Friday, June 27, 2008

What's in a Rule?

Yesterday, my husband sent me the link to this article by Marjorie Ingall. In it, Marjorie, a fabulous writer whom I can call by her first name because I've known her my whole life, mulls over her feelings about keeping kosher. She writes that she's always been sort of kosher and "sort of" for a long time meant vegetarian. But she's no longer a vegetarian. And she's committed to eating as much seasonal, local and ethically produced food as she can. So what should she do about meat? Because the biggest producers of kosher meat adhere to God's law but not ethical standards of treatment toward either workers or animals.

The question for Marjorie seems to be should she buy ethically raised and produced local meat that isn't kosher technically but feels kosher emotionally? Or, should she buy meat that's technically kosher and ethically produced but whose cost is virtually prohibitive for anything but an annual brisket?

Here's a quote:
"Some friends of mine are starting a share in a cow. Someone knows a farmer. The farmer’s cow leads a pure life, injected with far fewer chemicals than most of our major-league ballplayers. The cow will be killed painlessly, but not by a shochet. Do I want in? I think the last unkosher beef I ate was a Ball Park Frank at a Pawtucket Red Sox game when I was 6. But sometimes I think: If kosher is unkosher, why not go ethical? If I make the effort with fruits and vegetables, why not with meat? And if not now, when?

On the other other hand, I do understand what most Orthodox authorities are saying: Kashrut is entirely separate from oshek, the oppression of workers that Judaism forbids. And a cow staggering around with a slashed throat may have been killed within the letter of the law. The reason for kashrut, they say, is because God said to do it. Period. Ours is not to reason why. And yet I do."

I read that and thought, "Hmmm, there are all sorts of thing that either God says or the rabbis say God says not to do that many progressive Jews do, or don't do, as the case may be. Many progressive Jews don't pray three times a day. Many are gay. Many use electricity on the sabbath or wear shorts and tank tops on a hot day. We pick and choose all the time. So what is it about kosher that's so different?

It's not that I don't get the dilemma. I don't keep kosher, but I don't buy pork chops because I don't want my kids to think it's OK to eat them home. Out? You choose. That's how I was raised. Kosher in the house, not-so-kosher outside of it. And from where, or, more accurately, how I sit, that, while apparently crazy, actually makes (some) sense. Because I take the laws of kashrut to be an expression of difference. This is what "we" eat; this is what "we" won't eat. Like it, lump it, discuss.

After all, Jews have lived in diasporic communities for thousands of years. During all those years, what they chose to eat and how they chose to begin and end their meals were ways to maintain a sense of distinction from the culture at large in which they lived.

Because food is sustaining, but it's also differentiating. We make choices all the time about when, how, what and where we'll eat. Those choices are defining. I don't eat at McDonalds. I shops at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's (coffee), Farm Markets and Fairway. Didn't you run into me there last week?

Beyond food allergies and preferences, food choices reflect who we are in the world and with whom we identify. If you're going to eat according to rules, should they be the rules of the mostly seasonal, preferably organic and primarily locavore or the Jew? If you choose the former and you're a Jew, what separates you from anyone else of any other faith commitment? How does what you eat reflect your identity as a Jew, an identity you might wish to share with your children, if it doesn't comply with Jewish law? If as a Jew you/I don't choose kosher meat, are we all just melting into a great pot of progressive, if sometimes cranky, leftiness? You know: Peace Now, Barak Obama, and grass-fed beef!

In my own home, as I said, I've decided not to keep kosher. If I buy meat, it's only the gently raised kind. But that only solves the question of dinner. It doesn't begin to address the much bigger issues of identity, community, or difference. In spite of her kosher dilemma, Marjorie seems to have got that stuff covered. Me? To quote her: "I dither."


Roni said...

You raise an interesting point about how a diaspora can alter (dilute?) a culture's rules. My parents still comply with the spirit, if not always the letter, of the law when it comes to lunar calendar celebrations. We observe a quasi-sabbath on the second day of the Chinese New Year, and since cooking is forbidden, you generally reheat a vegetarian main dish you've prepared the night before. I distinctly recall roasting a chicken with my husband that night, completely forgetting about the rule.

We get into a hazy area when we talk about updating rules for our modern lives. After all, by definition, isn't a rule designed to govern our behavior? But in the case of reconciling kashrut and oshek, maybe it's time we recognize that they're not perfect for dealing with the modern reality of factory farms. And that opting out of the industrial food chain is merely one way of honoring the spirit of these cultural and dietary laws.

Robin Aronson said...

I agree that opting out of the food chain is a reasonable way to reinterpret the laws. To me, coming to terms with a religious obligation means sometimes doing things you don't agree with -- like, I don't agree with a lot that's in a traditional marriage contract, but I have one. But, then again, it's not a decision I have to buy or eat every day. I don't know how much picking and choosing is kosher, so to speak. But I know in the absence of a driving faith/belief, it's the best I can do. At least for now.

Anonymous said...

Let me get this straight, you are confused that you should or should not eat unethical food?
Well that says it all!

mamele said...

i love that hazon's blog is called "the jew and the carrot." (it's at the echo of "the jew in the lotus" and the resonance of nature/food/ethics ... it's all reflected in that title.

Robin Aronson said...

Love! And P. Berley contributed.....everyone should run out and buy Fresh Food Fast. I love that book, too.