Is Kosher, Kosher?

Originally posted on the Pursue blog.

On Tuesday November 30th Pursue hosted it’s final Chewing on Food Justice event at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in the mission neighborhood of San Francisco. While the first three panels focused on secular issues pertaining to local and global food issues, the final panel pertained to the practice of keeping Kashrut in Judaism and the meaning of doing so. There were as many interpretations of the meaning and philosophy behind keeping kosher as there were panelists—if not more.

The panel featured Karen Adelman, Co-Owner of Saul’s Deli in Berkeley; Adam Berman, founder and Executive Director of Urban Adamah; Rabbi Becky Joseph, aka The Rabbi Chef, is the founder and owner of 12 Tribes, a new environmentally and socially responsible San Francisco company that makes delicious, seasonal kosher eating easy; and Rabbi Dorothy Richman is the Rabbi Martin Ballanoff Memorial Rabbi-in-Residence at Berkeley Hillel. The panel was moderated by Moderated by Rabbi Aaron Philmus, Director of Congregational Life and Learning, Congregation Beth Sholom.

The panel started by defining what kashrut means, which is ‘fit for consumption’ or usage. This definition can encompass food that is fit in terms of its’ health impact on the consumer or produced ethically enough that a mindful Jew would feel good about eating it. It is ultimately considered to be a definition from a divine text; whether or not it has practical benefits was part of the evening’s debate.

The panelists primarily tacked the issue, ‘What does kashrut mean in today’s climate?’. Rabbi Richman maintained that while the Torah didn’t have a direct answer for all of today’s current food concerns (factory farming, GMO’s, corporate control of food systems), the Torah was an all encompassing text that could be used to derive a wise, pertinent answer for how one should eat ethically. Adam shared that his passion for the kosher debate comes from his belief that being mindful of food consumption is a “gateway drug” to so many other important environmental and social concerns.

When Rabbi Becky Joseph spoke about her motivation for starting a Jewish catering service, she said that one of her principals was that people should be able to eat good-tasting Kosher desserts. She spoke about a concerning issue in the kosher industry: “how can we make more products kosher and how can we make kosher more profitable?”  She shared that kosher food producers make an effort to exclude more things in order to make sure the food products are considered Kosher. Interestingly, Becky said that 80% of conscious Kosher consumers (those who intentionally choose foods because they are Kosher) are not Jewish and that the Kosher food industry is the fastest growing food segment. Some of these non-Jewish consumers are Muslims, vegans and people who perceive that kosher food is a healthy alternative. So is Kosher more healthy? Not necessarily asserted the evening’s panelists, but it is supervised by a Rabbi unlike much of mass produced food which is subject to very little oversight.

Karen discussed the evolution of her deli from a typical Jewish deli, to a deli where food purchasing decisions are based on Jewish notions of ethics in terms of fair labor practices and the positive treatment of animals. As she put it, she was raised “eco-kosher” and her mom raised her to keep arguing about and redefining the meaning of kashrut. For example, the Deli stopped selling kosher pastrami because the kosher pastrami company they used was bought-out by what Karen termed a “terrible” corporation, Con Agra.

Adam Berman shared that he also informs his eating decisions outside of the biblical prescriptions, but instead from core values (love, compassion and justice). From those values, he has decided to use those terms to eat food that is grown locally, and low on the food chain.

The panelists with their wide range of views offered equally diverse suggestions for next steps and additional resources for the mindful Jewish eater. Becky and Karen urged audience members to support small, kosher businesses and Adam encouraged consumers to “not sweat the small stuff” in terms of their sustainable food choices. Dorothy challenged audience members to pray before they eat (including snacks!).