Beliefwatch: Is It Kosher?

In the beginning, God told the Jews what not to eat: the camel, the coney, the rabbit and the pig; the eagle, the vulture and "all creatures in the seas ... that do not have fins and scales" (Lev. 11). Most famously, God said: "Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk" (Deut. 14:21). From these and other verses, the rabbis developed the rules of kashrut (keeping kosher) that millions of Jews observe today.

What would God say about pesticides and insecticides? About farm animals cooped up in tiny spaces? About fruits and vegetables picked by laborers who don't earn a living wage? These and other related questions are coming to the fore as modern rabbis ponder a new concept called "eco-kashrut," the idea that eating kosher means paying attention not just to what you eat but to how your food gets to your table. Yes, the term leaves the rabbis open to accusations of Talmudic hairsplitting, but consider this: sales of kosher food are growing at a rate of 15 percent a year, and "kosher organic" is one of the fastest-growing segments of that industry. "I've seen kosher vegetarian patties that are imitation meat products, totally organic," says Menachem Lubinsky, CEO of Lubicom Marketing, specializing in kosher foods. This week at Kosherfest, a food show in New York, the number of kosher-organic vendors is up 15 percent, he says. Even Reform Jews, who in 1885 declared kosher law "entirely foreign to our present ... state," have noticed surging interest in traditional Judaism and are at work on new guidelines to help individuals adapt kashrut to their lives. A current draft includes--in addition to the standard prohibitions--opposition to "the oppression of those producing food in the fields and factories ... the inflicting of unnecessary pain on animals, and ... refraining from needless waste or the destruction of human health and natural resources." Such restrictions remind Jews that "eating is a holy act," says Rabbi Richard Levy, who authored the draft.

The trouble (and disagreement) lies in defining what eco-kashrut means. Is it a stamp of approval from the Orthodox rabbis on certain organic foods? Or is it something much broader, an ethical approach to eating and even living? Margie Klein, a rabbinical student in Boston, thinks it's the latter. For her, being Jewish means being "constantly in dialogue with the tradition, with the intention and spirit of the law." Meanwhile, the rabbis will continue to discuss.