Monday, October 24, 2011

My Kind of Kosher

Yesterday, I was at the engagement party of one of my best friends. He's Jewish. So is his fiancée. They aren't religious. There were delicious pork buns. A few old friends heard about my new work as a chef, and naturally started asking me about food. I'm also a teacher, so I was happy to talk. And since we're all nominally Jewish, it's not surprising that the question arose: are you kosher?

The answer is yes. And no. No, as far as almost any other Jew would be concerned. I love pork. A burger is nothing without cheese. Oysters make me really excited. Lobster, mussels, razor clams, and cuttlefish, done right, will make my day. I eat bunnies. I've tried hare, kangaroo, and bear. Bleed out a game bird? No way. Hang 'er up, guts and blood in, for a good week in a cool room. Kosher chefs, like vegetarian chefs, might make some good food, but the cuisine is like jazz with nothing but woodwinds. Sax and clarinet are great. For a while. But thank god there are still trumpets and bass and drums in the world. And get that freaking oboe off my plate.

Judaism is a funny thing. It's a dogmatic religion whose dogma is often dismissed in whole or in large part by many of the people who claim, quite ardently, to be Jews. It is the most rigidly law-based of the world's major religions but has given rise to one of the world's greatest theological traditions of interpretation, reinterpretation, and cherry-picking. It's based on a scripture that is notably harsh and oppressive, even by scriptural standards, yet Jews are widely known for their humor. At least in New York. Let's leave Israelis out of it. They're not funny at all.

So when I was asked if I keep kosher, I said, “no.” But then, “yes.” “In a way.” I made my case. If I feel any kinship with Judaism as a religion, it's because of two words: tikkun olam. “Heal the world.” I know how I understand it. If you know me, you probably know, too. I take it to be the central tenet of Judaism. Not historical Judaism. Not Judaism in its dominant forms. My Judaism. I appreciate that, as a Jew, I can say such a thing and not sound crazy.

Tikkun olam. Apply it to food. It's pretty simple. That food you're eating, it was alive once, hopefully pretty recently. How did it live? Did it suffer? Or was it free to eat in a way that befit its physiology, to live outside in the living world, to live with a healthy community of its comrades-in-species? I am not just talking about cows and chickens and pigs. I am also talking about broccoli, carrots, and potatoes. But let's say you don't hear the voices of plants, don't feel their roots and pollen spreading through your dreams. Let's be “practical.” Did the life of that cow or broccoli hurt the earth or make it better? Is there more topsoil because of her or less? More intact, biodiverse habitat or less? More atmospheric carbon or less? More groundwater or less? These are questions we can answer pretty easily. Tikkun olam. Is your food healing the world or harming it? If it heals, you're keeping kosher, my kind of kosher. If it harms, you're eating treif. And that's so not cool.

Industrial food is never kosher. I don't care what species it is. I don't care if a rabbi said something in Hebrew. I don't care if it was bled out and salted. If it was subjected to a life of unnatural suffering, if it was raised in a way that made this world a little worse, a little poorer, it ain't kosher. It is an affront to God, to spirit, to conscience... whatever you want to call it. It is an affront to the Earth, and therefore to ourselves and our children. It is a failing to manifest tikkun olam. The old kind of kosher is all about how an animal died. What about how it lived? Maybe the question never came up since no one in the ancient world could have imagined the cruel insanity of industrial food. Every Hebrew and every Roman ate nothing but grass-fed and organic food. Bunch of liberal weenies, I 'spose.

Any being who was allowed to live a decent, healthy life and was given a merciful, honorable death, a death that caused no net harm to its species, whose life was, indeed, the blessing it ought to have been for the Earth, is kosher. End of story. That such beings, whether plants, fungi, or animals, are also, invariably, more delicious, more nutrient dense, more healthy, only reaffirms that we are doing the right thing.

All the stuff about not eating pigs or shellfish, that was pretty easy for a tribe of pastoralists. Note that they didn't have to give up beef or mutton. It was the barbarians to the north who ate pigs. The barbarians by the sea who ate clams and lobster. We might say that these all too easy sacrifices for a people who already did not eat these things helped keep them mindful of their faith. Maybe it was about regimentation and social control. Maybe it was about instilling xenophobia. Who knows. I do know this. I do not live in the Middle East. I am not a pastoralist. I live in a land where pigs thrive, by a shore world famous for its lobster and other shellfish. More importantly, I live in an era of global environmental catastrophe. This catastrophe is being greatly intensified by the industrial food system. It can, in part, be mitigated through permaculture, broadly defined as any food system based on a polyculture of plants and animals, intact topsoil, no mining of water or diversion of rivers, and no input of fossil fuel or poison. I see it as a spiritual duty to be mindful of this reality every time I procure food, whether by purchase, gardening, foraging, or hunting.

And I did eat the pork buns (minus the buns). Even though the pigs were probably industrial. I do not blame my friends if they were. Most people are not yet as sensitized as they should be to these issues and it's not fair to expect a sudden mass change in consciousness from all decent people. But we should be working toward that mass change in consciousness and, crucially, also in behavior. Changing hearts and minds is all well and good, but only as a precursor to action. It's not, “think about healing the world,” or “imagine a healed world,” or “write treatises about what a healed world would theoretically look like.” Heal the damn world. Anyhow, I ate the pork. It was already there. I was hungry. It looked and tasted good. And no additional pigs were being raised or killed because I ate it rather than letting it get tossed at the end of the party.

There is room for flexibility. I draw my lines where I choose. Others will draw them a little differently. And that's OK. Just draw them. Live consciously. Find your principles and manifest them. Keep kosher and live in accordance with the law, however you understand it. It all derives from principle. How about this one? Heal the world.


  1. I like your kosher. I'm going to remember that, and live by it too.

  2. Great post-- a really wonderful reflection (midrash?) on tradition, interpretation, and the heart of culinary ethics. The idea that kosher is determined not only by how something dies, but also by how it lived...aye, that's MY kind of kosher, too!