Before the Flood, Adam and his progeny ate plant foods (Genesis 1:29); afterward, Noah’s descendants got to eat meat (Genesis 9:3). The change sparked a war that continues to this day: Which most satisfies God, Torah, and halachah: Vegetarianism or eating carnivorously? Which is healthier and more humane? Must Noah’s heirs adhere to Adam’s strictures, or can Adam’s heirs go with Noah’s?
Alongside the veggie–carnivore debate is another over Jewish dietary laws — kashrut. Their basic logic was lost with the sages who devised them in Leviticus, Exodus and Deuteronomy 2,000 years ago, yet rabbis and laypeople since have tinkered diligently and earnestly with this cornerstone of Jewish identity, created comforting structure for the observant, and filled countless pages and ears with conjecture, commentary, controversy and compromise.
KosherQuest, (www.kosherquest.org/symbols.php), the Web site of the Kosher Information Bureau, lists more than 70 kashering certifiers in the U.S. alone, and scores more in another nine countries. A few, such as the OU, Star-K and Triangle-K are internationally recognized; the others handle smaller ranges of products and geography.
After the basics are satisfied, applying kashrut is a subjective matter: Is toothpaste food? Can we declare pickles kosher? As A.J. Jacobs reports in his anecdotal book The Year of Living Biblically, liberal or fundamentalist, we each “cherry pick” the religious elements that work best for us.
Notably, kosher certifiers primarily applied the humane slaughter rule — use of a razor-sharp knife — to Agriprocessors of Postville, Iowa, the nation’s biggest kosher meat producer. They didn’t apply the broader “kindness to living things” (tsar ba’aleh chayyim), do not destroy (ba’al tashchit) and/or “healing the world” (tikkun olam) rules which, one Lubavitch rabbi explained, are “separate areas of law from kashrus.” So when the USDA shut down Agriprocessors last May, for myriad human and animal health and welfare violations, it set off alarm bells in Jewish communities across America.
The Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative Jewish movements decided that kashrut must embody all Jewish environmental principles. To that end, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly developed a new Hechsher Tzedek kosher certification, which warrants fair and ethical worker conditions in a product’s creation.
But to eliminate kashrut controversies, and kosher supply and supervision costs altogether, many North American congregations now simply serve only vegetarian fare. Their next logical step in advancing Jewish principles is to use organic foods.
Unlike kashrut, “organic” standards start with certifying a product’s “chain of custody” from beginning to end. All raw materials and ingredients must originate from sources untainted by petrochemicals, genetic modifications and other artifices. “Organic” also certifies social justice, humane animal treatment, and earth-friendly operation. Before the industrial and petrochemical revolutions of the mid-1800s, these conditions were probably assumed by kosher certifiers. But not today.
Today’s “organic” stamp also bespeaks small-scale farming, preservation of open space, and a smaller carbon footprint than foods conventionally grown, processed and transported. And organic generally marks a fresher, more nutritious and flavorful product whose commerce often contributes to a local economy.
Organic also aligns with the United Nations’ call to radically change how we grow and market food worldwide. The U.N. recommends investing in small-scale, low-input, agro-ecological and organic farming that makes use of traditional knowledge, which will be more effective in meeting today’s climate and population challenges than the current energy- and chemical-intensive industrial agriculture model.
A few new kosher-organic meat companies are now enjoying increasing popularity: Wise Organic Pastures, Solomon’s Finest Glatt Kosher Meats, and Kosher Conscience. And a small number of kosher certifiers have also gone organic: EarthKosher, Kosher Organic (Green-K), and Natural Food Certifiers.
They represent “a drop in the bucket” of a $12.5 billion kosher foods market that enjoys double-digit annual growth, based on 2008 figures from Mintel International Market Research, and an organic foods market, worth $23 billion in 2008, that grows even faster, according to the Organic Trade Association. Growth for 2009 is expected to be much smaller due to the poor economy.
Yet in the big picture, Jewish buyers only represent 14 percent of the kosher market. Christians, Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists and others make up the other 86 percent. They all see kosher foods as being more carefully produced and thoroughly inspected than non-kosher and non-organic foods. The three top reasons people buy kosher are “food quality,” “general healthfulness,” and “food safety” — the same reasons they buy organic. This explains why “kosher” and “organic” were among the top 10 claims for new products in 2008, and more than one in four new food and drink products launched in the U.S. bore a kosher symbol.
As Tevye tells his wife in Fiddler on the Roof, “It’s a new world, Golda.” Both the major certifiers, OU and Star-K, are recognizing that: Each began offering kosher-organic certifications this January. Perhaps even a better business idea would be to continue easing the separation between kosher and organic, until there is no difference, and the heirs of Adam and the heirs of Noah are reconciled.