Recently, I had the pleasure of hosting a lively discussion with the esteemed Rabbi Ari Weiss on the intersection of food, ethics, and religion. Rabbi Weiss is the founding Director of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization guided by Torah values and dedicated to the fight against suffering and oppression. He has taught at numerous foundations, synagogues, and universities around the nation. Rabbi Weiss’s experience working with communities and running his organization led to an expansive and interactive discussion here at Kenan surrounding the ethics of food, from proper preparation of meat to fair wages within the food industry.
In the past, I have examined various ways in which religion, ethics, and food intersect, but I was especially excited to have Rabbi Ari Weiss because he provided a fresh perspective to the topic. In fact, the first thing that we did was pair up with others in the room and read passages from the Torah out loud. This helped us become more fully immersed in the subject and able to participate directly in his related conversation. Rabbi Weiss selected passages that discussed food, food ethics, Kosher laws, or broader food practices. One thing that struck me was how many passages from the Torah and Old Testament mentioned food, and how many of those I may have read in the past but never considered in that way. For example, our first selection was from the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a familiar story to many people. Rabbi Weiss pointed out how central food is to this story – the main premise is that God forbids Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but they do so anyways and face the consequences. This is only the beginning, as Rabbi Weiss put it, of how fundamental food practices are in religious text.
Rabbi Weiss continued our discussion by examining other passages from the Torah about Kosher food practices. He taught us how religious texts present guidelines on what to eat and how to prepare food. Instead of going through the guidelines and finishing with how they translate into traditional Kosher rules, however, Rabbi Weiss pushed our discussion further into the relationship between food practices and virtue. What is virtuous food and how can we practice truly virtuous eating?
Rabbi Weiss’s question on virtuous food provoked a lot of reflection within the room about what it means to eat ethically; perhaps following a strict religious guideline on food is not always the same as eating in a conscientious and thoughtful manner. He questioned the ethics of Kosher butchers who follow religious guidelines but still prepare meat in a repulsive manner – and the relatively weak international Kosher labeling that have probably allowed these practices to occur. He shared other ethical situations for consideration, such as the moral implications of Kosher butchers who hike their meat prices up enormously during Jewish holidays, when people have to buy from them for religious reasons.
Throughout his visit, Rabbi Weiss helped me reflect on how central of a role food plays in religious texts, and whether these texts have led us to truly virtuous food practices. For followers of Judaism, is there a way to ensure that Kosher food is prepared not just to earn a “Kosher” approved label, but fully how the Torah intended it? Through his expertly-led discussion on the topic, I came away thinking much more about where my food comes from, how to eat ethically, and what food practices are truly virtuous. I think and hope others in the room did as well.