Brown Shoes already linked to the great editorial by an Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld in the NYT. Herzfeld condemns the (lack of) response from the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America to the abuses at the Agriprocessor plan in Iowa. I agree with and admire Rabbi Herzfeld, who clearly states that kosher food must be produced in a manner consonant with Jewish ethics, which means the workers must be treated fairly and humanely and the companies must follow all relevant secular laws as well as the laws of kashrut. But I’m not surprised that his is a minority opinion. My own experiences with kashrut have nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with power.
My admittedly uneducated reading of the Torah tells me that the dietary laws originated as a way of separating the ancient Israelites from their neighbors. We know who we are in part by knowing who we are not, and a nation struggling to form and survive had to find ways to hold itself together. I don’t believe that kosher food was somehow healthier; sure, pork carries disease, but so does chicken. I grew up in a decidedly non-Kosher home, as I’ve mentioned before, and never found the idea of kashrut appealing. It’s so complicated, and it uses so many dishes, and I like lobster and cheeseburgers and bacon and parmigiano cheese on my bolognese sauce.
Sam and I continue to struggle with our observance of kashrut, which at the moment is no observance at all. We are drawn to eco-kashrut but haven’t really integrated it into our lives. I suspect this would be easier for us if we hadn’t spent the last eight years feeling bludgeoned by our local JCC and their kashrut policy.
Our JCC is not a kosher space. My friends in the local Orthodox community are quite clear on that. Unlike the day school, the JCC allows people to bring in food. There is a supervised kitchen in the building, and food that is prepared in that kitchen is kosher, but the space itself is not. My daughter has been in daycare and afterschool care there for eight years, and once we moved past formula we had to supply her with a “kosher-style” lunch. No pork products, no shellfish, no combining milk and meat. No yogurt with her turkey sandwich. It’s not clear to me what purpose this serves. I do understand why I can’t bring in homemade cupcakes on her birthday and I don’t mind paying the JCC to provide a kosher alternative so all the kids can enjoy it. But treyf is treyf. To those who actually do keep kosher, my daughter’s turkey sandwich is as unkosher on its own as it would be with cheese on it. If I were concerned about my child eating treyf food, I wouldn’t want her sharing someone else’s nonkosher meat.
We put up with all this without complaint for a few years; our daughter was happy and safe and we liked her teachers. But then when she was five she came home bereft one day. The promised cookie-baking had been cancelled. Why? Because a parent had walked in while they were getting ready and questioned the kashrut of the cookies; the mix withstood scrutiny but the oven had been turned on by the non-Jewish director of the program. “That’s not kosher!” she decreed, and the teachers promptly turned the oven off and canceled the program. The JCC director agreed with the parent. The Orthodox rabbis in the community could not agree, but faced with a controversy the JCC daycare simply stopped baking. My daughter said “You would have let me eat the cookies. Does that mean we’re not Jewish”? According to some people, honey, I suppose we’re not.
Sam and I struggle even more with the JCC policy that requires all organizational events to be kosher, not kosher-style, which means if our small building-less congregation wants to hold a service or a study session there we can’t bring in food for an Oneg Shabbat.
Jewish life and observance revolves around food. We no longer make animal sacrifices, but the ritual around food and meals can still draw us together and sustain us in our families and communities. Feeding ourselves and the ones we love should foster joy and renewal, not division and resentment. I am not criticizing individuals and families who do keep kosher. When my Orthodox friends come to my house, I serve them whole pieces of fruit on paper plates and nice glasses of seltzer. When I go the their houses, I bring kosher wine or food from the supervised bakery. And at least organizations like the day school are consistent: kosher food only. But forcing me to bring in my own food and then forcing me to make it look kosher makes no sense and serves only to make me eventually resentful of the whole idea of kashrut.