** Have you listened to Episode 4: Conflicted, Slaughtering and Prince William’s Wedding, yet? Download on iTunes or listen here **
With the Jewish holiday of Passover just around the corner, I’m reminded that Judaism is the “Weird Al” Yankovic of world religions. Check YouTube and Facebook and you’ll find an overabundance of parody songs relating to every Jewish holiday and every Jewish custom. There are at least three parodies of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” which mention the word “Kosher.” I chose this one by a capella group Six13 called “Kosher Plate” because it’s the best of the bunch. Also? Shortest. It makes the joke and then moves on to other Jewish topics.
We spent a sizable portion of this past week’s show talking about kosher ritual slaughter — which has its parallels to the Muslim counterpart called halal. Interestingly enough, the words kosher and halal mean just about the same thing: fit for use. Permissible. And they don’t necessarily just pertain to what food is okay to eat; other aspects of ritual life can be stamped with approval by each of these words.
The laws pertaining to kosher food are quite complex. First of all, one needs to determine if the type of animal is permissible for consumption. If it’s a mammal, the rule is that it needs to chew its cud and have split hooves. Fish must have fins and scales. Birds must not be predatory. And all insects are out of the question. Except for certain types of locusts, but that’s pretty implausible because — ew! A whole bunch of these rules can be found in Leviticus 11 as well as many of the commentaries which follow it.
But wait — there’s more! When we’re talking about mammals and fowl, each must be trapped and slaughtered in a specific way — where the jugular, carotid and esophagus are slashed in one motion. After that, a careful inspection must take place to ensure that there were no imperfections in the animal which would have potentially allowed it to die in a year’s time. As much blood as possible must be removed. There are certain parts which one can and can’t eat. (There are no specific rules regarding the killing of fish and locusts, although I would assume it’s not too easy to kill a locust humanely.)
And with that? There are also separations between eating dairy products and meat products — which means that although one could have a completely kosher hamburger, you can’t add cheese to it. The separation extends even further to having separate dishes and utensils for meat products and dairy products. It’s also tradition for many to wait a period of time after eating meat before s/he partakes of dairy. There are volumes of these rules which ask what would appear to most to be anal-retentive questions. (“What ratio of accidental meat could fall into a vat of dairy without deeming the dairy to be unkosher?” “1:60”)
Because there are so many laws and statutes to think of, it’s a whole lot easier to let someone do the checking for you. That’s why you’ll see those kosher symbols on packages of food certifying that everything is kosher according to a specific authority. A “U” with a circle around it is, to many, the gold standard: it signifies that a representative of the Orthodox Union has supervised the food throughout the entire manufacturing process and has deemed it kosher. It does not, as many mistakenly believe, mean that a rabbi has blessed the food. Nor is it a symbol of a sort of “kosher tax” levied on food items to increase prices. (The cost of kosher supervision on, say, a package of Oreos would only come to a fraction of a cent per unit.)
There are different symbols you might see — as the Orthodox Union does not have a monopoly on everything. Certain varieties of Tostitos corn chips have a K with a triangle around it. It’s still just as kosher to the overwhelming majority of people who care; there are a select few who might stand by one authority and not another for whatever reason.
There’s a new kosher symbol which is beginning to emerge which has taken a new direction. Entitled Magen Tzedek, it certifies not a specific level of observance and a watchful eye over the ingredients and preparation of the food to consider it kosher, but instead focuses on the ethical issues which have recently gained attention where it comes to food preparation. To quote the website, the Magen Tzedek seal of approval “will help assure consumers that kosher food products were produced in keeping with the highest possible Jewish ethical values and ideals for social justice in the area of labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity.” It’s an additional symbol which may advise that those preparing the food are being treated fairly.
Rabbi Morris Allen, an architect of Magen Tzedek, mentions this as part of his mission. As quoted in a New York Times article: “As concerned as we are about how an animal gets killed, we need to be equally concerned about how a worker lives . . . We need to be certain that the food we are obligated to eat is produced in a way that demonstrates concern with those who produce it.”
I suppose that intersects well with a common tenet of many religions — ensuring that one treats his/her fellow human beings with respect. It should be interesting to see if this takes off. It will be nice to see if those who have traditionally kept kosher embrace the values of treating one’s fellow man as well as the animal who would become part of their next meal.
If anything, I hope they get treated at least as well as the locusts.