In a recent NY Times column, David Brooks described a visit to the Pomegranate kosher supermarket and described the shoppers’ experience as “moral”. Many readers objected to the column but I did not. He did an excellent job as a community outsider describing kosher shopping to other outsiders. In particular, some questioned his description of kosher shopping as “minutely governed by an external moral order.” From a technical perspective, this is certainly accurate. One of the definitions for “morality” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a term used “descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society…” (link). That certainly refers to a religious community’s behavioral guidelines.

Is Pomegranate Moral?

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I. Moral Shopping

In a recent NY Times column, David Brooks described a visit to the Pomegranate kosher supermarket and described the shoppers’ experience as “moral” (link). Many readers objected to the column but I did not. He did an excellent job as a community outsider describing kosher shopping to other outsiders.

In particular, some questioned his description of kosher shopping as “minutely governed by an external moral order.” From a technical perspective, this is certainly accurate. One of the definitions for “morality” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a term used “descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society…” (link). That certainly refers to a religious community’s behavioral guidelines.

However, the question really asked is whether kosher consumption can be considered inherently ethical. On the one hand, somewhere along the production chain, someone or something may have been mistreated. That renders purchase of the product a contribution to that misconduct, and therefore unethical. However, there are multiple levels of ethical propriety. Any purchase that includes sales tax supports the US government and any unethical acts it may commit. Does that mean that buying organic food, if you pay sales tax, is equivalent to buying clothes manufactured in a sweat shop? Certainly not.

Our question, then, is not whether buying kosher food is perfectly ethical but whether it is merely an act reflecting some ethics. This takes us to the underlying reason for the kosher rules. While there are many diverse kosher regulations (e.g. refraining from eating blood, separating milk and meat, slaughtering animals), I will only focus on the limited choice of kosher animals mentioned in this past week’s Torah portion (Lev. 11).

II. Limited Choices

Of the land animals, we may only eat animals that ruminate (chew their cud) and have split hooves. Of the sea animals, we may only eat fish with fins and scales. And of the birds, we may eat any that are not on the biblical list. (Of course, over time things got more complicated as disagreements arose and multiplied.) Does this command stem from an ethical concern?

Commentators and theologians have generally offered one of the following six reasons for the laws of animal limitations:

  1. Health – Ramban (Lev. 11:13) states that non-kosher animals are physically unhealthy. Rashbam (Lev. 11:3) agrees and Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:48) offers this as a secondary reason for the commands. However, Abarbanel (Lev. 11:13, p. 65) and Akeidas Yitzchak (ch. 60) argue against this approach. First, if this were true, the Torah would be merely a book of medicine. Second, we see that gentiles eat non-kosher animals and do not suffer health-wise. And third, why aren’t poisonous animals mentioned explicitly in the text?

    I don’t find these objections particularly convincing. The Torah requires building a ma’akeh (guardrail) around your roof even though that is merely safety related. No one argues that this somehow diminishes the Torah’s value. And the argument is not that non-kosher animals are poisonous, just that they are less healthy. Perhaps they contribute slightly to an earlier death but social differences mask that contribution. Only a controlled study, something with which the Medievals were unaware, could truly answer this. And perhaps the Torah already prohibited eating poisonous food in its general admonition to take care of your health. Refraining from poison is obvious. Refraining from these animals, which we still do not know whether they are truly unhealthy, requires a new prohibition. Not that I find the approach particularly convincing but I believe these two arguments can be rebutted.

  2. Spiritual Health – Instead, Abarbanel suggest that eating non-kosher animals creates bad character traits. Seforno (Lev. 11:2,43) argues similarly. More recently, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch adopts this approach.[1. Commentary to Lev. 11:10,41; Chorev, ch. 454. See Heineman, ibid., vol. 2 pp. 134-135 for an analysis of R. Hirsch’s views.]
  3. Symbolism – Prof. Yitzchak Heineman[2. Ta’amei Ha-Mitzvos Be-Sifrus Yisrael, vol. 1 pp. 43-44] quotes Hellenistic sources that interpret the rules symbolically (Philo and Aristeas). For example, the requirements of split hooves and rumination teach us that we need to thoroughly analyze and review our studies.
  4. Temperance – Rambam[3. Shemonah Perakim, ch. 4; Moreh Nevukhim 3:35] argues that these laws teach man to control his desires. By limiting the foods available, a person will learn that he cannot always eat or do what he wants. Akeidas Yitzchak (ibid.) also adopts this approach. More recently, R. Joseph Hertz and Prof. Jacob Milgrom also maintain this view.[4. Hertz Chumash, intro to Lev. 11; Anchor Bible, Leviticus vol. 1 pp. 718-736]
  5. Isolation – Ibn Ezra[5. Yesod Mora ch. 5, quoted in Heineman, ibid., p. 70] suggests that the special Jewish diet prevents intermarriage by making mixed meals more difficult. Shadal (Lev. 11:1) also follows this approach, although the footnote quotes an article in which he primarily follows the Temperance approach. Nechama Leibowitz[6. New Studies in Vayikra, vol. 1 p. 154] provides the text of this footnote and, on the previous page, R. David Tzvi Hoffmann’s arguments against the Isolation approach. Because Lev. 20:24 distinguishes between Jews and gentiles and the next verse distinguishes between permissible and forbidden animals, R. Hoffmann argues that Jewish separation precedes the dietary laws rather than being caused by them.
  6. Normalcy – In 1966, social anthropologist Mary Douglas published a highly original and attractive interpretation of these laws. The normal state for birds is to have two wings to fly and two legs to walk. Similarly, the normal state for fish is to have fins and scales to swim and the normal state for pastoral land animals is to ruminate and have split hooves to walk. Animals which deviate from these boundaries are considered transgressive and impure. Just like Jews who conform to the Torah’s laws are holy, animals that follow these natural rules are also pure.

    After significant criticism, Douglas essentially retracted in a 1972 article. Milgrom[7. ibid.] argues at length against this approach and points out many of Douglas’ mistakes. However, others, such as Gordon Wenham,[8. NICOT, Leviticus pp. 169-171] still find her original thesis compelling.

III. Ethical Eating?

According to which, if any, of these approaches is refraining from eating biblically prohibited animals an ethical choice? More specifically, do any of them either reflect decisions on what is right and wrong or educate toward such a distinction? If the reason for the prohibitions is due to physical or spiritual health, the decision to abide by them does not seem like an inherently ethical choice because it does not engender right and wrong, just what is good or bad for a person’s health. Although, if the reason is spiritual health, then perhaps refraining allows you to become a more ethical person.

Similarly, if the rationale is isolation, that is a concern of communal preservation. Some may even argue that it is chauvinistic and unethical. The symbolic reasons are didactic. They teach a lesson to the adherent and to the world about living a proper life. Similarly, the normalcy approach celebrates balance in the world. Arguably, those are ethical ideals of right and wrong that keeping kosher advocates. And finally, the pursuit of temperance is a highly ethical goal, developing a character trait that prevents many evil acts.

Brooks acknowledges that kosher decision-making becomes “like a person’s natural way of being.” However, choosing to shop in a kosher supermarket rather than any of the less expensive and prevalent non-kosher venues expresses the ethical ideals and lessons of the Torah’s rules.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

14 comments

  1. MiMedinat HaYam

    first of all, you shouldnt have titled the post “pomegranate” if the application is kashrut in general. (Of course, it gives a perspective on the debate, and a connection to the DAvid Brooks article.)

    second, to Brooks (and / or to his NYT public, as opposed to his orthodox jewish public), “moral” is a synonym (of sorts) for mitzvot.

    no need for the rest of the analysis, but it could provoke other discussion in general.

    you dont mention “timtum haLev” in your discussion number 2 of “spiritual health”. and by discussing, “ethical eating”, you open up the floor to such diverse subjects as vegetarianism, et al, and the (supposed) tzedek hashgachot. all of which are completely different subject areas, and as well as concepts not proper judaism.

  2. Every year, I keep hoping to read my copy of Mary Douglas’ 1999 Leviticus as Literature in parallel with Sefer Vayikra, but I have failed again. Given your comments, though, I note the following on p. 134:

    When the law-giving is resumed it develops a different bodily microcosm. This time the body of the worshipper is made analogous to the sanctuary and the altar. Whatever will render the altar impure will do the same for the Israelite’s body. […] The animal is taken into the body by eating corresponds to that which is offered on the altar by fire; what is disallowed for the one is disallowed for the other; what harms the one harms the other. One thing that the book never says is that it is bad for the health of the body to eat any of the forbidden animals.

    And then toward the end of that chapter, on p. 149:

    Leviticus conveys it by double, triple, multiple microcosms. The people, with their children and their servants and their domestic animals too, benefit from his covenant. As vassals of God their unworthiness is immeasurable, but yet they are invited to eat at his table, and may eat the food that is offered to him. Sacrifice is a communal feast. Theoretically the people of Israel never eat meat except in God’s company, in his house and with his blessing. They have been singled out for the honour of being consecrated to God, to be his people. The height and the depth of this honour is inexplicable. At another level it is a parallel honor for their flocks and herds, the cloven-hoofed ruminants, to be singled out of all animal kinds to be consecrated to God. This paradigm turns the covenant animals into vassals in relation to the people of Israel, as are the people of Israel the vassals of God.

    Perhaps that is a 7th reason for the laws of animal limitations, as it doesn’t seem to fit the 6 you itemize.

  3. MMHY: Merely marketing. It’s more interesting than a discussion of the parashah. You are correct and I make the point about moral=mitzvos in the second paragraph.

    IH: Thank you. That is very different than her 1966 proposal.

    There are other suggestions that I omitted. For example, R. Sa’adiah Gaon argues that we are forbidden to eat them so we don’t worship them as idols. Or maybe vice versa but something like that. And Martin Noth says something similar.

  4. Reuven Spolter

    A fine piece, but a bit of false marketing. I thought you were heading in the direction of upscale kosher. But what could be immoral about that?

  5. Michael Medved once wrote a very nice column on the “Temperance” angle: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2097/jewish/Kosher-Marks.htm

    As we’re reading these parshiot right now, may I point out that the p’shat in the pasuk is that all non-kosher animals are somehow tameh? Not necessarily in the “have to go to the mikvah” sense, although that’s included, but throughout the Torah (starting with Noach, and especially last week), there are explicit statements that kosher animals are “tahor” and non-kosher ones are not. And just as we don’t really know why, say, a nidda is tameh or someone with a white mark is tameh while someone with a white body is not, we don’t really know why a pig is less kosher than a cow.

  6. I’m always shocked (you would think by now I wouldn’t be), when I read in the Torah that A. In the desert, killing an animal without bringing it as a korban is akin to murder. and B. This doesn’t apply to Kosher yet non-sacrificed animals such as deer.

    Reading this list, It’s curious that these aspect of Kashrut isn’t figured into the “reasoning”

  7. moshe shoshan

    nice post but it thought it was going to be about the ethics of conspicuous consumption, a far more pressing issue in the orthodox community.

  8. Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Metzia, page 61B:

    Rabbi Yishmael [active around year 120 of the Common Era] taught:

    The Holy One Blessed Be He said:
    “If I brought up Israel from Egypt only for this matter,
    that they do not become defiled [by eating] insects;
    that would be enough for Me.

  9. Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Shmini, chapter 6:

    G-d permits the Gentiles to eat non-kosher foods,
    like a doctor who permits a terminally ill patient all foods, because the patient is sick beyond hope.

  10. Nachum — The Tameh/Tahor wording is central to Douglas’ thesis. The chapter I quoted two passages from is called “Land Animals, Pure and Impure”,

    http://www.amazon.com/Leviticus-As-Literature-Mary-Douglas/dp/0199244197/ and also available for Kindle.

  11. shachar haamim

    “However, choosing to shop in a kosher supermarket rather than any of the less expensive and prevalent non-kosher venues expresses the ethical ideals and lessons of the Torah’s rules.”

    what’s more ethical about that than say shopping and buying kosher supervised products and from the kosher meat section in Shoprite?

  12. IH: Baruch Shekivanti. I guess I didn’t process your quote right.

  13. In my humble opnion, the Pomegranate should hire more security because of the attention it received in the NYT.

  14. “moshe shoshan on April 8, 2013 at 6:52 am
    nice post but it thought it was going to be about the ethics of conspicuous consumption, a far more pressing issue in the orthodox community.”

    I also from the title was expecting a post more like this article:
    http://www.jewishexponent.com/article-does-its-best-to-pigeonhole-the-orthodox-community

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