Kashrut standards should be revisited and the opportunities further expanded to make keeping kosher more affordable, more available and more attractive
By RABBI ALEXANDER DAVIS
The closing of Fishman’s Delicatessen and Bakery is a loss for our Twin Cities community (2-4-11 AJW). For well over a decade, Fishman’s has fed our stomachs and souls. They sold and served not only good kosher food, but created a heimish (homey) atmosphere where chance encounters built relationships and where informal learning filled the aisles and the air. Fishman’s deserves our thanks for being a cornerstone of our Jewish community.
The loss of Minnesota’s only exclusively kosher market gives us pause to consider the landscape of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) in the Twin Cities. Rather than speculating on why Fishman’s closed, a different set of questions should be asked: Can we engender a culture of kashrut that deepens our appreciation of Jewish law and tradition? Can we respect a diversity of beliefs and practices and still bring Jews of different backgrounds together to break bread? Can we create a Jewish food ethic that serves as a model for responsible food production that is healthy for our bodies and our planet, and that contributes to the well-being of our society?
These are not small questions. They will require reexamining our understanding and practice of kashrut. But I believe that the answer to each of them is “yes.”
- Rabbi Davis: We need a livable kashrut.
For years, a small, dedicated and knowledgeable cadre of Jews has carefully supervised the kosher establishments and products available in the Twin Cities. They ensured Jewish law was upheld, even as they increased the number of venues serving kosher food.
Today, out of desire and necessity, the rules that govern our community’s kashrut standards should be revisited and the opportunities further expanded. This can be accomplished while adhering to traditional laws of kashrut, and done in a way that makes kashrut more affordable, more available and more attractive.
Suggestions come easily to mind:
Cost: Keeping kosher shouldn’t have to break the bank. While kosher supervision of shechita (ritual slaughter) involves additional labor, the cost of kosher meat can be cut. Glatt kosher meat is substantially more expensive than strictly kosher, non-glatt meat. Unfortunately, it is not widely distributed by local vendors. Thus, glatt meat costs local Jewish agencies thousands of additional dollars and discourages families from celebrating events such as weddings with supervised meat meals. Living a Jewish life is expensive enough. We should spare ourselves the extra expense and seek new ways to bring non-glatt meat to the marketplace.
Availability: Jewish communities smaller than the Twin Cities (i.e., Kansas City, Dallas, Cincinnati, Rochester, etc.) have proportionally greater numbers of kosher bakeries, restaurants and markets. Local kosher supervising organizations must proactively increase the kosher options in town. MSP Kosher, created by my colleague, Rabbi Avi Olitzky, is doing just that. (Full disclosure, I am on the supervisory board of MSP Kosher.) Unlike traditional kashrut agencies, MSP Kosher operates free of charge. By providing supervision without a fee, MSP Kosher reminds us that kashrut’s bottom line does not have to be financial. Expanding the kosher marketplace increases the visibility and attractiveness of keeping kosher.
Leniency: No matter how we explain it, keeping kosher means restricting our diet. Having grown up in a nonkosher home, today I find spiritual value conscientiously choosing to eat certain foods and avoid others. That being said, when food selection is too limited by unnecessary strictness, kashrut becomes untenable. Should we avoid strawberry shortcake, as some kashrut agencies counsel, because we might ingest a bug accidentally missed in the cleaning? Should we refrain from putting Worcestershire sauce on our steak because the 16th century Shulchan Aruch claims mixing meat and fish (an ingredient in Worcestershire sauce) causes leprosy? If the strictest definition of kashrut is the only one promoted, it will actually discourage observance by making Jewish tradition appear obsolete and irrelevant.
Ethical: Small projects importing local, organic meat and investing in Community Supported Agriculture should be expanded. At the same time, a new system of checks and balances should be established to ensure that we live up to the ethical demands of the Torah. Magen Tzedek is one such initiative. Inspired by Beth Jacob’s Rabbi Morris Allen, further developed by the Conservative movement and rooted in Jewish law, this seal of ethical certification will not replace but supplement traditional hechsherim (kosher seals). It will ensure that not only is food kosher, so is its means of production. Magen Tzedek will thus expand our definition of kashrut by reminding us that God cares as much about the food we eat as the workers we treat.
With a sluggish economy, a national spotlight on diet and an understanding of the impact of our food choices, the time is ripe for changes such as these. Combining these steps with meaningful teaching from our synagogues and dining rooms will deepen our commitment to kashrut.
Everyone knows that kashrut is not just tradition; it is business. We need a livable kashrut — one that reflects our highest ethical standards and respects our financial reality. We need a kashrut that meets the letter of the law and its spirit. We need a kashrut that ties us to tradition and to each other.
As our community readjusts to fill the void left by the closing of Fishman’s, we hope that those who care about kashrut and all who seek to create a vibrant Jewish life in Minnesota consider the true goal of the mitzva of kashrut: to bring holiness to our lives by inviting God to our table.
Rabbi Alexander Davis is the senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park.
(American Jewish World, 2.18.11)