By Manya Ronay
Judaism commands us to live at a very high level of consciousness. We are called on to watch what we say, what we do and even what we eat. Yes, not only must we guard what comes out of our mouths, we must guard what goes into our mouths as well! The laws of kashrut train us to be mindful about our food choices; there are limits to what we can purchase, cook and eat. I believe that this training can help us become more conscious food buyers and eaters, ready to raise the bar even more.
In the last issue, we established that Judaism commands us to guard our health. As Rambam states, “One must avoid that which harms the body and accustom oneself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger” (Ch. 4, The Laws of Personal Development).
Unfortunately, the majority of today’s food supply harms the body since it consists largely of ultra-processed foods laden with sugar, seed oils and additives. As you walk through the grocery store, take a look at the ingredient lists of common household staples like bread, cereal, yogurt and granola bars. Most of the ingredients lists are long and complex, containing sugar disguised in multiple forms and words you might not even be able to pronounce.
Even the less processed food items can harm our bodies and the planet. Just think of all the factory-farmed eggs, dairy, fish and meat filled with hormones and antibiotics to keep sick animals alive. Yet countless ultra-processed foods and conventional animal products are considered kosher, despite their potential for harm. As Jews, I think we can do better.
I believe that kosher food should champion health, animal welfare and sustainability. G-d calls on us to be a light unto the nations—to set a prime example for the rest of the world. In my opinion, this includes treating ourselves, our animals and our planet with the utmost care and respect. Here are a few questions I have:
The Torah commands us to guard our health. So why are there so many unhealthy kosher products? Didn’t Rambam say that we should “avoid that which harms the body?” I don’t think he meant, “Avoid that which harms the body … unless it has a kosher symbol.”
The Torah commands us to treat animals with compassion. So why is the majority of kosher meat raised in crowded, inhumane factory farms? The animals might be slaughtered properly, but are they raised properly?
As Rabbi David Rosen writes: “Kashrut involves more than just the way the animal’s throat is cut and the checking of its vital organs. Kashrut involves the whole relationship between humans and the animal world.”
Only a few kosher-meat companies are sanctifying our relationship with the animal world by raising animals on green pastures, allowing them to lead healthy lives and eat what nature intended. Kol Food, and Grow & Behold, partner with family farms to provide pasture-raised, organic meat to kosher consumers. Why isn’t the humane method the norm?
Moreover, the Torah commands us to protect the environment. So why are we eating so many ultra-processed food items, which rely on cheap commodity crops like corn and soy that deplete the soil (and our health)? Why aren’t we eating more real food from local, organic farms that can regenerate soil (and our health)?
For quite some time, the Western world has experienced a slow pandemic of diet-related diseases like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. These chronic conditions are strongly linked to COVID-19 complications, underlining the importance of fixing our diets now.
Jews have been watching what we eat for thousands of years, and I believe we can pave the way to a more conscious relationship with our food. Let us serve as role models for healthy, sustainable eating that heals our bodies and the planet.
What can you do today to transform your diet and your life?
- Eat real, whole foods instead of ultra-processed foods found in a package or box. When you pick up a food item, the first thing you should do is check the ingredients list. Does it contain added sugar? Are there ingredients you don’t recognize? If so, put it back on the shelf!
- Whenever possible, choose local and organic produce to maximize nutrients, limit pesticides and help heal the environment. You could also start a garden to grow super local food while connecting to the earth.
- If you eat animal products, look for organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed items to ensure the health of the animal and the health of the consumer. Kol Food, and Grow & Behold, sell superb kosher, humanely raised meat. If you can’t afford high-quality meat right now, eating less conventional meat is a great place to start.
- Lead by example. Instead of ordering pizza, cook a delicious dinner with your family—think lentil soup or rice and beans with homemade guacamole. Send your kids to school with healthy snacks like nuts and fruit. Fill your Shabbat table with beautiful whole-food dishes like quinoa, sweet potatoes, eggplant, green beans … the choices are endless!
We are G-d’s partners in creation and, as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, declares, it is our job to transform “the world that is” to “the world that ought to be.”
Manya Ronay is a health writer and educator living in Jacksonville, FL. She graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in journalism in 2019 and is currently pursuing her MS in Health Education and Behavior at the University of Florida.