Tikkun Olam and Food
by Dr. David Teutsch
The earth and all in it are filled with God's glory" (Psalms 24:1)
A very important step in understanding why a particular action is a mitzvah is actually doing the mitzva—immersing in the experience. But that is usually insufficient, which is why the rabbis have devoted an enormous amount of time and energy exploring ta'amey hamitzvot, the purposes behind the mitzvot. These sources often discuss observing kashrut in terms of becoming aware of kedusha, the holiness in all of creation, and practicing tza'ar ba'aley hayim, prevention of pain to animals. Both of these stem from an awareness that the earth and all in it are filled with God's glory (Psalms 24:1). For more about kashrut, you might want to read my book, A Guide to Jewish Practice: Kashrut.
In our contemporary world, pollution and the squandering of natural resources demonstrate our failure to act upon our awareness of the glory of God in the world and the holiness of the gift of life with which we have been entrusted. Keeping kosher should remind us that we have to do better about those things. A contemporary version of kashrut known as eco-kashrut incorporates our awareness of the importance of conservating resources into the activities involved with eating. This updates the ta'amey kashrut--some of the reasons for keeping kosher. Eco-kashrut is new enough that it does not yet have a fully fixed definition, but it includes avoiding wasteful packaging, eating less processed foods, and eating “lower” on the food chain so that less resources are consumed.
Vegetarianism is least resource-consuming; eating poultry but not red meat is less resource-consuming than most Western diets; and eating beef is the most energy-consuming. Using a mug instead of a disposable cup, avoiding styrofoam (a major petroleum consumer), and attempting to avoid buying products needlessly shipped long distances are other examples of keeping eco-kosher. This approach can easily be combined with traditional kashrut and/or vegetarianism.
Eating is one of the great pleasures in human life, and breaking bread together is a major activity in creating interpersonal connection and marking ritual transitions. We have many blessings designed to help us experience the gratitude, joy and divine connection that eating can bring. Eating consciously should help us connect to the divine presence and to the miracles in our daily lives. That connection demands of us that we act as stewards of creation, and eco-kashrut provides a powerful tool for fulfilling that wondrous responsibility.
Questions for Thought and Discussion. [Click on the comment link to add a comment to be published here online. You need to register to add comments. It's quick and easy. Ed.]
David A. Teutsch, Ph.D. serves as the Louis and Myra Wiener Professor of Contemporary Jewish Civilization, Chair of the Department of Contemporary Jewish Civilization, and Director of the Levin-Lieber Program in Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. A graduate of Harvard University, he received his master of arts in Hebrew letters and rabbinic ordination from the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Teutsch earned his doctoral degree at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where his work focused on organizational ethics. He served as president of RRC from 1993 to 2002, following appointments as executive vice president from 1990 to 1993 and dean of admissions from 1986 to 1990.
April 6, 2007 - 6:05pm — Eric Mendelsohn
I would add a fith question because I have seen this happen when one say switches from disposable dishes to reusable ones:
5. Is my using less processed food, reusable dishes, etc. at the expense of someone else's unpaid or very low paid labour? If one hires a diswasher at below a union wage, or asks others to volunteer to do the extra labour involved one undermines the tikkun olam implied by the eco-kashrut. Remeber Matzoh whose price exceeds that which will sustain the poorest is considered Chametz. My great grandmother confronted her va'ad in Ukraine about the price of Matzoh being such that the poor could not afford it- when the Va'ad not so politely told her and those she organized where to get off, she came at night with her group and threw bread into the water which had been set aside for baking Matzohs. If the poor are opressed by the action, then no matter how kosher it is, it become trief for all.