On Dec. 7, Temple Sholom Sisterhood hosted a discussion on the relationship, history and relevance of today’s kosher practices. The panel aimed to “explore, broaden and in some cases challenge the term kashrut” and “explore integrating values such as ethics, community and spirituality as it relates to food.”
The panelists were Rabbi Lindsey bat Joseph, executive director of the Centre for Jewish Excellence; Michael Schwartz, director of community engagement at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia; and Noam Dolgin, a Jewish environmental educator and “sustainable realtor.”
As participants ate baked organic apples – sourced locally and made with gluten-free oats – Dolgin began at the beginning, discussing the Garden of Eden and asking the audience to name the first mitzvah (commandment) given to human beings alone. Although many people think it was “be fruitful and multiply,” that commandment was given to animals as well. The first human commandment, Dolgin said, was to “work and protect” the garden. After leaving the hunter-gatherer society of the garden, we became farmers able to produce surplus food and wealth, he explained, and so came the laws around our relationship to the land and to other people, which aimed to promote justice towards the earth and to each other.
Dolgin gave an overview of the development of Jewish law in relation to land, animals and people, touching on such core rabbinic laws as ba’al tashchit (do not waste) and ba’al tzarei chayyim (do not be cruel to animals). Dolgin said, although there are biblical laws protecting the land, there has been a shift in recent years from an emphasis on immediate human concerns – “don’t pollute upwind,” for example – to deeper ecological concerns, such as “don’t pollute at all.”
Schwartz spoke about how Jewish culinary traditions go beyond the legalities of kashrut. He focused on the home as the locus of cultural preservation, and noted the museum’s recent initiative to collect and share Jewish cultural stories around food. As part of this project, he said, one Jewish woman talked of her memories of food from Second World War-era Bangalore, India; another spoke of her Mizrahi Jewish family who had lived in China for years and were more comfortable in Vancouver’s Chinatown than in other parts of the city, including Jewish institutions.
Schwartz also discussed efforts to bring Jewish ethics to bear on food, describing the community’s creation of a food bank, and of other food-justice-related organizations.
“The alert among you will notice that I have made it this far into my talk without mentioning the word kosher,” he said. “That is not an accident. The reason for this is that I wanted to demonstrate that there are many ways that food can preserve our identity and inform our morals.”
Rounding out the discussion, bat Joseph explored the architecture of kosher law and the way it was built out of biblical law. She explained how kosher laws are traditionally considered to be transrational, or beyond human understanding. She said, despite our not understanding the details, the Torah suggests two primary purposes of kashrut: to make us distinct from the nations around us and to promote a holy lifestyle, to encourage mindfulness and “a sense of priestliness in the most mundane things.” She debunked the commonly held idea that kosher laws may have had a connection to health.
A wide-ranging question-and-answer period included humourous stories of trying to live kosher, different family traditions, and the struggle to balance inclusivity both among Jews and between Jews and non-Jews while observing kashrut.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.