Chapter 10: Case Study: Animal Welfare and Food Ethics

10.3 Kashrut and Halal as Food Ethics Systems

We might think of the animal welfare movement ― bolstered by the persuasive arguments of Peter Singer and others, reinforced by countless activists and citizens who care about the treatment of animals, and successful in bringing greater attention to the treatment of animals ― as “religious” in the functional sense that was commended in Chapter 3. This movement is akin to a religion in being a community of practice, dedicated to various principles, fighting for social change on the basis of those principles, and commending a vision for how to live in relation to other life. We can consider similarities and differences between these movement views and what kosher and halal food systems have been saying for more than a millennia as the food ethics systems of Judaism and Islam, respectively. While Singer’s arguments provided a rationale for seeing animal suffering as more morally important than modern American culture had generally promoted, similar conclusions have long been part of the ancient food ethics systems of kashrut and halal and their sub-cultures in the US.


While we will not comprehensively cover Jewish food laws, there are several lines of approach we will pursue here ― understanding traditional kosher/kashrut (meaning fit, proper, correct) laws, exploring the broader domain of “Eco-kosher” as a contemporary movement, and examining some of the dynamics of the contemporary Jewish Food Movement. As a starting point, I want to draw attention to part of the process by which Jewish food ethics have increasingly engaged with environmental values over the last 20 years.

For the sake of argument, let’s make the following claims: religions in America have always maintained values of creation care, though when major waves of the environmental movement broke in America in the 1970s, many religions were not at the forefront or were not necessarily quick to take up boards and ride those waves. Hanging ten on the front of the board was the secular environmental movement, which filled in the most visible, vociferous, and activist role of the movement. That movement, for all its growth, has alienated itself from certain major portions of the American public to the extent that, for some Americans (typically conservative Americans), being an “environmentalist” is a label to be avoided at all costs ― it puts one at risk of being ridiculed as “green,” a “tree-hugger,” a “hippie,” a “bleeding-heart liberal” or worse. Simultaneously, religious environmental thinking, movements, initiatives, programs, organizations, and statements have continued to grow to the point where some of the leading voices for environmental change now come from faith communities, and most environmental groups now see faith communities as important allies. These points suggest that if advocates of the environmental movement would like to see better progress toward environmental integrity and sustainability in America, they should reexamine faith based environmental values and the communities that hold them, and perhaps widen or expand their own view of what counts as an “environmental value” or as an “ally” in progress toward sustainability. In many cases, it may be that faith-based environmental perspectives hold solutions to problems the secular environmental movement has been unable to address, and faith communities may have much deeper resources to offer the environmental movement than it has been able to generate on its own.

Likewise, even though Judaism has had a food ethics system in place for more than two millennia, most people don’t think of the animal welfare movement as a Jewish idea, nor did animal welfare advocates in the US draw heavily on existing food ethics systems to make their arguments. I’d argue that in part, as vegetarianism gained momentum in the US, over time, religious points of reference for animal welfare and vegetarianism have emerged more and more. Contemporary Jewish thinkers have explored the powerful points of resonance between kashrut (and other Jewish ideals) and sustainable food systems, and have increasingly highlighted and celebrated those tenets both as an expression of environmental values and as a renewal of Jewish identity in engaging the issues of the day. [1] This sort of evolution has not been uncommon as a mode of religious-environmental program development ― just as the preservation movement of John Muir’s era made powerful use of resonant religious themes (of Edenic paradise) to promote the formation of national parks, secular or non-religious environmental arguments have been able to (consciously or not) make use of existing religious and spiritual values and to some extent may serve to re-awaken some of the values already implicit in traditional faith communities. [2]

This Jewish Star Garden in Phoenix, Arizona encourages first graders to think about where their food comes from. “We explore the ongoing miracle of life that gardens demonstrate so vividly, and all the kids learn to love eating fresh vegetables and flowers they grew themselves!! If you know the Earth intimately, you are much more likely to respect and protect it, and feel connected to the Source of Life.” Photo credit: Nona Siegel

Kosher, or kashrut laws, many of which derive from passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, have long prescribed a Jewish wisdom of eating. As Arthur Waskow describes:

Part of that wisdom was the code of eating kosher food in which only the meat of non-predatory animals and birds was kosher to eat; the food of mammalian life (milk) and mammalian death (meat) could not be eaten together; even this restricted kind of meat could only be eaten if the animal had been slaughtered in a painless way with prayerful consciousness and ritual; and vegetarianism was viewed as the higher, but not compulsory, path. [3]

By the standards of animal welfare, kosher meat should be “kosher” (fit) inasmuch as the animal’s suffering has already been addressed by assuring a painless death at the hands of the shochet, whose training and sharp instruments [4] produce a fast, painless death for the animal in what is “widely recognized as the most humane method of slaughter possible.” [5] Note that an animal rights view, which claims that animals have a right not to be killed, differs in belief from both animal welfare views and these Jewish views, so a community that adheres to certain animal rights beliefs might not believe it “kosher” to slaughter an animal regardless of method. For instance, vegans, who generally do not believe in the use or exploitation of any animal products, would not generally condone animal slaughter by any method. Similarly, Hindu beliefs about the sacred nature of cows would not permit slaughter of cows, regardless of method, and though Hinduism does not strictly prohibit eating meat, [6] it generally commends ahimsa, or non-violence toward all life, including animals, so Hinduism has long been associated with vegetarian diets.

Given the importance of diet to any life or culture, commentaries about religious food systems often mention the role of kashrut in setting the Jewish community apart as distinct and providing a communal identity that involves certain patterns and traditions of eating. The same might be said of vegan communities, whose dietary preferences and requirements have altered dining hall menus in universities and given rise to a wave of new urban/suburban restaurants that provide vegan menu options. Dietary traditions might not be championed for the sake of creating distinction, but dedication to distinct dietary traditions does tend to create food-related in-groups.


In similar fashion, Muslim food traditions establish distinct regulations for what is halal (acceptable) and what is not. Like Judaism, Islam does not prohibit meat eating itself, but in fact sanctions it (though like Judaism, with some restrictions) and cautions against anyone requiring vegetarianism of a Muslim.[7] One interesting difference is that, in Islam, all non-human animals are considered Muslim believers (the same cannot be said for all humans), which underlines a sense of divine interest in all creatures. As with kashrut, in order for meat to be considered halal, the animal must have been slaughtered while invoking a blessing, and the slaughter is to be as painless as possible (halal requires a blessing be recited over each animal slaughtered, while kashrut requires blessings at the start and end of cohorts of animals, so some Muslims may avoid kosher meat because it might lack appropriate blessing). [8] Halal is a term that only applies to meat (kashrut extends beyond meats), and in general, kosher laws related to meats are a bit more restrictive than halal, so kosher meat may be deemed acceptable to a Muslim if halal meat is not available. Islamic dietary laws forbid alcohol consumption (kosher laws do not), so whether Jews and Muslims sometimes accept halal and kosher substitutions will depend on these various specific distinctions and on the level of observance of any particular adherent.

While the term “eco-halal” has yet to gain a significant foothold, it is easy to see the potential for Muslim food ethics to play a role in the larger conversation about sustainable and ethical food systems. An excellent example of the environmental dimensions of halal is found in the documentary film Renewal, which includes a segment on Muslim food ethics, which is summarized here. And increasingly, commentaries are emerging that highlight food-system-related environmental concerns that go beyond halal, by invoking the broader concern that everything a Muslim consumes should be tayyib, or wholesome and pure.[9] These larger ethical concerns that are also rooted in Islamic tradition are becoming integrally linked to establish a thoroughly Mulsim perspective on food ethics, in much the same way that eco-kashrut is expanding contemporary food ethics and ethos in Judaism.

Eco-Kosher and the Jewish Food Movement

Given that kosher laws have been established and codified for a long time, changes to kashrut itself aren’t a likely prospect, but an “eco-kosher” perspective, a more comprehensive Jewish food ethics, can be developed by adding other Jewish ethical concerns on top of kashrut practices. For instance, it may not be kosher to mix meat and milk, but for an environmentally-minded Jew, should it be considered eco-kosher to eat vegetables that were grown using excess fertilizers that polluted a local waterway? By adding layers of ethical complexity, the patterns and traditions of one’s kosher practices can be expanded to respond to the many environmental values that also matter regarding the food we eat. Eco-kosher food choices would aim to support agricultural sources that are just (e.g. not exploitative of migrant laborers), environmentally sound (not polluting by overuse of fertilizers or chemicals), and sustainable, for instance. How exactly individual Jews and Jewish communities might choose to ritualize or reinforce new and healthier food choices is undoubtedly a complex and various prospect. One example of how these ideas and conversations have been engaged is the Jewish Food Movement, [10] promoted by the organization Hazon, which has engaged contemporary Jewish communities in questions of Jewish identity in relation to environmental and food concerns. While this remains a new and emerging area of Jewish environmental culture, it is one of the better examples of how religion is shaping environmental and agricultural trends in America.


Participants in the girls book and social action club, Girls Read and Do, participate in the Jewish New Year ritual of Tashlich as part of an educational session on how to ensure that our Jewish practices are harmonious with the environment (in this case, casting bird seed in lieu of the traditionally used bread crumbs — not healthful for water foul — into the water). Photo credit: Liz Vaisben

  1. A similar development was seen earlier in Jewish outdoor environmental education, where classic outdoor education activities were adapted into Jewish frames of reference. This yielded a dynamic sort of educational programming that benefited from the environmental efficacy developed by secular environmental practitioners; however, this programming added religiously/culturally reinforced roots by grafting those activities into Jewish traditions. A quintessential example of this is Michal Smart’s Jewish outdoor education programs based on activities developed by Joseph Cornell. Smart realized the powerful points of overlap between Cornell’s exercises and certain Jewish prayer and ritual practices. She re-wrote the exercises within a Jewish frame, and these and other activities like them became staples of the Jewish outdoor education world ― see Spirit in Nature: Teaching Judaism and Ecology on the Trail for examples of these exercises (Biers-Ariel, M., Newbrun, D., & Smart, M.F., Springfield, NJ: Behrman House, 2000). Another way to see these developments is to note the religious and spiritual intuitions (implicit and explicit) that were already present in a number of environmental education curricula, that resonated with existing religious traditions, or that found deeper homes in some religious traditions. A good overview of a range of such programs focused on environment and food are found in the JOFEE Report commissioned by Hazon, a Jewish environmental organization based in New York City.
  2. Another case of this more generally might be the interplay between religious and theological values and the field of environmental ethics in America. H. Paul Santmire, Richard Baer, Norman Faramelli and others started the Faith-Man-Nature group in the mid-1960s, and it lasted until the mid-1970s. They wrote articles and books, hosted national conferences, and generally raised the profile of discussing the environment as an ethical issue, in many cases a full decade before the secular field of environmental ethics took shape. Secular environmental ethics scholarship tended to overshadow religious and theological developments in the 1970s and 1980s (for instance, Baird Callicott is often credited with teaching the first environmental ethics course in the world, in 1971, but this was five years after Richard Baer began teaching environmental ethics in the religion department at Earlham in 1966) while eco-theology and religion and ecology scholarship grew more slowly; however, in many ways, religion and ecology scholarship and religious environmental organizations have matured and filled in the thought-landscape of environmental ethics with views that not only support pro-environmental values, but are aligned well with predominant American religious communities and values.
  3. See these links for more comprehensive descriptions of permitted and prohibited foods in kosher laws, and prescriptions of proper animal treatment: ; Also note an intriguing Jewish commentary that treats vegetarianism with an interesting caution ― Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (Chief Rabbi of Palestine in the 1920s) argued that meat eating was a concession to human weakness, which evokes Waskow's comment mentioned earlier that vegetarianism is a “higher path"; according to Berel Dov Lerner, Kook was also "careful to explain that full moral consideration for animals should only be implemented when humanity achieves its highest spiritual development in the messianic era.” Remembering that God’s original intentions as displayed in Genesis Chapter 1 were that humans would be vegetarian, “Kook claimed that while the earlier ban on meat would be reinstated in messianic times, a premature demand for vegetarianism and full justice toward animals would be spiritually destructive” (Lerner). The idea here is that presently fallen humans would misunderstand such a demand for vegetarianism as implying “the essential equality of humans and animals,” forgetting humanity’s unique spiritual vocation. Lerner elaborates on Kook’s perspective, explaining, “Tyrannical governments would use radical campaigns for animal protection as tools for the oppression of humans, and as propagandistic distraction from the injustices they perpetrate against people. Kook argued that absolute justice for animals should be demanded only after inter-human relations are free of violence, oppression and injustice.” One wonders, however, whether practicing justice towards non-human animals could help strengthen the impulse to also treat humans justly (consider the similar case where therapy dogs provide for human healing complementary to the efforts of human doctors and therapists). At the same time, these ideas echo comments by Wendell Berry in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, where he argues that if humans can't be faithful to each other, we're highly unlikely to be able to be faithful to land and other creatures. 
  4. A perfectly sharp blade with no knicks is required.
  5. Rich, T. R. (n.d.). Judaism 101: Kashrut: Jewish Dietary Laws. Retrieved May 18, 2018, from
  6. For Hindus who do eat meat, the preferred form of slaughter is the Jhatka method of processing, which involves a quick and painless death.
  7. At the same time, some are quick to point out that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) intentionally ate very little meat, and others will note that veganism has very close ties to many Islamic principles related to food.
  8. Some additional differences and similarities between kashrut and halal are described here:
  9. Some other commentaries on Islam and food and environmental ethics include:;;;
  10. A summary of some elements of the Jewish Food Movement is found here:


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Religion and Environmental Values in America by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.