An Interpretation of Jewish Kosher laws: A Symbolic, Cultural Ritual, Rather Than a Religious Obligation

Food is universally embedded in religious traditions. Kosher dietary laws in particular shape Jewish identity and foodways—the history and traditions that shape one’s social and cultural relationship with food. As a strong adversary of genetically modified foods and a resilient advocate for “Slow Food,” I am interested in exploring how we can apply kosher laws to contemporary food choices. In particular, I wondered how Jews interpret Kosher laws with respect to genetically modified food.

Not only is the largest kosher certifier in support of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but a study conducted in 2001 found that among Protestants, Jews, Catholics and Muslims, Jews were the most in favor of GMOs. 55% of Jews favored genetically modified food while 35% opposed these products (Pew Trusts, 2001). Yet, the Torah prohibits the mixing of seeds and different species of cattle (Herzfeld, 2009). In order for food to be holy, kosher laws advice it should not be mixed or hybridized (Douglas, 1966).

Therefore, under what conditions do contemporary ways of eating become contested in Judaism? When I went to the dinners hosted by Hamilton College’s Jewish organization, Hillel, the quality of the food we were eating, concerns about GMOs, and foods adherence to kosher laws were not a salient concern. During Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year celebration I attended, food was mentioned only once. People instead talked about how the holiday-specific pairing of sweet honey dip and round challah bread reminded them of family celebrations. The honey dip represents the start of a sweet year, and the round (as opposed to braided) challah symbolizes the circle of life (Greene). I concluded that one of the most salient aspects of Jewish meals is the interconnectedness of rituals, sacred meals, and solidarity.

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Based on the kosher meals I have had with members of Hillel, I noticed that kosher food is typically upheld during religious holidays. This, to me, is a clear indicator of cultural religion—or a religion that upholds traditions without religious beliefs. Many Jews identify with their religion and participate Jewish rituals. For some Jews, kosher rules are kept and practiced only for the sake of respecting and upholding tradition during holidays, rather than for faith-based reasons (Zuckerman, 2010).

Meals are a particularly sacred tradition for Jews and retain many symbolic meanings. For example, challah is used to “mark a sacred time” and is typically present at holiday meals in every synagogue and Jewish home (Prichep, 2014). Thus, the gathering itself, of family, friends, and the community, is more significant than what they are eating. Kosher food is upheld because it is part of the cultural religious tradition.

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The ritual aspect of sacred meals creates solidarity among Jewish people. Sociologist Emile Durkheim suggests that a group which shares physical co-presence, exclusivity, ritualized activity, and shared symbols will have more social solidarity. Religious beliefs construct cultural boundaries that define which foods are and are not sacred (Beardsworth, 1997). The Torah’s exclusion of certain foods sets Jews apart and creates solidarity within their group. The dietary rules are very specific to them, so holiday meals, like Shabbat, give them the space and opportunity to join together and practice special traditions.

I approached the Jewish ritual of keeping kosher with the assumption, based on religious ideology, that the restrictions in the Torah would lead to an exclusion of GMOs. While that may be a concern for a select minority of Jews, I uncovered that the meals’ significance for most was more about the promotion of group interaction, celebration, solidarity, and the preservation of traditions. Despite this, I still believe the Torah is worth consulting when considering the integrity of the American kosher food industry, including the use of GMOs.

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3 thoughts on “An Interpretation of Jewish Kosher laws: A Symbolic, Cultural Ritual, Rather Than a Religious Obligation

  1. Interesting and compelling argument. I’m curious to know if your opposition to GMOs comes from health and/or environmental concerns. I would consider myself a secular Jew, though I think my social awareness and environmental ethics are closely tied to Tikkun Olam – repairing the world. This resonates more with me than kosher laws which I think are closer to the health concerns many have about GMOs. What do you think?

    Also, what role do you think the Torah (or other Jewish teachings) should play in raising awareness of modern environmental and health issues related to GMOs? More broadly, is it okay to use the Torah to advance our ethical and political agendas?

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    • Thanks for your comment and insight!

      First, I should clarify that not all GM food is bad (read more here: http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/mutant-food-and-the-march-against-monsanto). The leaders of large biotech industries, like Monsanto, that produce GM products are the one’s that we need to worry about. There is no concrete evidence or studies to show that GMOs are bad for our health, however, their environmental impact is obvious and quite multifaceted. For example, GM seeds create monocultures, erase agricultural history and biodiversity, and rely on chemical sprays that contaminate our water system.

      I think that Tikkun Olam is definitely more relevant when considering GMOs from an environmental point of view. The reason I focused on the kosher laws instead, is because the question I had when I started researching this topic was about whether or not kosher laws affected Jews consumption of GM products. However, I am interested in looking into the relationship between Tikkun Olam, environmental ethics, and GMOs.

      Your next two questions are difficult ones. I have not given it much thought, but as of now I believe there needs to be a balance between facts and Jewish teachings. It is important to back up issues around GMOs with concrete evidence. However, the Torah and other Jewish teachings could really help the Jewish community connect with and feel more of an obligation to make ethical decisions for the sake of their health and the environment.

      In terms of using the Torah and Jewish teachings to advance one’s ethical and political agendas, I am hesitant to agree this is the best tactic. I think the Torah is helpful in contextualizing such problems, but I do not think the Torah can be used to justify any controversial ethical or political dilemma. It is important to develop one’s own opinion and while it is certainty okay to be guided by the Torah, the Torah should not be the only evidence or means to support one’s argument. Religious readings can be interpreted in many different ways, so I would be conscious of how you are using them to advance your agenda.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Very thoughtful answers to difficult questions that honestly I haven’t wrapped my head all the way around yet either.

        Thanks for link to the article — I don’t know if I’ve ever read an article from Vice before, but I happened to find it quite engaging.

        Liked by 2 people

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