Please Don’t Confuse Kashrut With Health or Ethics

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In the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal, the world read that Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz “cannot pretend anymore that kosher meat, poultry and dairy is any healthier or ethical than nonkosher food.” Long before Rabbi Shmuly wrote this article in the WSJ he was a vegetarian. Nothing has actually changed in his eating habits as a result of this epiphany but it’s still interesting to hear what he has learned over the years. I guess.

The problem with this article is not that it airs dirty laundry in public or that some of the facts about slaughter are imprecise. Those are allegations that have been made, but there is a much more severe problem with the article. Why did Rabbi Shmuly ever pretend that kosher meat, poultry and dairy is any healthier or ethical than non kosher food in the first place?

We have no idea why the Torah commands us to observe the laws of kashrut. Any attempt to assign specific reasons to the mitzvot in the Torah is pure speculation. The Sefer HaChinuch famously provides moral and religious lessons for each commandment. But in his introduction he makes certain that the reader knows that his ideas are just suggestions to make Torah life more meaningful. He is not stating that these are the reasons God commanded us to observe these laws. Ethics Graphic

Further, several reasons are provided for keeping kosher and nothing have any relationship to ethics and a small minority connect kashrut to physical health. The most common thread between the various opinions of the speculative benefits of keeping kosher is spiritual health, not physical health. But none of the interpretations I have seen say anything about ethics.

Whoever taught Rabbi Shmuly that kosher had anything to do with ethics made a severe error. Not only did one person find this teaching hypocritical, but this caused that person to publicized this teaching as if it were truth and then demonstrated that Orthodox Jews are not keeping kashrut properly because there are ethical concerns. Truly unfortunate.

We don’t know why we keep kashrut. Teaching one reason as the reason can yield dastardly results. Outreach organizations need to be so careful with the way they teach the moral lessons of Torah. I’ve heard too many anecdotes of well intentioned people creating serious problems for their students later on in their lives. Unless the Torah tells us why we were given a mitzvah, we cannot say with confidence that we know what the objective is for any mitzvah. Every time we speak of the rationale or benefit of mitzvot, we are in the area of art, not science. It’s philosophy, not law. It’s conjecture, not dogma.

When it comes to kashrut, there are plenty of wonderful lessons to be learned. There may even be lessons about ethics. But food that is prepared unethically is still legally kosher. There is no law that states otherwise. Kashrut is binary. It either is, or it isn’t.

However, the Torah does demand that we treat animals with kindness and respect. Animal cruelty may not render something nonkosher, but it still violates a severe prohibition in the Torah. Are kosher slaughterhouses possibly playing with fire? Absolutely. They have an obligation to treat the animals well and we are responsible to apply the social pressure so that they will conform. But the food is kosher even if they treat the animals poorly as long as they do not render the animal legally nonkosher.

The Torah and the Prophets exhort us to act ethically and morally even when the other laws of the Torah are not being violated. Nachmanides even has a moniker for one who keeps the laws of the Torah but acts unethically and immorally. One is called a “naval b’rshut haTorah” – “a depraved person who acts within Torah law.” It’s possible to be such a person. But that does not make it right. It’s possible to provide unethical kosher food, that does not make it right, but the food is still kosher. One has nothing to do with the other.

This reminds me of the Agunah problem. People are often outraged that the Torah “allows” a recalcitrant husband to harm his estranged wife by withholding the get. As I remarked in a previous article, the Torah does not allow that at all. The Torah merely does not make it part of divorce law. But a Torah abiding Jew is required to be a kind and moral person at all times. Withholding a get violates several other laws in the Torah. According to divorce law the husband can be a jerk. But according to Torah law, he may not.

We have mitzvot and verses like:

“Love your neighbor like yourself.” – Lev. 19:17
“Do not oppress a stranger.” – Ex. 23:9
“Justice justice you shall pursue.” – Deut. 16:20

And the collection of prohibitions and laws against Tzaar Baalei Chaim – causing pain to living beings.

It’s important that we are precise with our explanations of Torah, mitzvot, and Jewish law. Kashrut and divorce law only inform us of the procedures and obligations specific to their areas of law. But that does not mean we are permitted to forget about the moral and ethical admonitions found throughout the rest of our law and tradition. The laws of the Torah work together to cultivate a good, moral society. But each commandment is not independently ethical or moral. There is a system and all the parts play a role. We are miserable failures if the Torah life we teach opens the door for “naval b’rshut haTorah”. We can do better and we should demand better. But it’s not because of the laws of kashrut or divorce. It’s because that’s what the Torah and the Prophets demand from us.

  • Benignuman

    Great post. Great.

  • Arie Schwartz

    My favorite explanation of kashrut is the Rambam’s in Shemonah Perakim. Essentially, it serves to teach Jews self-discipline.

    You say that it’s possible to be a naval birshut haTorah, but when the Ramban coins that phrase, isn’t he saying that it’s NOT possible to be one? You might have thought it was possible, which is why the Torah says “kedoshim tihiyu.”

  • Chaim Zev Zuchowski (a pesuodo

    The first part of the post, prior to digressing into left-wing aguna politics, was OK, to a point. Everybody tries to “market” the Torah the way he sees best. It’s kind of a function of being in America. Meaning, as much as we like to, we cant simply say “this is our religion, right or wrong, so back off.” Everyone has a PR guy to highlight those aspects of the Torah and tradition that are consistent with what the PR guy thinks is a good selling point. Having said that, if Shmuly Yankelovich actually had been preaching that kosher laws are sourced purely in ethics, then that is not simply marketing, that is outright misrepresentation.
    As for your question, why would he have ever pretended that in the first place, I guess we can ask you a similar question: why would you expect anything differently from Shmuly Yankelowich? Surely you of all people are aware of his politics and identify with them. I thought you were all in favor of his little hechsher tzedek shtik. Obviously to come up with that he had to claim kosher was all about ethics, and thus the things he was interested in (affirmative action programs, unionized employees, “living wage” etc.) was part of the traditional kashrus seal. So, why does this surprise you?
    Chaim Zev Zuckowski (a pseudonym)

  • Michael Schreiber

    When I read Rabbi Yankelovich’s article I felt the same way. There is no correlation between kashrus and ethics. If there was we’d have to shecht animals we use for leather as well. Having said that, Rabbi Yankelovich’s conclusion, that being vegetarian is a more ethical way to live does make complete sense.

    Is vegetarianism a Torah value? I guess not since it allows for the eating of animals. But if you are sensitive to t’zar ba’alei chaim it seems like the most admirable diet for a Jew.