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Mindful Eating: Is it Kosher?

New book explores the idea that what we choose to eat and not eat, and how it may define us in profound ways.

"You are what you eat" was a term that became popular in the late 1960s among cultural revolutionaries who turned away from the more popular meat-eating culture to a vegetarian diet based on the idea that what we consume not only contributes to who we are physically, but morally and spiritually as well. 

In many ways, the traditional Jewish approach to eating, called "Kashrut" or more commonly referred to as Kosher, is based on a similar idea that is explored in The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic, edited by Mary L. Zamore, associate Rabbi of in Morristown.

Published spring 2011, The Sacred Table features essays written by more than three dozen progressive thinkers on a wide range of topics that explore food choices, and the ethics and morality of food production.

According to Zamore, the term "Kosher" was very much misunderstood for hundreds of years by those outside of the Jewish culture.

“Being Kosher or practicing Kashrut is really about mindfulness. It’s about being aware of what we are eating and how it’s produced, which involves not only how the workers were treated in the process but also how the animals were treated,” Zamore said.

She said that in the 19th century, some scholars believed that Kosher practices came about largely as health and hygiene practices.

"This belief was a misinterpretation superimposed by the non-Jewish world," Zamore said. "Kosher or Kashrut is a spiritual practice and it is about one’s connection to community, the Torah and God."  

Zamore’s book invites readers to consider what can be learned from Kosher principles.

"My goal in editing the book was to explore–from a liberal Jewish voice–the lessons that could be drawn from this broad heading of Kashrut,” said Zamore, who describes herself as a “meat minimalist” or one who consumes meat on a very limited basis.

She said that she and her husband make sure that they are eating from Kosher sources, which means that animals should be grassfed and eggs should come from “free range” chickens.

While the industrialization of food production made it possible to feed many more people, what has been lost in the process is a consciousness about where our food comes from, Zamore said.

“The commercialization of farming made it possible for a greater number of people to be fed, more than at any other time in history. But we’re also seeing nutrition take a nose dive,” she said.

The Sacred Table opens the door to a journey of self-reflection about what food means to us and what we are willing to condone in order to have access to certain foods that may or may not even be critical to our survival.

Contributor Rachel S. Mikva discusses in her essay the sad reality of how some farm workers are treated. “Florida farm workers are paid 1.2 cents per pound for picking tomatoes," she said. "To earn $25 a day, one worker must pick 2,000 pounds of tomatoes.”

She said some growers have been cited for promoting slave conditions using armed guards to force workers to keep going for 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week.

Mikva discusses later in her essay the concept of "tzaar haalei chayim," which refers to understanding the pain of all living creatures.

To shed light on why it is not Kosher to slaughter an animal and its young on the same day, she cites a passage from the Bible: 

“For in these cases animals feel very great pain, there being no difference regarding this pain between man and the other animals. For the love and tenderness of a mother for her child is not consequent upon reason, but upon the activity of the imaginative faculty, which is found in most animals just as it is found in man.”

The Sacred Table invites readers to consider how the food we eat and the way it is procured defines our relationship–or lack of relationship–to all of life in its many forms.

“Eating is a visceral experience. It not only sustains our bodies, but also leaves an imprint on our psyches,” writes Peter Knobel, also a contributor to The Sacred Table.

Richard Schwartz August 18, 2011 at 06:52 PM
As president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America and author of the book “Judaism and Vegetarianism,” I was very pleased to see this article. I hope that the book sensitizes people about the foods they eat and also leads to a greater consideration of vegetarianism because (1) the production and consumption of meat and other animal products contradict basic Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources and help hungry people, and (2) animal -based diets and agriculture are causing an epidemic of diseases in the Jewish and other communities and contributing significantly to climate change, deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, water shortages, and other environmental problems that threaten all of humanity. I believe it is essential that the Jewish community address these issues to show the relevance of eternal Jewish teachings to current issues and to help shift our imperiled planet to a sustainable path. More information about Jewish teachings related to vegetarianism can be found at JewishVeg.com/Schwartz and in our acclaimed documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World,” which can be seen at aSacredDuty.com.
Richard Schwartz August 18, 2011 at 06:53 PM
I think a respectful email discussion/debate on "Should Jews be Vegetarians?" woud be a kiddush Hashem in showing therelevance of Judaism's eternal teachings to many food-related issues.
MaryLynn Schiavi August 19, 2011 at 06:40 PM
Richard, Perhaps we should discuss whether everyone should be vegetarian. I still eat fish on a fairly regular basis, and chicken less often and red meat once in a great while. I still eat these foods mostly out of habit, but struggle with the idea that I am eating something that had a consciousness and endured pain. Then again, some might argue that everything that lives has some kind of consciousness. How do you feel about this issue?
Richard Schwartz August 19, 2011 at 08:12 PM
Thanks for your comments, Marylynn, My responses are interspersed below. Richard, Perhaps we should discuss whether everyone should be vegetarian. * That would be ideal, and it is actually the situation in the 2 ideal times in Jewish tradition: (1) the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:29( and the Messianic period, according to Rav kook, based on Isaiah 11:6-9, "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, ..., the lion shall eat straw like the ox, ..., and no one shall destroy in all of God's holy mountain." I still eat fish on a fairly regular basis, and chicken less often and red meat once in a great while. I still eat these foods mostly out of habit, but struggle with the idea that I am eating something that had a consciousness and endured pain. Well, I think we are all on a continuum and will all be vegetarian in the Messianic time, according to Rav Kook, as indicated above. Then again, some might argue that everything that lives has some kind of consciousness. How do you feel about this issue? I often discuss this with my pet carrot. :-) Actually meat eaters are responsible for more plant destruction because much grain is fed to animals destined for slaughter. Shabbat shalom, Richard
MaryLynn Schiavi August 21, 2011 at 01:22 PM
Richard, Do you think that we are actually ingesting and absorbing the pain that the animal feels at the time of death? If so, how do you think this affects our consciousness? It seems that this bothers me more when I think about it, but what if one never thinks about the pain the animal has endured?

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