Faith in Food

It was almost revolutionary when one of my family members joined a CSA in the early 1990s. Every week she would receive a large box of organic lettuce and other salad greens, and a group of her friends would pick up their shares from her Manhattan apartment. Twenty years later, Community Supported Agriculture shares are available in urban and rural areas across the country, and the young man from whose farm the organic lettuce originated now owns one of the largest organic farms in the country. “Big” may be the theme of mainstream agriculture, but resistance to the mainstream usually starts small. One of the newest additions to the growing food movement in the United States is the small group of activists and entrepreneurs who draw on the teachings of traditional religions for inspiration. This is most clear in the case of Muslims and Jews who are reexamining the significance of, and their relationships to, traditional religious dietary guidelines.

Many Muslims and Jews already follow special dietary laws respectively referred to as halal and kosher, but some members of these religious communities are going beyond the base requirements that their coreligionists adhere to. While there are differences between Islamic and Jewish dietary laws, such as the prohibition of alcohol in Islam and the requirement of separating meat from dairy in Judaism, both traditions share the view that how an animal is slaughtered affects whether its meat is permissible for consumption. There is a body of ethical and legal literature in Judaism and Islam that discusses the ethics of raising animals, the importance of treating them well and the responsibility we have to protect the environment, but the deciding factor in whether meat is kosher or halal has to do with how an animal is slaughtered. In short, religious law seems to be more concerned with how an animal dies than how it lives.

In recent years, however, a new discourse has emerged in some religious circles that questions the value of adhering to the letter of the law when doing so continues to support a system that is not always ethical. As a result, a number of Jewish and Muslim entrepreneurs have started businesses to provide ethically and religiously minded consumers with halal and kosher meat that comes from animals raised in accordance with principles of sustainability and the humane treatment of animals. These businesses, and the individuals who use their services, are largely in agreement with other members of the growing food movement, but they view ideas – such as the value of eating locally, the importance of supporting small farms and the need to eliminate the use of antibiotics on animals unless there is a medical necessity – as being rooted in the ethical values of their religious traditions.

Jewish and Muslim contributions to the food movement range from Internet-based companies that ship meat throughout the country, such as Green Zabiha, Kol Foods, and Grow and Behold, to local companies that provide options for specific communities, such as Whole Earth Meats, which sources its meat within 300 miles of “Chicagoland,” Illinois, and distributes to the same community. Boston-based Loko goes one step further and provides community members with an educational experience in which they observe the kosher slaughter of the animals they are purchasing and participate in aspects of the koshering process themselves. What all the individuals involved in these organizations and the people who buy their products and use their services share is a deep reverence for religious law combined with an equally deep concern for issues of health, the environment, sustainability and the ethical treatment of animals.

Religion can offer profound guidance and teaching on how to navigate issues of food production and the treatment of animals. At the same time, concerns over food create opportunities for members of different religious communities to come together, not in spite of religious differences, but because of shared values inspired by and drawn from different religions. Food has the power to bring people together and to create bonds across community lines, not just in the dining room or the kitchen, but in the political and public realm as well. While there are only a few providers of kosher and halal meat who pay as much attention to the lives of animals as they do to their deaths, it may not be very long before this trend becomes as ubiquitous as CSAs or, God willing, organic lettuce.

Nuri Friedlander is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University’s Study of Religion Program.

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