In the hour when the Holy One created the first man, the Holy One took him and let him pass before all the trees of the garden of Eden, and said to him:  “See my works, how fine and excellent they are!”Now all that I have created for you have I created.”Think upon this, and do not corrupt and desolate my world; for if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you.”
Eccles. Rabbah VII.28 

Pico della Mirandola borrowed this for his De hominis dignitate in 1486, a work emblematic of the Renaissance spirit

What is “Eco-Kosher”?

The word was invented in the late 1970s by Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, founder of the P’nai Or Religious Fellowship. Eco-kosher is an attempt to redefine Kashrut (kosher practices) in terms of broader values and obligations to the planet that stem from Jewish tradition and echo modern environmental concerns.

Judaism is the West’s closest equivalent to a traditional belief system. It is a codified ethical civilization combining traditional indigenous beliefs with more modern revelatory and scientific truths. The spiritual values at the heart of Judaism are shared by many traditional societies, who believe that the natural world is a living and vital being and who express certainty of an inextricable link between themselves and the natural world.

Interestingly, it is this same traditional worldview that is presumed by science to have provided humans with their only ecologically sustainable lifestyles — and yet people insist on calling the traditional worldview and societies “primitive” and “superstitious,” and heap scorn and ridicule upon Jewish beliefs and customs.

The traditional worldview is considered by many scientists as having an evolutionary advantage. As Stephen Kellert says in The Biophilia Hypothesis:

It may be sufficient to suggest that a biological advantage is conferred on those who experience a profound sense of psychological well-being, identity, and self-confidence produced by the conviction of an ultimate order and meaning in life.

Like the belief systems of other traditional cultures, Judaism addresses the earth’s essential role in our existence and our ultimate reliance on planetary health. It takes seriously the limits on our ownership of any part of the world, but it also understands that a full spiritual life is the only way that people will come to respect those limits.

Eco-kosher maintains awareness of the unhappy truth that humans must kill plants and animals to live. It aids our acknowledgement of the fact that whatever we do to stay alive poses some danger to the planet that gives us life. Judaism has always believed that we might be more inclined to exercise self-control if we are consciously aware of the truth and incorporate it into our daily life. Like most traditional cultures, much of Jewish life is built around this awareness of responsibility and guidelines for right conduct in the world, especially in our dealings with that which is alive but not human.As the late Andree Collard said,

Apathy, thoughtlessness, and the denial of responsibility and choice are moral transgressions; they allow for the overall pollution and destruction of the earth, the oppression of people, the atrocities committed on animals … and the objectification of wildlife in general.

Stephen Kellert puts it this way:

The moralistic experience of nature encompasses strong feelings of affinity, ethical responsibility, and even reverence for the natural world. This perspective often reflects the conviction of a fundamental spiritual meaning, order, and harmony in nature.

In Jewish spirituality, along with Native American and other indigenous traditions, the moralistic view of nature is paramount and governs the individual and society as a whole. Some of these practices are codified in Kashrut. Kashrut’s concerns with the gathering, preparation, and consumption of food exhibit Jewish solutions for solving the moral dilemma of killing other life forms so humans can survive.

Eco-kosher determines that actions bearing considerable risk of habitat or ecosystem destruction or death of species are treyf (“unfit,” “not kosher,” and many other negative connotations). Actions to protect habitat, species, and ecosystems are rewarded and encouraged. Likewise, actions likely to irreparably alter or destroy distinctive human cultures or communities are prohibited. It’s the Jewish concept later given broad coverage as Star Trek’s Prime Directive.

Eco-kosher offers Westerners the traditional approach to interactions with our planet and its nonhuman inhabitants, but this tradition is also firmly grounded in the here-and-now. The principles of eco-kosher imbue the Rio Summit Declarations, whether by design or unconscious acknowledgement of what the drafters knew in their hearts to be right.

We’re postmodern. We understand that people need mythology and a mythos to live by. People are not satisfied with the Enlightenment promise that rationality is going to be the whole answer. The rational world produced Nazis. We’re no longer accepting this Western “enlightenment” model as being “the most superior model of all time.
— Moshe Waldocks

An exploration of eco-kosher involves traditional Jewish and modern concerns.

Tzaar baalei chayim (Literally “distress of those who possess life”)

This is traditionally interpreted as respect and compassion for animals. Care of and kindness to animals is not generally mentioned in the same breath as the Ten Commandments, but the concepts are codified in the Decalogue. Torah prohibits the torture or causing of pain to any living creature. It’s also a moral obligation to show kindness to animals and to avoid actions that would cause them anguish or suffering.

A famous rabbi was cursed by God because, when a terrified calf sent to slaughter broke away and came bleating to him for protection, he returned the animal to the butcher rather than spare its life.

People are supposed to consider the feelings of the animals in their care — and sometimes the animals’ feelings come first. For example, one who is responsible for animals is forbidden to relax until their animals are watered and fed.

A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast.
—Proverbs XII, 10

In the Jewish worldview — not unlike the world of a physicist, Eastern philosopher or scholar — it seems that all life, whether human or not, forms an organic whole. Certainly Psalm XXXVI, 7, and Jonah IV give the impression that there is no break in the chain of sentient life.

In Genesis (VIII, 1) and Jeremiah (XXI, 6), domesticated animals are regarded as part of the human community. What a far cry from pagan cultures. The bloodthirsty rites of the Roman arena were a clear indication of the inhumanity which prevailed in what we tend to call the “civilized” world during the Talmudic period.

Christianity ignored that part of the Ten Commandments touching on the treatment of animals, and it dropped the other concepts entirely. We see this occur in Paul’s mocking rhetoric: “Is it for oxen that God careth?” That’s why it took until the late 1800’s for animal cruelty laws to make it to the lawbooks of civilized Christian society, though Jewish law accepted it as fact with the Covenant.

Hunting as a sport has historically been looked upon with disdain as a violation of the spiritual intent of Judaism, particularly if there is no utilitarian purpose, for it invariably involves an element of cruelty to animals. There are also extremely specific rules regarding the consumption of animals for food. One story insists that the rules are rigid because The Eternal One originally planned for humans to be vegetarians. However, strict compromises to the rule had to be created for those humans who begged to be allowed to eat meat!

Age-old moral constraints codified in Judaism are part and parcel of the indigenous worldview, where animals used for food are treated with dignity even at the time of death. Nothing from a slaughtered animal is wasted, and out of respect for animalkind humans only kill what they absolutely need.

Jewish law covers the methods of animal slaughter; the rules were devised with the intention of providing an easy death for the victim.

The traditional view is expanded under eco-kosher to prohibit factory-farm conditions for animals and the eating of meat from animals raised under such undignified and cruel conditions. Some extend eco-kosher to respect the identity of plants by restricting pesticide use and recombinant genetic practices. Eco-kosher rules the drug Premarin to be treyf because of the appalling conditions experienced by pregnant mares (and their offspring) used to obtain Premarin’s primary ingredient.

Bal taschchit (Literally “not ruining the earth”)

This is generally interpreted as a divine commandment to protect the environment, beginning with the directive in Deuteronomy against cutting down an enemy’s trees. Property has a moral aspect in Judaism, as in “the Earth is the Eternal’s, and all the fullness thereof.” The Sabbatical Year (Leviticus XXV, 1) and other biblical injunctions on the treatment of tilled ground also relate to this concept of gentle and considerate treatment of the land that gives us life and sustains us.

Eco-kosher extends Bal taschchit to all trees and other aspects of nature, such as a prohibition against pesticides that poison the earth as they produce food. Bal taschchit concepts were written as non-binding cosiderations into the Rio Summit’s declarations. This ancient spiritual law continues to influence people in subtle ways: organically grown fruits and vegetables doubled their sales in the U.S. from 1989 to 1994.

Protection of one’s own body (shemirat haguf)

Within the confines of eco-kosher, this principle is used to justify not eating foods that contain harmful chemicals or other substances. This directive determines that BGH and other hormones, along with known carcinogens, are rendered treyf (unfit for consumption), as are tobacco and overdoses of alcohol. Attention is also paid to life-threatening eating disorders such as compulsive overeating, anorexia and bulimia.

Tzedakah or righteous sharing

One of the hallmarks of Jewish tradition is regular charitable work and contributions. In a vastly unequal world, “righteous sharing” takes on a new importance. In 1984, the richest one-fifth of the world’s people had 59 times the income of the poorest one-fifth. It’s easy to see why tzedakah is extended under eco-kosher to include a prohibition against eating meals that do not include a proportionate share to buy food for the hungry.

You can mend the cosmos by anything you do — even eating.
Yesod ve-Shoresh ha-Avodah by Alexander Susskind

Eco-kosher has even deeper repercussions, however. In a world where protein is not distributed in an equitable fashion it is unjust to eat meat at all when the grain used to feed meat animals could directly feed larger numbers of people.

Seventy percent of U.S. grain production, says Alan Durning, goes to feed animals raised for food, and 66 percent of U.S. grain exports are consumed by meat animals.

“Food is oil,” says Richard Manning.

Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the last year in which anyone looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1.

About 58% of US corn production is used as livestock feed, according to Michael Graboski of the Colorado Bureau of Mines, and it takes 13.8 gallons of crude oil to raise a steer to become your dinner (if you ignore the energy expended in transport of livestock to slaughter, meat processing, packaging, and final transport to markets).

According to a report by The Worldwatch Institute, the average U.S. family of four eats enough beef in a year to burn 200 gallons of petroleum.

The Alan Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Program at Brown University calculates that if everyone ate a largely vegetarian diet with only minor supplementation from fish and range-fed animals, equally distributed planetary food rations would support roughly 7 billion well-fed people — and create a sigificant reduction in fossil fuel consumption.

Berakhah and Kedushah

These are the Jewish traditions related to consciously affirming a sense of holiness and blessing in life. For this reason, before and after eating those gathered for a meal stop and give thanks to Makor HaHayim (the Source of all life) for the bounty of the planet.

Eco-kosher and Money

Money consciousness is part of eco-kosher. Money reveals and conceals the interactions between humans and the earth. When we think of money as a metaphor for the bounty of our planet, it becomes a spiritual issue.

There are currently 1.3 billion people, or almost 20 percent of humanity, who live on US $1 or less a day.

These things that, by his science and technology, man has brought about on this earth, on which he first appeared as a feeble animal organism… these things do not only sound like a fairy tale, they are an actual fulfillment of every — or almost every — fairy tale wish.
—Sigmund Freud Civilization and Its Discontents

In older models of economies, certain aspects of the earth are not factored in because they are considered “productive,” while others are left out because they are considered “relational.” These days it is more realistic to include the value of the planet in economic calculations — to assign a value to what is generally considered a nonvalued secular transaction.

Putting a value on biodiversity requires an assessment of biological resources and an estimate of changes in biodiversity in economic terms.

Charles Hall, a professor at Syracuse, calculated that every American dollar or its equivalent spent anywhere on the planet triggers a series of events that generally consume a half-liter of petroleum. A gallon of oil when burned releases 5 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere. Buy a bottom-of-the-line Lexus and there’s several thousand pounds of carbon lofted into the Earth’s atmosphere. A $20 book equals a couple gallons of oil.

With every normal action in a consumer society we nudge the thermometer a little higher.
—Bill McKibben

GNP is now largely distrusted as a means of mirroring human “progress.” Herman Daly, once employed by the World Bank but now a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, suggests that instead we should use the Genuine Progress Indicator as an indicator of what is really happening. This system incorporates environmental factors — including “depreciation of natural capital” like soil erosion — into GNP. And when that happens, economic figures change dramatically.

Based upon GPI figures, economic welfare in the U.S. is deteriorating.

The GDP has overestimated the health of [the US] economy by $7 trillion. Ironically, one of the key factors contributing to this over-counting is the expenditure that have resulted from the accounting scandals at Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Anderson and others.

Ecosystem services,” or what the planet does to sustain life for us as well as other species, work something like economic services. According to researchers, ecosystem services could be valued around $20 trillion a year — about equal to the annual gross global production of humans.
Ecosystem services include

  • Provision of clean water and air
  • Pollination of crops
  • Mitigation of environmental hazards
  • Pest and disease control

According to the Ecosystem Services website and available scientific evidence,

  • Ecosystem services are essential to civilization.
  • Ecosystem services operate on such a grand scale and in such intricate and little-explored ways that most could not be replaced by technology.
  • Human activities are already impairing the flow of ecosystem services on a large scale.
  • If current trends continue, humanity will dramatically alter virtually all of Earth’s remaining natural ecosystems within a few decades.

In 2006, the World Conservation Union warned that the world faced ‘the sixth great extinction of life on earth’ as mammals, amphibians, birds, insects, fish and plants were being lost at ‘unprecedented rates’. One in four mammals and one in eight bird species have been labelled ‘threatened’. In 2007, the Union’s research shows that because of climate change, alien predators, hunting and the loss of their homelands, thousands of species currently in danger of extinction in the wild are likely to survive only in captivity.

It does not have to end like this. We can still mend our selfish ways. But all of us must do our part.