Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – April/2011

I’m posting this a bit early, because I’m also going to post an article from the Jerusalem Post magazine that perfectly illustrates my point.

No holiday encourages fanatical Jewish behavior like Passover.  It’s not bad that many people keep kosher for Pesah much more strictly than they keep kosher the rest of the year.  However, the almost pathological behavior of scouring the home of every microscopic crumb of leavening can obscure the beauty of the meaning of the holiday.  I hope the following exchange will help you enjoy a serious Seder without having exhausted yourself by its preparation.

Dear Rebbe

Question: We had two wonderful seders, but this year particularly, it seemed that the last two days of preparation – Sunday, a day which lasted twelve hours as we turned the kitchen over and Monday, the day we spent in preparation for the first seder – left us crippled with exhaustion and pain.  It was very much like forced labor with this uncompromising deadline.  I kept thinking, “why did we leave the fleshpots of Egypt? Let’s return to Egypt where we eat for free.”  And then I remembered Rush Limbaugh’s warning that socialism is slavery and nothing comes for free, so I put my head down and continued scrubbing.

But a serious thought crossed my mind.  Is this our age showing?  What will Pesah preparations be like when we are seventy or eighty and have no children to do this work.  As it was, at age 63, I found myself incapable of davening either day.  I tried, but I couldn’t focus my mind.  I don’t understand how one can do it all, I certainly can’t. I think even we lived next to the shul, I would not have had the strength to make it through the davening.

We had a student at our table on Tuesday.  He doesn’t observe much, but he goes to shul on major holidays and his self-image is one of a Jew who is loyal to our traditions.  Once we got to the meal, he took out his cell phone and started to send a text!  I told him to put it away and he sheepishly set it aside.  I understand that teachers in classrooms have similar problems with students who can’t seem to let go of their cell phones. But I was surprised to see its appearance at my seder!

Answer: I think you have bought into the Orthodox trend to make Pesah more and more difficult by multiplying the humrot, the ways to be more and more restrictive in Jewish observance.  Marisa and I, over the past several years, have cut way back on the cleaning, returning to the Mishnaic model of Pesah.  You clean the rooms that you eat in – you don’t need to search out and sterilize every surface of the house.  You rely on biur hametz, the ritual destruction and nullification of hametz, so if you miss a few crumbs here and there, you have not endangered your eternal souls with karet, spiritual excommunication.  Our kitchen doesn’t look like a 1950’s spaceship, covered in $100 worth of aluminum foil.  We clean counters and pour boiling water on them, relying on the fact that we don’t cook on the counters or eat food off of them.  Self cleaning ovens are great.  We are relaxed about the refrigerator – hametz doesn’t contaminate like the bubonic plague.  We don’t serve a 6 course gourmet feast – 3 courses is enough! – so we can focus more on the hagaddah and less on the food.  We, especially on the 2nd night, are not hung up on the hagaddah.  At the proper candlelighting time, we tell the story of Pesah in a very abbreviated way.  In keeping with the mishnah’s instructions to tell the story from degradation to redemption, we basically tell the story by reading the key passages of the Hagaddah from Deuteronomy 26:5-8, reciting the plagues, the teaching of Rabban Gamliel and the beginning of Hallel.  Before candlelighting, we do the 4 questions and 4 children and singing songs.

Regarding the student – before the Seder, send out a note to your guests making your expectations clear.  Here’s a sample, sent by one of my colleagues, Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff:

To our Seder Guests

I am delighted — and honored — that all of you have agreed to join me at this year’s Passover/Pesah Seder.

For me, the Seder has always been one of the highlights of the year — and one of the most important rituals of the Jewish faith.  It is a reminder, to me, of the fact that we cannot change history, but to a very large extent, we can control its impact on us, so that memory becomes a springboard to move us forward toward better times, not a trap, to hold us prisoners of the past.  We understand that no one can be told to “forget and move on,” but we can help others, and ourselves, understand HOW to remember, so that our memories become a blessing, not a curse, and history becomes part of a rich and treasured heritage, that reminds us of the hope we must have for the future….  And so, at the seder, we remember stories of Israelite slavery in Egypt. But we learn not to hate Egypt, but instead, to hate slavery…and value freedom.  We learn from our memories of pain not to hate others, but to reach out to them, including all those treated like strangers, or feel like strangers, so that their pain might be less.

This is a reminder, in part, of the fact that the essence of the seder is discussion.  The evening is based on the Biblical verses that command us to tell the story.  “Haggadah,” the book that helps us remember the story and its traditions, comes from the Hebrew word for “telling.”  “Seder,” which means “order,” reminds us that there is a traditional order to the evening’s discussion, but, as the Haggadah states, “the person who elaborates is to be admired.”  In other words, no two seders are ever alike, because all those involved elaborate in terms of what the very ideas of slavery and freedom mean to them, and how their individual memories can come together with the memories of the Jewish people — or humanity itself — so that, as we remember, we share the lessons we have learned from the past, and then join together to work for the future.

As I look forward to seeing all of you, here are a few “house-keeping” notes:

“Bringing” do’s and don’t’s.  Please do NOT bring any food, drink, or flowers.  The laws of Passover food and drink are so complicated, and we are stocking up with so much, that there is no room for anything else (even flowers!).  However, DO BRING something: bring a story you might have of another Passover seder — or another holy day that taught you something that has helped you struggle with values and ideas, and with life; bring a question — about Passover, about Judaism, or about faith; bring an insight about the different kinds of slavery that still exist, and what freedom really means…. These will be gifts that all of us will treasure, for the seder, and for the future. Just as we focus on freedom from Egypt at our Seder, we also focus on freedom from various other enslaving devices of modern day society, such as cellphones and texting devices.  I ask that you refrain from using such devices at the table, so we can focus on being fully present for each other.

The Reuben

I’ve been trying to write something about the movie “The King’s Speech” (which was the subject of my d’var Torah this past Shabbat), a must-see movie, but haven’t quite gotten it right yet.  In the meantime, see the movie and think about Moses.

For now, take a look at this video on Youtube:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77z2VsqEmXk

What are we talking about here?  A sandwich, yes, but much more.  What is the role of “tradition” in Judaism?  Just because something is an ancient custom, should we take it more seriously than if it were a newly invented ritual?  Does a ritual that has its origins in New York – or Mount Sinai – have more authority than one which comes from a different place or time?  What makes a ritual Jewish?  How much can we remove from a traditional Jewish practice before it no longer is Jewish?

The video raises these delightful questions, and at the very end should make you laugh … and if you enjoy eating Reuben sandwiches, should make you think twice!

Hello, Wilbur

To add to the conversation about Eating Animals …

Hello, Wilbur

Hello, Wilbur

If we love adorable animals in children’s books, are we ethically obliged to raise our kids vegetarian?

BY MARJORIE INGALL | 7:00 am May 10, 2010

CREDIT: Nickolas Murray, George Eastman House Photography Collection

In the current issue of The Horn Book, the venerable magazine about children’s literature, there’s an essay [1] by children’s-book author Jennifer Armstrong [2] called “Eating Reading Animals.” Armstrong points out that of the all-time bestselling children’s books, fully a third feature animal protagonists. We love to read about our furry and feathered friends. We immerse our kids in animal-centric educational and caretaking experiences. We take them to zoos and farms and encourage them to lavish love and care upon our kitties and doggies. We tie our explanations of global warming and deforestation to how these phenomena endanger adorable fauna. Animal talk is central to the ethical lessons we try to impart to our kids.

And, Armstrong writes, just as we no longer burn live cats or engage in bear-baiting [3] for amusement the way fun-loving Westerners did centuries ago, we need to continue to evolve as moral people. Which is why it’s time to stop eating meat. “[W]hat I am suggesting is that if you love children’s literature, you cannot kill animals just because they taste good on a bun,” she writes. “There’s more than a bit of hypocrisy involved in urging children to empathize with pandas and polar bears and bunnies and ducks in books and at a distance and then feeding them hamburgers and sliced deli meats. The United States kills approximately ten billion land animals every year for human consumption, which works out to over one million animals per hour. No number of books about runaway bunnies, or ducklings negotiating Boston traffic, or terrific and radiant pigs can compensate for that scale of violence, in my opinion.” Her best line: “What is [a child] to make of the trusted adult who holds in one hand a living baby chick to caress with tender care and a chicken nugget in the other hand to eat with special sauce?”

It’s a valid question, even for those of us who nix the nugget because McDonald’s isn’t kosher. Meat is still part of the American Jewish family experience—Shabbat dinner often still revolves around the roast beast; the Jewish deli, while disappearing, still holds iconic cultural pride of place.

Some Jewish writers [4] have recently considered the moral issues around what we ingest. Sadly, as we all know, kashrut isn’t always synonymous with eating morally—look at Postville and the way the Rubashkins’ plant [5] treated animals and workers. I’m involved in a kosher, ethical meat co-op and have followed with interest the attempts by Conservative and Modern Orthodox activists to certify kosher meat as ethical as well as “kosher” according to the letter of halakhah, Jewish law. Ethical kashrut should involve respect for humans and animals. I don’t eat much meat—I joke that I’m in a mixed marriage because I married a Reform Jew from Wisconsin who lives for bratwurst and owns a “Bacon is a Vegetable [6]” t-shirt—but when I do eat meat, I need to know its origins and trust the source. My standards of kashrut wouldn’t be acceptable to some other Jews, and my standards of what’s ethical wouldn’t meet those of vegetarians or vegans. We all have our line in the sand.

And that line can shift. The one time as an adult I willfully broke my own standards of kashrut was when I was writing for a travel guide in rural Greece. On a remote island in the late 1980s, a family insisted I come home with them for dinner. They were fishermen. They caught a fresh squid and smashed it against the side of their fishing boat. I felt just as caught as the cephalopod. I thought about having to explain not just kashrut, but what a Jew was. And I decided that their philosophy of philoxenia, kindness to strangers, was more important than my kashrut. Just that time, and just for me.

At that family’s table I stared down that calamari, heart pounding—I’d never had any unkosher seafood before—and slowly brought one of those ring-y things to my mouth.

Holy moly, it was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted.

Thus ended my one and only foray into non-kosher seafood. So, what’s the moral here? That it’s hard to generalize about ethical rightness. We’re often weighing different goods. And of course, for many people kashrut isn’t about morality at all—it’s about following God’s literal word. Attaching Western values to kashrut is specious, according to many Orthodox folk, because kashrut is about obedience, not moral choice.

My kids love the story of me quaking over a plate of squid rings. Josie tends to follow Daddy’s religion (meat is God), and Maxie tends to follow mine (an occasional hot dog, some white meat, but generally not a fan of the fleisch), and they both revel in tales of my anxiety and waffling—welcome to childhood, where parents’ dithering is children’s joy. Both my kids have experienced that classic youthful moment of revelation, drumstick on way to mouth: Wait, you mean chicken is chicken? Both were briefly horrified; both also forgot or compartmentalized. I expect the classic “OMG, I am so going vegan” to happen, on schedule, in the teen years. If at any point they choose to go fully veg, we’ll accommodate. The amount of meat we eat now is a constant, low-level source of tension (Jonathan wants more; I want less), so adding still more thrumming demands to the mix will only add to the merriment.

In any event, for now, despite my family’s love for our kitty Yoyo and for William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble [7], we will continue to eat meat. Some more, some less; some only kosher, others wrapped in prosciutto and stuffed with crawfish. But Armstrong’s essay should make us all think, wherever we fall on the fleshtastic and/or kosher end of the spectrum. Where does food come from? How do we refrain from exploitation of workers, animals, resources? How do our consumer choices affect the planet? We should all be sweating a little. That goes for kashrut-keepers who don’t think the conditions in a slaughterhouse matter, or who wish to shove any further questions about this issue under the blood-stained rug [8]; it goes for vegans with easy answers about what everyone else should do; it goes for Michael Pollan, whose seven-word mantra (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) doesn’t allow for class or cultural nuance.

The word “mitzvah” doesn’t actually mean “good deed,” though many people think it does. It actually means “obligation.” And one obligation that comes with having kids is not getting to go for easy answers anymore. Let’s keep reading, and keep asking the questions. It’s a mitzvah.

Article printed from Tablet Magazine: http://www.tabletmag.com

URL to article: http://www.tabletmag.com/life-and-religion/33112/hello-wilbur/

URLs in this post:

[1] an essay: http://www.hbook.com/magazine/articles/2010/may10_armstrong.asp

[2] Jennifer Armstrong: http://www.jennifer-armstrong.com/index.htm

[3] bear-baiting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bear-baiting

[4] Jewish writers: http://www.amazon.com/Eating-Animals-Jonathan-Safran-Foer/dp/0316069906/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273167099&sr=1-1

[5] Rubashkins’ plant: http://forward.com/articles/119184/

[6] Bacon is a Vegetable: http://store.dieselsweeties.com/products/bacon-is-a-vegetable-shirt

[7] Sylvester and the Magic Pebblehttp://www.amazon.com/Sylvester-Magic-Pebble-Aladdin-Picture/dp/0671662694

[8] blood-stained rug: http://forward.com/articles/127824/

Eating Animals – Jonathan Safran Foer

Keeping kosher is expensive.  We pay a premium for kosher meat.  No doubt our parents’ or grandparents’ generation paid more for kosher than non-kosher meat, but it seems like the relative difference between kosher and non-kosher meat is much higher now than it used to be.

I have always thought that the reason for this difference can be attributed to two factors:

  • • the move to a standard of Glatt kosher, and
  • • the fact that the soaking and salting of the meat is done by the processing plant rather than by the purchaser

I suspect that consumers are not complaining about paying a little bit more to avoid having to soak and salt the meat themselves, a somewhat lengthy process intended to draw the blood out of of the flesh.

The glatt standard, however, was intended to be a premium standard of kashrut, for those few who could afford the higher prices.  Glatt is a Yiddish word meaning smooth – it refers to the lungs of large animals.  If the lungs have small removable adhesions, and the lungs themselves have no punctures, the animal is kosher, but not glatt.  I have read estimates of the number of animals kosher slaughtered who were found to be glatt ranging from a low of 20% to a high of 60%.  Realize what this means … 40 – 80% of animals who have gone through the kosher slaughter process need to be sent to a non-kosher meat distributor.  This alone significantly raises the price of kosher meat.

However, the glatt standard only affects the price of beef.  The lungs of chickens and turkeys are not inspected for adhesions.  Yet, the relative price of kosher poultry has risen just as much as the relative price of kosher beef.

After reading the book Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, I am wondering if there is another reason that kosher meat is so much more expensive than non-kosher meat.

Foer makes a devastating case against factory farming methods of raising chickens and turkeys (and pigs!), as well as the meat slaughtering industry.  There are virtually no “family farms” raising poultry for consumer consumption, although most cattle ranches still raise the animals naturally and humanely.  Factory farms breed animals for a narrow set of physical characteristics aimed at producing the greatest amount of meat, artificially manipulate the environment to grow the animals as quickly as possible, and feed the animals massive amounts of antibiotics to compensate for unnaturally crowded living conditions.  Factory farmed animals are have large numbers of physical defects, are generally unhealthy, and methods of handling and transport result in a large percentage of broken bones and sores.  Their is no way to effectively dispose of all the waste produced by so many animals in such a small space – it is a major source of environmental pollution and probably diseases such as asthma, influenza, and antibiotic resistent strains of infections.

He makes the case that the large poultry producers, such as Perdue and Tyson, have used factory farming techniques to keep the prices artificially low.  The price of poultry has increased at a much slower rate than the price of any other food item.  Meat is the only thing that has become less expensive in the past generation.  This has happened only because in the calculus of how meat is priced, we are ignoring the huge cost of producing factory meat to the environment and to the health care system.

I wonder if kosher meat has actually increased in price in a natural way, rather than having been kept artificially low.

If an animal is diseased; if an animal has broken limbs; if an animal is not killed carefully and properly; it will not be kosher.  While the problems with certain kosher meat slaughter plants are well known, the case that “Eating Animals” makes against the meat industry primarily, though not exclusively, apply to the non-kosher industry.  There is a significant financial disincentive for kosher processors to mistreat the animals.

There is a larger argument in the book, though, that affects both the kosher and non-kosher meat industries.  The argument, quite simply, is that the raising of meat for food is unsustainable.  The very act of killing animals on a large enough scale to satisfy our current desire and expectation for eating meat is dehumanizing.  It cannot be done better, because it is inherently cruel and desensitizes those who engage in slaughter to the horror of the mass killing of animals.  We have destroyed so much of the genetic diversity of chicken, poultry, and pork and we have concentrated so much production is so little space and we have destroyed virtually every small animal farm, that there may be no way to roll back time, change our societal expectation of how much meat should cost, and rebuild an infrastructure of small individually run farms raising animals for slaughter at small, local, processing plants.

Foer writes that the book is not a straightforward case for vegetarianism.  It is much deeper and more complicated.  It explores the relationship between food and memory, animal flesh and forgetting.  It explores the stories we tell about ourselves by the foods we eat and don’t eat.  It explores the words we use and don’t use when speaking about our animal diet.

For vegans, vegetarians, selective vegetarians, selective meat eaters, and proud meat eaters, it is worth reading “Eating Animals.”  I have not even touched on the problems he raises with the fish/seafood industry, the egg industry, or the dairy industry.  Foer does not touch on the problems that corporate farming has raised in the non-meat farms.  The overuse of fertilizers, pesticides, genetic engineering, the reduction of genetic diversity, the patenting of plant species … we really don’t know what effect all of this is going to have on our planet, on our health and the health of the next generation.


How is Torah more embodied than the Torah we put in our bodies?  The food we consume, or don’t consume, because we look to Torah for direction.  The following article by Jay Michaelson from the Forward makes a case for the new Magen Tzedek certification symbol, indicating that the food has been prepared according to the requirements of Jewish ethical law.



Magen Tzedek: Model of the Jewish Future or Show

Without an Audience?

The Polymath

By Jay Michaelson

Published November 18, 2009, issue of November 27, 2009.

The problem seems not to have changed. Back when I was at college, the egalitarian services couldn’t get a minyan, and so, while I didn’t like Orthodox liturgy, and didn’t approve of the mechitza (prayer barrier), I still schlepped up the extra flight of stairs to the traditional minyan, week after week. Whatever my personal preferences, it seemed that only Orthodox Jews cared enough to make the system work.

Today, I feel like the challenge remains the same — only writ much larger. Historically, progressive Jews have had trouble mustering the same degree of zeal as traditional Jews, whether regarding synagogue affiliation, in-marriage (and affiliation post-intermarriage) or any number of other values. This, the Orthodox often say with a degree of deserved smugness, just goes to show you.

Now, along come the Conservative movement’s efforts to create a Magen Tzedek, a seal for food products that would certify conformity not to the ritual particulars of kashrut, but to the deeper and more profound requirements of Jewish social justice law.

I think the Magen Tzedek is a fantastic idea — if it works. It makes a strong case for Judaism’s ethical relevance, a 21st-century update of the old Hebrew National advertisements — “We answer to a higher authority.” In fact, the Magen Tzedek is even better than the original, which, after all, was a ritual “authority” only tangentially related to contemporary health or sanitary concerns, It is a “higher authority” on values that really matter, to religious Jews, secular Jews and non-Jews alike.

Imagine if Jews were known in America to be the super-ethical people instead of the super-ritual ones. We’re the people who won’t eat a hamburger unless the workers at the restaurant are paid a fair wage. We’re the ones who consider environmentalism to be a matter of religious concern. Because doing the right thing matters to God.

This is good P.R., to put it mildly, both “outwardly,” in terms of the wider population, and “inwardly,” in terms of the Jewish community. This is a Judaism that stands for something meaningful, something more compelling than Jewish survival, or the ritual purity of cloven-foot animals. (Full disclosure: I keep kosher myself.) I’m not saying that the Magen Tzedek would end antisemitism and assimilation, but it would be a potent weapon against them.

And, contrary to the objections of some, it’s grounded in authentic, ancient Jewish values. Of course, the specific details of living wages and green production are new, just like the details of how to kasher a microwave. These will, and should, be debated: Many current Magen Tzedek requirements do seem to be needlessly obscure and overly strict. But the basic principles are indubitable. And I would suggest that in the Age of Madoff, making our ethical reasoning as current, comprehensive and mandatory as our ritual reasoning is, itself, a Jewish obligation. As many Orthodox rabbis said this past Yom Kippur, we need to be glatt yosher (ethically ‘straight’) even more than glatt kosher.

But it’s that pesky adjective — mandatory — that will be the biggest obstacle to the Magen Tzedek’s success. Practicing Orthodox Jews simply will not eat food whose preparation wasn’t properly supervised, even if they’re really hungry and there is no alternative. Will practicing progressive Jews be similarly strict? Or will this be yet

another optional practice that, like my egalitarian minyan at school, has the right values but no followers?

another optional practice that, like my egalitarian minyan at school, has the right values but no followers?

There are some positive signs. I know people who will not eat non-eco-kosher food (for example, factory-farmed meat or eggs, over-fished species of fish) and will not use environmentally unsound disposable plates, even if it means missing out on treats, snacks or full meals. And of course, there are increasing numbers of Americans who will not feed their children pesticide-laden vegetables or processed McFood made mostly out of corn. Some of this is motivated by health concerns, but some of it is value based, and much of it is every bit as strict as Orthodox kashrut. But such behaviors are still on the fringes. Will they ever become mainstream enough to make obtaining a Magen Tzedek worth the financial and administrative costs of doing so? Will progressive Jews care as much about progressive values as traditional Jews care about traditional ones?

I am both despairing and hopeful.

Within the Jewish community, I have my doubts. Conservative Judaism probably has the largest gap between ideology and practice, and it’s not clear how the Magen Tzedek will be any different from the 100 other Conservative rules and regulations that most laypeople ignore. Orthodox Jews have already, by and large, rejected it, although some have created their own version, which I’m not sure helps or hurts. And Reform Jews may not care about a specifically Jewish certification. That doesn’t leave much of a Jewish constituency.

But if the Magen Tzedek proceeds in its current direction, it will be of value far beyond the Jewish community. According to sources quoted in the Forward, the Magen Tzedek has the potential to be the most comprehensive “green seal” in America, and such seals matter economically. If the Magen Tzedek were to capture a share of this market — though, to be sure, there is already plenty of competition — it could indeed reach critical mass.

The dirty little secret of kashrut certification is that it works the same way. The kosher food industry has boomed in recent years: a 15% annual growth rate (compared with 4% for the food industry in general), and a $9 billion market. But according to a 2007 survey, 55% of kosher food consumers buy kosher because they believe it is healthier. And the majority of them are not Jewish.

This has to be the model for the Magen Tzedek — although not on the half-truth that kosher food is healthier, but on the whole truth that Tzedek food is more just. The takeaway is clear. If the Magen Tzedek gains traction among non-Jews who care about how their food is produced, it is sustainable. If it relies on Jewish observance patterns, it isn’t.

In a way, this is an unfortunate result — that a Jewish seal is of more value to gentiles than to Jews. But maybe it’s not so unfortunate at all.

In the coming century, sociologists tell us, Judaism will become less like an all-or-nothing proposition — ethnicity, identity, culture, nation and religion, all wrapped up in one — and more like one source of values, identity, spirituality and culture among many. We should get used to someone practicing Jewish dietary laws, Buddhist meditation and secular ethical values, whether that someone is born of a Jewish mother or not. Jewish culture and religion are going to survive not because of endogamy, but because they remain relevant to people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds who find them to be meaningful. Like it or not, the Kabbalah Centre, Matisyahu and the Magen Tzedek are the future of Judaism; they thrive not because the Jewish tribe maintains them, but because they appeal to a wide range of people.

This is a meaningful transition in the way Jewishness is understood. For some, it is terrifying. But for me, it represents a compelling model of how particularism can survive without ethnocentrism and despite assimilation — not quite a Judaism without Jews, but Judaism beyond the confines of the Jewish population. Yes, there will always be things that only Jews do: I don’t see the lulav and etrog suddenly holding universal appeal. But in the 21st century, progressive Judaism’s survival depends on its relevance to the other 99.9% of the world.

Thus, rather than seeing the Magen Tzedek’s dependence on non-Jews as a liability, I see it as an asset. Imagine an evening in which you enjoy African-American music, a Japanese-American car and Chinese-American food, and it’s all certified according to American Jewish ethical values. Could be worse.

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