Finding New Meaning in Kashrut for the Modern Age

In this block we will consider several contemporary approaches to finding new meaning in the laws of kashrut.

Resource Ages: 15-18


Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, What Is “Ethical” Kashrut?: Bringing animal treatment, workers' conditions, and environmental issues to a kosher table.
President and Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning and leadership), the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of seventeen books on Jewish ethics.

In the first decade of the 21st century, a growing movement emerged focusing not only on ritual, but also on ethical kashrut. This movement emphasizes not only the traditional rules, but also takes into account issues such as animal treatment, workers conditions, and environmental impact, taking its cue from a number of supporting biblical sources [such as the Torah prohibition of] the mistreatment of workers (Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:14), tzar baalei haim – the mistreatment of animals (for example Exodus 23:12), and environmental values are found in the many agricultural mitzvot in the Torah, including the creation story, where God charges humans l’uvdah ul’shomra (to work and to guard the earth) (Genesis 2:15).

How do these new “rules” of ethical kashrut relate to the traditional rituals, blessings, and separation of dishes? Many of those who observe kashrut believe that the values of ethical kashrut may have been the original intention for how religious food consumption was prescribed in the Torah. For others, these values are a positive expansion or evolution from the traditional rules. For still others, the contemporary values of ethical kashrut can replace the old, harder-to-understand rituals.

The Torah and other Jewish literature lend support for ethical kashrut initiatives. Nahmanides, a 13th century Spanish rabbi, argued (Leviticus 19:1) that if people consume food that is technically kosher from a ritual perspective but do not embrace the ethics that come along with consumption then they are naval birshut haTorah (despicable with the permission of the Torah). They have broken no formal kashrut prohibitions but their act is shameful, and they have not lived by the moral and ethical intentions of the Torah. Nahmanides is referring to eating in moderation but his value certainly lends to broad extension. Simply put: permissible consumption does not necessarily mean good consumption.

Available online at

Read more

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How do values and tradition impact my Jewish practice?
  • How do family traditions play an important role in our lives?
  • How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?
  • How do Jewish rituals and practices enrich the way I experience my life and the world?
  • Why/how might Jewish practices be meaningful for me even if I don’t define myself as “religious”?
  • How does being Jewish affect what I do in my daily/weekly life?
  • How do beliefs, ethics, or values influence different people’s behavior?
  • What are the responsibilities of the individual in regard to issues of social justice?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • Can mitzvot hold timeless relevance to us in every generation? 
  • What should we do if a mitzvah does not feel relevant to our age?
  • Do you find the laws of kashrut relevant and meaningful to you in your life?
  • Is there an obvious connection between the laws of kashrut and ethical behavior?
  • How can the way you eat be an expression of your values?
  • How can what you eat be an expression of your values?

Background for Teacher

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, What Is “Ethical” Kashrut?: Bringing animal treatment, workers’ conditions, and environmental issues to a kosher table. A new approach to keeping kosher – Ethical Kashrut: R. Yanklowitz describes a contemporary phenomenon of finding a new meaning and connection in the laws...

Read more

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, What Is “Ethical” Kashrut?: Bringing animal treatment, workers’ conditions, and environmental issues to a kosher table.

A new approach to keeping kosher – Ethical Kashrut: R. Yanklowitz describes a contemporary phenomenon of finding a new meaning and connection in the laws of Kashrut that are not obvious from the traditional laws as found in biblical and rabbinic sources. He calls this “ethical kashrut” which includes a concern for animal rights, workers conditions, and environmental ethics. While these are all values that can be found in Jewish law and thought, they are not intuitively found in the laws of kashrut. 

Animal welfare and the laws of kashrut: While concern for workers rights (for example Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:14), and environmental ethics as a value (for example the many agricultural mitzvot in the Torah, and the command of l’uvdah ul’shomra – to work and to guard the earth in the creation story (Genesis 2:15) are not inherently connected to the laws of Kashrut, concern for animal rights and welfare (tzar baalei haim  – for example Exodus 23:12), is central to kashrut, especially in the laws of shechita (ritual slaughter).

A new contemporary meaning to kashrut: While some argue that this is a tenuous attempt to impose modern day sensibilities on biblical laws that should be approached in a more traditional religious and spiritual way (i.e. no further meaning or justification should be found for these laws other than they are divine commands), others see it as commendable to find contemporary meaning for ancient laws in an where religious observance is competing with so many other systems of beliefs.

Yanklowitz introduces the concept of naval birshut haTorah (an ethically dubious person despite observance of the letter of the law). Halacha is not a comprehensive system of ethical behaviour. It is a legal system like any other, which encourages and attempts to create a society based on ethical behaviour. But ethical behaviour can never be fully legislated, and it is possible to keep every mitzva and still be an unethical person who mistreats people. This approach, to transpose ethical relevance to the laws of kashrut, pushes back against this – keeping kosher but abusing animals and people contradicts the spirit of Jewish law and Torah Judaism.

Rabbis Rebecca T. Alpert and Jacob J. Staub, Kashrut and Eco-Kashrut

A Reconstructionist approach to kashrut: In this text a reconstructionist approach to kashrut is presented, which the authors acknowledge is “the ways that Reconstructionists keep kosher vary widely” not all of which would be affirmed by those Jews who take a more halachic approach to kashrut. This is because for Reconstructionists, keeping kosher is not about obeying a divine commandment, but is rather a means of sanctifying their lives – which each individual person can decide for themselves what this means and how it will look in a practical way.

Jewish values that surround the Reconstructionist approach to eating: According to this approach, the way we eat is perhaps even more important than what we eat in order to sanctify life. This would include respecting others’ differing approaches to kashrut, affirming the value of diversity. Also eating a healthy diet, and in ecologically responsible ways is an important value for Reconstructionist Jews, which for some leads to vegetarianism. For many Reconstructionist Jews the imperative to eat in ways that neither destroy the earth nor contribute to world hunger is the most important value surrounding the way we eat. 

If you want to learn more about Reconstructionist Judaism, you may find these resources useful:

Blu Greenberg, Kashrut is the Opportunity to live Torah Ideals

Kashrut not separating but distinguishing: Blu Greenberg is contemplating one of the traditional explanations behind the laws of kashrut – to keep Jews from socializing from non-Jews for fear this may lead to assimilation and inter-marriage. This concern is found in the halachic sources (for example Bishul Akum, where food is not kosher if it has been solely cooked by a non-Jew). However, she frames this in a way more appropriate for contemporary times when Jews and non-Jews find themselves more integrated in society than ever before. 

She distinguishes between distinctiveness and separation. While it is not important that Jews keep themselves separate from non-Jews and non-Jewish society, it is important they remain “distinct” with a unique belief system that is expressed in Jewish law. This is seen clearly in the laws of kashrut, which aims to make eating a “special experience and to serve as a reminder of a Jew’s ethical conscience as well as of the other unique teachings of Judaism”. 

For Greenberg, this is not to keep Jews separate from non-Jews, or in fact from non-observant Jews, but is fully possible to achieve in the presence of non-observant Jews and of non-Jews. In fact, a logical extension of her argument is that socializing over food is an effective way to model the values of Judaism, and be a light unto the nations in this way. The values of friendship, human solidarity, and socializing are highly esteemed Jewish values; making a living and exchanging professional service (sometimes performed over a meal) also are respected in Jewish culture. One of the great qualities of the Jewish tradition is its ability to balance contradictions- idealism and realism, Jewish particularism and unusual concern for humanity. Similarly, in the act of eating, one can strike that balance between fidelity to one’s own principles and shared friendship and respectful contact with others.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Kashrut – Eating as an Act of Choosing Life: Shemini 5781

Vegetarianism as the new kashrut: R. Greenberg calls for a radical evolutionary approach to halacha, whereby the principles of the laws of kashrut should be applied to contemporary times, and the sensitivities we have today when choosing what food to eat. This means that we must insert traditional values that already exist in Judaism into the way we eat, and consider this a part of the idea behind the laws of kashrut. For example, he intimates here that vegetarianism may be the new ideal for Jewish ethical eating, both in terms of animal welfare as well as the impact of the meat industry on the environment. For R. Greenberg, vegetarianism is “the Messianic standard” (this is based on the opinion of Rabbi A. Y. Kook among others who believe in messianic times vegetarianism will be mandated)..

Kashrut upholding the preciousness of life: Greenberg calls for a new approach to kashrut based on Jewish values including environmentalism, healthy eating, proper payment and health protection for agricultural workers, and  humane treatment of animals. For Rabbi Greenberg, kashrut must be about turning food preparation and eating into a way of living that upholds the preciousness of life.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
  • A fun hook for this class that is designed to encourage the students to consider the difference between mitzvot observation and ethical behaviour would be to hold a balloon debate to decide as a class who is the best model of being a Jew (ask for a volunteer to represent each position in the debate): 
    • A Jew who observes all the laws of Torah fastidiously but treats people badly (even though this is also discouraged by meta-mitzvot such as “Loving your neighbor as yourself”) and finds loopholes in civic laws whenever he can (this could be called a nivul berishut hatorah – a lowlife who is nevertheless acting within Torah laws)
    • A proud Jew who does not keep any laws at all (because they are antiquated and there is no God) but is nevertheless a good person, a social activist involved in Jewish and non-Jews causes.
    • A Jew who keeps the laws to the best of his ability and treats people well to the best of his abilities but sometimes falls short on both counts.

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  • In the first source R. Yanklowitz introduces the importance that the way we eat (expressed in a general way by the laws of kashrut) should express the ethical values underlying Judaism, which he terms “ethical kashrut”. While it is possible t keep Jewish law, this does not guarantee an ethical way of living life, and so he encourages us to approach kashrut in a more ethical way. The following questions may help your students to explore these ideas:
    • Is there a connection between the traditional laws of kashrut and Judaism’s ethical values?
    • Why do you think it is important to insert new ethical values into our kashrut practice?
    • What does naval birshut haTorah mean to you? What does this have to do with kashrut?
    • What do you think of this approach to make kashrut relevant and meaningful for us today?
  • The Reconstructionist approach is to choose which parts of the laws of kashrut are meaningful for you, and connect to your values today. More important than what we eat, it is how we incorporate our values into the way we eat that is important. These questions can be used to explore this further:
    • What do you think of this approach to the laws of kashrut?
    • How does this approach differ from the previous one?
    • How does Kashrut reinforce the value of “Judaism as a civilization” ?
    • How can we “sanctify life” through the way we eat?
    • Do you think the traditional laws of kashrut do this also?
  • In the third source, Blue Greenberg argues that keeping kosher should not keep Jews separate from non-Jews or non-religious Jews, but rather it should remind them of their distinct value system. Eating should be an experience and a reminder of a Jew’s ethical conscience as well as of the other unique teachings of Judaism. These questions may help consider this approach to kashrut:
    • How does kashrut make Jews distinct from non-Jews?
    • Is this part of the intention?
    • Is this a good or bad thing?
    • How does this approach explain why this is important?
  • In the final source, R. Greenberg calls for a new ethical kashrut which expresses Jewish values such as environmentalism, healthy eating, protection for agricultural workers, and  humane treatment of animals. The following questions may help your students explore these ideas:
    • Are these values uniquely Jewish? Where are they found in the Torah?
    • What do they have to do with the laws of kashrut?
    • How does this approach differ from the second source’s (Albert and Staub) approach to kashrut?
    • Do you think religion should be concerned with these areas of ethical behaviour if the state (government ) is already trying to achieve the same?
  • A possible activity for this class that would tie these texts together could be asking your students in small groups to create a new Jewish ritual around kashrut and the new meanings found in the texts studied in this unit (your students could also insert their own meanings into the ritual as well). This could be something similar to a Pesech Seder meal with symbolic foods, activities and readings, that express the ideas found in the texts.