Altrove/Elsewhere – Kashrut and Sustainability

Catalan_Atlas_caravan_drawingBy Daniel Leisawitz*

Tobia Zevi’s article in the April 24th edition of Pagine Ebraiche 24, entitled “Carnivori e vegetariani,” raises some important issues. Zevi, who defines himself as “un vegetariano non sempre praticante” (an occasionally lapsed vegetarian) makes the case for the necessity of a society-wide conversation about the ethical and sustainable treatment of animals destined for human consumption. He rightly points out that this matter has by now extended beyond the limited spheres of animal rights activists and vegans, to become one of concern, to a significant part of the general public. Zevi puts forward the idea that progress in this arena will not ultimately come about because of apprehension for our well-being, or that of the animals we eat, or even that of the environment; rather, the key to advancement will be a change in general social norms, “because it will become increasingly unacceptable socially to eat foods that are unhealthy, uncivilized and harmful to the environment.”

What caught my attention, however, comes at the end of Zevi’s piece, where he goes a step further to suggest that Italian Jews could make their own particular contribution to sustainable and ethical food production thanks to the ongoing debate and innovation surrounding “,” the newly launched hekhsher of the UCEI (Union of Italian Jewish Communities), which seeks to promote both kashrut and Made in Italy.

This is an intriguing idea, and, it seems logical enough: why not bring the ethical forces of halakhah to bear on a problem that touches Jews and non-Jews alike? On the other hand, this approach is not without its obstacles, as evidenced by the disappointing failure of a similar project in the U.S. Hekhsher Tzedek was an initiative begun in 2011 to create an ethical certification for kosher food, supported by rabbis in the Conservative (Masorti) movement. What on its face seemed like an easy and logical marriage of kashrut, environmentalism, labor rights and animal rights, quickly became mired in complications. First, there were concerns raised about confusing the traditional laws of kashrut and more universal humanitarian concerns (the name of the certification was changed to “Magen Tzedek” in order to placate those who objected to the application of the term hekhsher to a certification not based on the halakhah of kashrut as traditionally interpreted). Then there were also questions as to whether the market for kosher food and the market for sustainable food necessarily overlap to the degree necessary for the success of such an endeavor. To my knowledge, no product ever carried the Magen Tzedek certification, despite the enthusiasm that surrounded the announcement of the initiative.

I mention this unsuccessful attempt not in order to discourage conversation about the intersection of kashrut and sustainability in Italy, but only as a case study to hopefully learn from. I think Zevi is right that the Italian Jewish community has unique contributions to make to the discourse surrounding sustainable food production, and I also think that Jewish law, practice and ethics – traditional and modern – have much to say on these issues of pressing importance. Let’s hope that Hekhsher Tzedek was just the first step in an ultimately fruitful and sustainable process.