When I was a little boy, my parents told me not to eat swine. It was a Commandment, even if it didn’t make the top ten. Like every good Jewish boy, I did my best to suppress my urges. But I envied my friends not subject to that prohibition. I coveted my neighbor’s bacon.
When I was about ten, however, my parents, themselves ready to break with tradition, lifted this prohibition (among others). Bacon for everyone. Hell, wrap it around a scallop and we’ll break out the fondue set. I pigged out. I devoured spare ribs and inhaled prosciutto. I ordered bacon cheeseburgers and asked them to bring me a side of fried calamari. But I never questioned whether it was okay to disregard these prohibitions any more than I questioned why I should have been subject to them before. They were the hollow fiat of an ornery Jewish-day-school teacher and I was just glad my parents finally came to their senses. Animals were vegetables, just a bit more expensive per pound.
Two decades later, I’ve returned to question both the granular rules ofKashrut (Jewish dietary law) and the idea of Kosher (food prepared according to these laws) as a static concept. Much of this is a product of spending the last decade in Northern California, which has a particular focus on humaneness and sustainability. In fact, the seed for this piece was planted in a conversation with my cousin, where I declared our wild boar salami (in our spare time, my friends and I hunt and cure our own meat) perfectly worthy of a Hechsher(the mark used to indicate that something is Kosher).
When I question Kashrut, I begin with a lesson my late grandfather taught me while helping me study for my Bar Mitzvah. One of the passages instructed that if you slay your enemy, you can take his wife as your property, though you first must give her two weeks to grieve. I told my grandfather that I would not enter manhood by enunciating such madness and requested that the Rabbi join my condemnation in front of the entire congregation. Pleased -- I think -- with his grandson’s passion and questioning mind, but wishing to avoid a peroratorical denunciation of the Almighty in His own house, he explained to me that it was my obligation not to honor the literal meaning of the words, but rather their spirit. That Saturday at synagogue, I spoke about how these rules reflected a progressive value system for the treatment of women at the time they were written, and that it was our collective obligation to reaffirm that progressiveness in each generation. Henceforth, the commandments were to be applied with a faithful heart, but also my best judgment. The soul of the rule was to triumph over literal orthodoxy.
Absent any real research, I have understood the twin rationales behind Kashrut to be (1) respect for the environment, inclusive of mercifulness toward animals, and (2) respect for your body. This philosophy of respect -- responsibility, really -- is at work in prohibitions against felling more trees than needed and the requirement that farmland periodically be allowed to lie fallow in order to preserve its fertility for future generations. Similarly, Kashrut mandates how you kill an animal, providing rules meant to ensure that death is swift and merciful (though I wonder if these are really the most humane practices possible with today’s technologies). I understand this ideal of responsibility to emanate from the position of dominion that Man has over Beast. This always struck me as a prohibition worthy of capitalization, a Natural Law. Be kind to weaker things, even if you have to eat them. But it also made me wonder: if the entire philosophy is predicated on mercifulness, how could veal or foie gras be Kosher? If Kashrut requires that you kill an animal mercifully, how can it condone raising it with such cruelty or slaughter at such a tender age? Similarly, if produced in an environmentally irresponsible way -- e.g. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that produce tremendous amounts of manure and wastewater -- shouldn’t that meat, however slaughtered, be denied a Hechsher?
Kashrut also prohibits eating swine or shellfish. I understand this prohibition to emanate from the requirement that one show respect for his or her body. This seems unobjectionable wisdom. And, indeed, the flesh of these creatures was probably the most difficult to keep and prepare in a sanitary manner two thousand years ago. By contrast, regulation of this stripe struck me as both archaic and inadequate. Surely, concerns about sanitation could give way to the march of technology and the marvel of refrigeration. But just as surely as Kashrut shouldn’t persist in prohibiting activities that no longer court the same dangers, shouldn’t it also evolve to greet new dangers? Is a chicken pumped full of caffeine (in order to keep it eating and thus accelerate its growth) and valium (in order to keep it sufficiently docile given the caffeine and cramped quarters) Kosher? Does eating flesh laden with hormones, remnants of prescription drugs, and toxic substances like arsenic respect our bodies? Ultimately, can a static set of prohibitions ever track the dangers we create for ourselves?
The trained attorney in me has similarly wondered how a prohibition on boiling a calf in its mother’s milk came to bar me from putting cheese on a burger. The cheese is separately prepared and melted using dry-cooking methods. As a practicing criminal litigator, I can assure you no prosecutor could convict a defendant for putting cheese on a burger with a criminal statute prohibiting boiling a calf in its mother’s milk. This would be overturned on 9-0 decision of the Supreme Court as a constitutionally impermissible construction of the actual prohibition.
Perhaps this prohibition, more than any other one, encapsulates my disagreement with Kashrut as it has been dominantly interpreted and accepted. It is a strained and abstruse interpretation, absent relevance in modern times, or connection to the Jewish ideals that make me so proud of my lack of a foreskin. Ultimately, as a Jew, I feel that an interpretation rooted in the morals of the system that undergirds it is more meaningful -- and ultimately more Jewish -- than a hollow collection of fiats that serves only to distinguish and separate us from Others. The point of Kashrut should not be to keep us from eating swine with our non-Jewish neighbors. It should be to drive us to be an example of the virtues of humaneness, respect for the environment, and respect for ourselves. The Hechsher should emblemize the most meaningful implementation of these values, not the rote validation of outmoded and banal custom.
I know very little about the theology of Kashrut. Indeed, the preceding statement could be appropriately modified as "I know very little about Jewish theology." I attended Hebrew school as a boy and went through the normal assimilatory trajectory, from coloring in pictures of the Almighty in crayon (age 5), to singing the scripture heinously out of tune in front of my relatives and neighbors (age 13), to dating non-Jewish women and hog hunting in Northern California (ages 22 to present). However, I approach this as the grandson of Holocaust survivors on one side, and a Jewish veteran of the Allied Forces on the other. My Judaism is important to me -- the Judaism of tzedakah and mitzvot, of kindness and responsibility. So however lighthearted or heretical this proposal seems, I assure you that it runs to the core of my being and I intend to discharge it thoroughly and cogently.
1. I will research and distill Kashrut, as literally presented in the Old Testament, subsequently interpreted over the last two millennia by various scholars, and broadly practiced today. Critical to this study will be a focus on Kashrut’s moral underpinnings and implementation in the context of commercial meat production.
2. Following that, I plan to drive around Northern California, talking with local animal husbandrists. I will do my best to provide a thorough picture of the animals they raise, how they raise them, how they slaughter them, and what, if any, actual dangers are posed by their consumption. My aim here is to understand how people that care about concepts like humaneness and sustainability implement those philosophies.
3. I don’t think that anyone can pronounce what is or is not Kosher. I think the point of these commandments is to carry their meaning with you and consistently reexamine it in the context of your relationship with the Earth, your fellow human beings, animals, and your body. In this spirit, I will humbly offer what I plan to eat for the next year, including where it will come from, how it will have been treated, and how it will have impacted the environment.
I’m shooting for about 10,000 words, more or less the size of a New Yorker piece. My cousin Brant, a very talented documentary photographer (see brantslomovic.com), will be doing the photos. He is also a physician and will be shoring us up on the scientific front.
Thanks in advance. Please ping me (adamgomolin at gmail.com) if you are interested in reading my drafts. I would love to have you read and critique them, whether you agree with me or not.