In September 2003, Whole Foods quietly removed one brand of kosher chicken from its shelves and replaced it with a different brand.
The switch received little notice -- outside of a Jewish Journal article -- but it caught my eye. A representative for Whole Foods claimed the previous chicken brand didn't meet the chain's standard; its feed was not organic, and the chickens weren't raised and slaughtered in the most humane way possible.
Up until then I'd assumed that kosher meant, well, kosher. It surprised me that a company well-known for its concern for animal well-being and food safety would deem anything kosher treif, or unfit. Long before Whole Foods was even a glimmer in the eye of the Prius-tocracy, hadn't we Jews been telling ourselves and others that we were practicing humane slaughter and thoughtful animal husbandry -- embodied in the very laws of kashrut? What did Whole Foods know that I didn't?
It turns out Whole Foods was on to something seriously wrong with the kosher food industry, and the industry is due for a change.
I grew up eating meat of all kinds. One afternoon during my sophomore year at college, I found myself on an idyllic Maine isle, plunging a live lobster into a pot of boiling water. By dusk I was a vegetarian, and I stayed that way for the next 14 years. I wasn't squeamish: I'd fished my whole life, and even hunted. As a cook in various restaurants, I'd gutted shoals of fish, whacked through sides of beef and deconstructed flocks of poultry. But at that moment I figured, if I could survive without taking another life, so much the better.
Then I met my wife, Naomi Levy, rabbi and carnivore.
I loved the woman very much, so I had to come to terms with two of her seemingly contradictory traits: She loved meat, and she didn't cook. I still love her; she still loves meat, and she still doesn't cook.
The thought of cooking two entrees a night for the rest of our lives didn't appeal to me. I compromised and began eating fish. Then came the first of many Friday night meals together. I put a piece of grilled salmon on the Sabbath table, and Naomi put on her best game face: What's Sabbath without roasted chicken? So I started eating chicken. And then came her pregnancies, when she expressed numerous times that a) she would kill for a big juicy grilled steak and b) she was carrying our baby.
So there was the occasional steak.
All along, I rationalized the meat on our table by its kosher pedigree. In my mind, and in the minds of most Jews, the meaning of "kosher" had long swelled beyond its strict Levitical denotation of permitted and forbidden animals and their prescribed method of slaughter. I believed that "kosher" meant a higher concern for cleanliness, for the health and welfare of the animals, for the sanctity of Creation.
And it wasn't just me. The dictionary definition of "kosher" includes "genuine and legitimate." If I had to kill to eat, at least the meat was kosher.
But the alarm bell that Whole Food rang was soon followed by a cacophony of criticism and investigation.
In December 2004, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released an undercover video taken at the AgriProcessors Inc. plant, a kosher beef abattoir in Postville, Iowa. The plant supplies kosher beef for the Aaron's Best/Rubashkin brand. The tape showed practices that were obviously cruel and created a firestorm of criticism and countercharges. The Orthodox Union, which overseas the kashrut of the plant, said the offending practices would be corrected -- they have been -- and accused PETA of launching an assault on the institution of shechitah (kosher slaughter) itself.
The made-for-media PETA fracas birthed a larger, more thoughtful crossdenominational concern over current kosher slaughter practices. Earlier this year, Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the best-selling novel "Everything Is Illuminated" (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) and last year's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (Houghton Mifflin), released a PETA-produced video over the Internet that condemned modern kosher slaughter practices, calling them anathema to the spirit of the kosher laws.
The author's calm, well-reasoned arguments are buttressed by on-camera interviews with Rabbi David Wolpe of the Conservative Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, the Orthodox founder of CLAL -- The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
The video, titled "If This Is Kosher ...," is available for download at www.HumaneKosher.com. It interweaves Foer's and the rabbis' comments with footage from the AgriProccessors plant and from kosher egg and meat suppliers in Israel. In one scene, egg industry workers fill a plastic-lined, 55-gallon garbage can with live male chicks, superfluous to the process. In another shot, the bags are sealed and dumped.
"To be Jewish," Foer says in the video, "is to strive to make the world less cruel and more just -- not only for oneself and not only for one's people but for everyone. One doesn't have to consider animals as equal to humans -- I don't -- to give them a place in this inspiring idea."
Wolpe and Greenberg -- both vegetarians -- signed on to a letter, along with dozens of rabbis, calling on the Orthodox Union to do more to promote humane treatment of animals in the kosher facilities it oversees.
In the midst of these criticisms came the results of another investigation by The Forward newspaper last month charging the Rubashkin factory with unfair labor practices, unsafe working conditions and labor intimidation. "AgriProcessors' final product -- sold under the nationally popular Aaron's Best brand -- is priced significantly higher than standard meat," reporter Nathaniel Popper wrote. "Its kosher seal gives it a seeming moral imprimatur in an industry known for harsh working conditions. But even in the unhappy world of meatpacking, people with comparative knowledge of AgriProcessors and other plants -- including local religious leaders, professors, and union organizers -- say that AgriProcessors stands out for its poor treatment of workers."
The manager of the plant, Sholom Rubashkin, denied the charges, but the plant has been subject to half the violations in all Iowa meatpacking plants so far this year, according to The Forward's analysis of OSHA statistics.
"The bottom line here is that I'm not sure these devout Jews are using Jewish ethics to treat their workers," one critic said.
I don't know if Rubashkin is the exception or the rule in an industry that is increasingly concentrated in a few large hands, and whose imprimatur of kashrut comes from a handful of rabbinic authorities.
But I do know my definition of kosher is now much more narrow. In marketing terms, the brand has been tarnished. Kosher is not necessarily clean, or humane, or just. Long synonymous in our hearts and minds with good and pure, kosher is in danger of meaning just one small group's interpretation of what's legal.
The purveyors of kosher goods became prey to the same market forces that have undermined the integrity of the entire American food chain. The food industry has fed America's insatiable appetite by disregarding health concerns and riding roughshod over animal welfare and environmental welfare.
The demand for meat has led to the industrialization of farming, to feedlots holding up to 100,000 cattle, to the rapid and often sloppy dispatch of thousands of animals per day.
Kosher slaughterers piggyback -- so to speak -- on this industry by sending rabbis into nonkosher slaughterhouses to kill selected animals. Rubashkin itself noted that it slaughtered 18,000 cows in a seven-week period, which it said inevitably leads to error.
Kosher food, which we had always taken to stand apart from and above from the larger culture, has acquiesced to some of the industry's worst practices.
Strictly speaking, the laws of kashrut do not address issues of responsible, ethical food production and healthful eating.
"The nature of kashrut is thus at once mysterious and obvious," scholar Meir Soloveichik wrote in a penetrating essay in the journal Azure's winter issue. "While God does not explain the importance of cud-chewing or leaping, of split hooves or scales, the Bible insists that it be perfectly clear to the non-Jew that the Torah-observant Israelite lives a life that reminds him constantly of his unique relationship with God."
The exact meaning of these laws may remain obscure, but they are clearly meant to set us apart and elevate our souls.
For someone who loves both to pet animals and to eat them, the laws of kashrut speak to the tension between our higher and lower impulses, between the hunter Esau and the shepherd Jacob; between the carnivore wife and the conflicted husband.
Perhaps no religion better understands this eternal and inherent contradiction than Judaism. The laws of kashrut help us shuttle between our hungry selves and our compassionate ones, between the sanctity of all God's creatures and their deliciousness.
If the kosher food industry is interested in retaining the deeper meaning of the label it bestows, its manufacturers and rabbis must figure out how to restore the spirit of kashrut to kashrut. The Jewish teaching of tza'ar ba'alei chayim -- forbidding cruelty to animals because they are part of God's creation -- is the obvious place to start.
Kosher certifiers should cooperate with organizations like Animal Compassion Foundation, founded with a grant from Whole Foods, which are in the vanguard of conscientious animal husbandry and slaughter. The kosher label should not just imply the humane, responsible treatment of animals and the just treatment of food industry workers, it should certify it.