Keeping Kosher: It’s a Journey, Not a Destination

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Speckled Chicken - flickr

I grew up keeping kosher because that’s what our family did; it was not a conscious choice. Like the other mitzvot (Jewish commandments) I observed, only later did I begin to think critically about the meaning behind it. And when I started to think deeply about kashrut (the laws of keeping kosher), I came to believe that these laws are an ethical foundation to a broader set of Jewish values. I realized that kashrut can guide us toward becoming more conscious eaters. By following these commandments, I believe that we are developing a respect and awareness for animal life that will ultimately lead us to choose for ourselves the optimal diet. That optimal diet is plant-based, just as it was in the Garden of Eden.

On my journey to learn how I could further incorporate the ethics behind kashrut into my life, I found myself watching a documentary called Earthlings. Earthlings shows in graphic detail the suffering and painful death that is the norm in industrial meat processing. Kosher slaughterhouses are no exception. Within two hours, my eyes had been opened to the horror that I was consuming. That day, I cut out all animal products from my life and became vegan. I promised myself that I would no longer consume any animal’s flesh, milk, or eggs. I would no longer wear another being’s skin or fur, nor use products that were tested on animals.

An important teaching we have in Judaism is tza’ar ba’alei chaim, the prohibition against causing animals pain. The more I learned about the animal agriculture industry, the more I felt that merely abiding by kashrut did not live up to this teaching. I had to do more. I learned that when I pay for foods containing meat, dairy, or eggs, I’m supporting industries that enslave, mistreat, and murder animals. These farmed animals are not so different from the cats and dogs that I consider family.

I learned that in the egg industry, male chicks are ground up alive and hens are kept in such tight quarters that they can’t even flap their wings. Hens commonly end up pecking and trampling each other to death. If I wasn’t shocked enough by that information, I also learned that in the dairy industry, mother cows are separated from their babies. Only days after birth, the baby male calves are sent to the veal industry where they are restrained in such tight spaces they literally cannot move or even lie down. Female cows’ bodies undergo so much stress and suffering from the unnatural number of pregnancies they are forced to endure that their lifespans are shortened dramatically to only around five years instead of the usual 20.

I knew none of this was morally right; therefore I knew this wasn’t Jewish. In Proverbs 12:10 it says, “The righteous man regardeth the life of his animal.” How is it righteous of us to pay another person to disregard the life of an animal on our behalf?

On Pesach (Passover), with its own special kosher laws, we are given an opportunity to reflect even more deeply on the way we eat. During Pesach, we rid our homes of any trace of chametz (leavened bread). An interpretation of this practice is that because chametz rises and contains air, it symbolizes our ego, which is puffed up (Talmudic Tractate Berachot 17a). When we remove chametz, we symbolically drop our ego. Our ego tells us that we are above animals and therefore we have the right to do what we please with them. As we let go of our ego, we need to let go of this concept and realize it is our duty to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

Pesach can also help us understand why there is such a clear emphasis in our sacred texts on the importance of respecting animal life. During Pesach, we relive our escape from slavery and remember that we were once strangers ourselves. We feel the pain that our ancestors felt during their years of oppression, and we experience a deep compassion for all who are oppressed. Let us use our shared history as slaves in Egypt to open our eyes and hearts and see the plight of farmed animals today.

This Pesach, I encourage you to eat vegan so that you can add to your celebration of freedom by liberating animals who are enslaved. To learn how to make your holiday vegan visit Jewish Veg. If you aren’t ready to make the full switch to veganism or need support, start your journey by taking the Jewish Veg Pledge. Get all the resources you need with eight weeks of e-course emails which include tips and allow you to become connected with a vegan mentor who can answer any questions you may have.

Accompanying Photo: “Speckled Chicken” © Dano licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.