Eco-Kashrut: A Reminder of God’s Presence

By Rabbi Felicia L. Sol | Issue Date: June 2000

In the Torah, God tells Moses “you can not see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” –Exodus 33:20

The notion of staring God in the face is an impossibility, yet the tradition of saying blessings is meant to recognize that God is the one staring us in the face…

We often recognize God’s face when we see a wonder of creation, when we lose a loved one, when we arrive at a special occasion and are thankful for life and when we bless the bread we eat. When we say the blessing over the bread (hamotzi) we praise God for being the one who takes the bread out of the earth. When we see bread, do we experience God’s presence? Are we in touch with the God who Hazan et hakol (sustains everything) as we say in the first blessing of Birkat HaMazon?

There is “interference” in what we are actually blessing and how it gets to our table. How many steps does it take from God taking the bread out of the earth to it arriving in our homes? There are those who plant the grain, those who harvest it, those who drive it to its location to be baked, those who package it and market it and those who sell it in their stores… and then we buy it and bless God for being the one who takes bread out from the earth. How does our blessing affirm or desecrate the process in which what we eat has arrived at our tables? How many of the workers are underpaid and overworked? How many chemicals have found their way into God’s natural processes? How much money has been spent (unnecessarily) to sell us a specific kind of bread that we never knew we needed until advertisers told us we did?

Kashrut is a system that our tradition defined in order to accomplish several goals: to make Judaism distinct and to create a discipline in eating and cooking that would remind us that our choices of what we eat are holy choices are two of them. How does this agenda of the tradition speak to us today? Has kashrut become routine and just another thing we do as Jews? How might we invigorate kashrut as Jews of the 21st century and see food as a way of recognizing God’s presence and blessing that presence?

Eco-kashrut is an attempt to “renew the unity of earth and humanity,” according to Arthur Waskow. Eco-kashrut is an attempt to challenge the banality by which we consume and buy and bless and need. It is a call to stay away from treyf (literally “torn by a wild beast”), that which is dissonant with the preservation of the earth and we who dwell on the earth. It is a call to struggle with whether vegetarianism is the ideal form of eating, even though being a vegetarian does not absolve us of serious daily choices about what we buy and how much we consume. It is not only about labels and letters saying this food is kosher or not, but about making choices that reflect the unity in all creation, both bird and beast, woman and man.

Judaism outlines certain principles when it comes to the preservation of the earth and of life:

Tza’ar Ba’ale Hayim: the prescription not to cause “pain to any living creatures.” Although there is a rabbinic disagreement whether this is a commandment of the Torah or of the rabbis, this dictum cautions people to treat animals humanely. The proof, according to Maimonides and the Talmud, is in the story of Balaam and his ass in which the angel of God says to Balaam, “Why have you beaten your ass these three times?”(Numbers 22:32)

Bal Tashhit: the prescription to not destroy is based on the verse (Deuteronomy 20:19-20), “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down… Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed, you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you until it has been reduced.”

These two principles recognize that humans have dominion over animals and over the environment, as stated in Genesis 9:2- 4. However, they raise the questions of what is necessary and what is excess and how we use things for their God-intended purpose. The trees that are not to be destroyed are those that produce fruit for us to eat, while trees that are used for building barriers are allowed to be cut down. Animals are allowed to be used for transportation but not to be treated unjustly. The presumption of human beings as owners of the Earth is completely transformed on Shabbat and with the Biblical sabbatical year. In this year, we surrender our temporary stewardship of the land and owning of livestock and recognize that we are not truly the owners of this planet. It is only when the primacy of the “I” of ownership subsides and we let the “we” of unity of humans, animals and the environment that the true unity of heaven and earth will reign majestically, both on our physical planet as a manifestation of our spiritual alignment. Then, God will truly be Hazan et hakol, the one who sustains all, with us as God’s partners.