spirit of them. By that same token, I’m a huge fan of the Hechsher Tzedek idea approved by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly:

    It’s not meant, necessarily, to supplant kashrut but complement it, at least ideally.

  7. Oh, that is a nice idea. I hope that gets pulled in, too, because I think it’s important: ethically treated animals is good, but it’s not a panacea if you’re abusing the workers. I suspect that the worker thing matters more for fruit & vegetables, because once you’re at humanely treated animals you’re at a fairly small farm. But farming is not my field.

    I vaguely recall that the Reform movement was a “ok, ethically treated livestock will be considered kosher no matter how it is killed, other rules still follow”, but you know: Reform. (I say this as someone who is more or less Reform-ish, and totally non-kosher.)

  8. Yeah, I think you’re right about worker abuse, although the whole Rubashkin thing is pretty shocking for its worker abuse – stories were reported about people getting hit with meathooks and threatened with losing their jobs if they didn’t buy cars from supervisors and all sorts of things, which is where the divide comes in, really – you can technically get away with all these things as long as the meat is killed a certain way, so that’s where the disconnect with kashrut is.

    I generally don’t *gasp* keep kosher either, but where I live the sprawl is atrocious and there’s only one kosher shop in the city and it’d take an hour to get to, or so, so there really isn’t a point since it probably comes from Agriprocessors anyway.

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