Rituals and Ethics in our Food
בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשה פד
ויאמר לו לך נא ראה את שלום אחיך ואת שלום הצאן, את שלום אחיך ניחא אלא מאי ואת שלום הצאן, הדא אמר שאדם צריך לשאול בשלום דבר שיש בו הנייה ממנו.
Genesis Rabbah 84:13
“Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring . . .” (Genesis 37:14). “How your brothers are” is natural; but why “how the flocks are faring“? This proves that one must inquire after the well-being of anything from which one benefits.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than forty-five million turkeys are cooked and eaten in the U.S. at Thanksgiving. In 2010, more than 242 million turkeys are being raised with an average liveweight per bird of twenty-eight pounds. By contrast, in 1970, only 105 million birds were raised, with an average liveweight of seventeen pounds.
As Jews, we are asked to think about what we put into our mouths before we eat. Kosher slaughter raises the price of meat, so we purchase less of it. We cannot mix meat with dairy, so we eat meat less frequently. Some animals never touch our plates. We recite blessings to thank God for our food.
In our country today, mass production of turkeys, chickens, and cows is the norm. So are inhumane working conditions for the thousands of laborers involved in producing the food that lands on our kosher dishes—milchigs, fleishigs, and parve.
Thanksgiving gives us pause to reconsider our role in this system, and should make us proud as Conservative Jews to have developed the first ethical seal of kashrut in the world, Magen Tzedek. As described in its mission statement (http://magentzedek.org/), “Magen Tzedek is more than just a new certification for kosher food-it is an awareness built upon the commitment to protect workers, animals and the earth in the production of food. Founded on the principle that we are what we eat, Magen Tzedek is an ethical seal signifying that kosher food has been prepared with the highest degree of integrity. Products carrying the Magen Tzedek seal reflect the highest standard on a variety of important issues: employee wages and benefits, health and safety, animal welfare, corporate transparency and environmental impact. A concept that grows more relevant with every passing day, Magen Tzedek demonstrates that ritual and ethical commandments have an equal place at our tables.”
In a week when we as Americans consume an enormous amount of food, we as Jews should consider Jacob’s question—”How are the flocks faring?”—and the midrashic invitation to inquire after the well-being of anything from which we benefit.