An Ethical Kashrut

(Image by Kim Hansen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Keeping traditional kashrut is not for every Jew. Rabbi Larry Milder of Beth Emek in Pleasanton wrote a thoughtful email to his congregation about keeping an “ethical kashrut” and he describes his approach. I hope everyone, not just Jews, will consider how the daily practice of eating impacts us and the world around us. Have a look.

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, is a favorite among animal lovers, because it enumerates a wonderful list of animals that are permitted and, mostly, prohibited for consumption.

What is particularly challenging for Biblical scholars is figuring out precisely what some of these animals are. Is the duchifat a hoopoe? And if the atalef is a bat, then it doesn’t really belong with the other birds (though, as a mammal, it would still be prohibited).
The words that keep appearing in the portion are “unclean” and “an abomination.”
I can understand how our ancestors viewed the animal kingdom that way, divided into pure, or proper, species, and those that just seem wrong. What’s more, it makes sense that they felt that predators were off limits. If an animal would just as soon eat you, as you eat it, it’s probably best to stay away from it.
But I can’t say that I accept that model of understanding nature in all its glory. Animals aren’t created impure, and though, for the most part, I don’t eat them, I don’t think that the essential nature of some is that they are an abomination.
Nonetheless, Judaism teaches that we should, indeed, be concerned to elevate our behavior toward that which is pure.
The answer for me, then, is that we live more holy lives when we care about the process, and the consequences, of our diet, even more than the particulars of which animals are permitted and which are not.
Here, then, are my guidelines for a practice of ethical kashrut:
  1. Is it good for you?
  2. Was it “good” for the animal? Did the animal suffer needlessly?
  3. Is it good for other people? Did other people suffer, for you to enjoy this food?
  4. Is it good for the world? Did nature suffer?
Following these guidelines, I have arrived at a very personal approach to Kashrut. It’s not traditional, but it is very Jewish. It affirms that there is a moral purpose to our spiritual practice.

When I read Parshat Shemini, I am inspired by how much it has always mattered to Jews what we eat.

I believe this obligation of ethical Kashrut is just as imperative as the belief that our ancestors had: that one must eat right in order to live a holy life.
Rabbi Larry Milder