Turkey L’Tzedek

Turkey pardoning jokes aside, Thanksgiving packs a lot of ethical punches for a secular holiday. First, we have some murmurings of imperialism (more on that tomorrow in Sarah’s post). Add to that the simplified explanation of making peace with our neighbors (sound familiar in this week’s news?) And then on top of that we have food. Food, the supposedly neutral territory. Those glorious eight minutes of silence when the entire bickering extended family stops to inhale their meal. Ask anyone, or read a week of my blogs, and you’ll soon discover that food fuels me, and not just physically. I like to think about food, look at food, plan my next encounter with food, and discuss it at length. I’m fairly certain I speak for a large contingent of the Jewish community when I say, I love food. But this week, more than most, food is causing me grief.

It all started on Sunday morning. This year I am preparing my first-ever Thanksgiving dinner with my friend, Lauren. My big grocery trip was on Sunday. Lauren and I opted for the big grocery cart and proceeded to fill the entire cart with food–sweet potatoes, green beans, stuffing mix, you name it. (Except the canned pumpkin, since I had bought that weeks in advance just in case there was a pumpkin shortage, because, you know, that happens). We paused at the turkey freezer, but quickly decided that we were going with a 13-pound antibiotic-free plastic-wrapped giant bowling ball. As we continued shopping, we passed the natural foods section, where we found an all-natural chicken that was only a few dollars more expensive. So we splurged the extra bucks on a 14.5 pound all-natural monstrosity, which I am currently hoping does not break the shelf in my refrigerator.

Never one to let my decision just lie, I began to ruminate. How much extra was I willing to pay for an all-natural bird? Eight dollars was one thing, but if it had been double the price? That’s not even taking into account the choice to buy a kosher turkey. In my grocery store, the natural meat and the kosher meat are next to each other. Usually I go by color and price to choose between the two. But is that how I should be choosing what I eat? When the natural meat costs less, I convince myself that natural is healthier (probably true). But when the kosher boneless skinless chicken breasts call my name on sale, my ongoing struggle with kashrut resurfaces and I usually go for the heckscher.

So I struggle with the goal of infusing my daily habits with holiness on one side and the idea that I’m not so sure the laws of kashrut still accomplish what they set out to do on the other side. The laws of kashrut are supposed to force us to pause as we eat and think about what we are putting into the holy vessels of our bodies. But is that kosher food holy just because it falls into certain categories and was slaughtered in a certain way? Do we not care about the manner the animals were raised before that? Or about how the workers are treated who farm our crops? Or maybe about the impact on the environment our meal choices have? Where does this factor into kashrut?

Maybe it’s not supposed to; maybe that’s not the point of the laws. Or maybe Magen Tzedek has got it right, synthesizing the rabbinical laws with the “highest possible Jewish ethical values and ideals for social justice in the area of labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity.” Right now, for me it is enough to be conscious of these choices that I make, whether or not I am sure of the correct answer. In the end, I think that’s what kashrut is about–making us pause before we put food in our mouths to think. So this week, before you put that long-awaited forkful of turkey, stuffing and gravy into your mouth, take a second and think about where your food came from, who helped get it to your plate and what it all means.