Rabbi Rubin: Environmental Costs and Kashrus

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rabbi-y-reuven-rubinBy Rabbi Y. Reuven Rubin, Ynet

There are some mysteries that go beyond all understanding. In previous generations we were blessed with wise men who delved into such matters and then shared their understanding of them with us lesser mortals.

One such group of deep thinkers lived in the sleepy village of Chelm and much of their wisdom has been transmitted. On one occasion the town fathers were faced with a particularly vexing conundrum. The ‘Rosh Hakohol’ (President of the community. YRR) noticed that when one poured sugar granules into hot tea you had to stir it to make it sweet. The question was this: What makes the tea sweet, the sugar or the act of stirring?

Soon everyone in the village was taking sides: The pro-sugar lobby claimed that of course it was the sugar that made for the sweetness. The stirrers stood their ground; no, it’s all in the stirring motion of the spoon. Soon one could hardly go to shul without being drawn into the ever-expanding argument. Finally, it was decided to convene a special meeting where the town’s greatest minds would finally decide the issue.

On the day, the pro-sugar group came up with what they thought was the definitive argument. If it wasn’t the sugar that made the tea sweet how come it didn’t taste like that until it was added and dissolved? The stirrers weren’t fazed at all; the sweetness came from the stirring, all the dissolving of the sugar did was to mark how long one had to stir.

This quaint tale comes to my mind whenever I participate in discussions about the environmental problems now facing the world. Certain things are now so blatant, yet there are those who still argue the side of the stirrers rather than the sugar. It wouldn’t be so bad but the problem is that these matters are of great import when we talk about the future.

It is time to begin accepting that there are huge problems and that as Jews we must become part of the answers and not be seen as part of the fault.

The world we inhabit is complicated, and never more so than in the realm of kashrut. Foodstuffs are brought in from around the world and almost every day brings new questions that need to be answered. We source ingredients from China, India and further afield.

Consumers don’t even begin to understand the complexities of what is involved. I have just attended a conference of rabbis who are experts in the realm of kashrut. Organized by the Rabbinical Center of Europe, over one hundred rabbis from all sections of Europe and Israel gathered in Brussels for two days.

I was there as almost a spectator in that I have nothing to do with kashrut supervision except for the fact that I like to eat. As a member of the Center’s Rabbinical Board I attended so as to support the vital work our kosher food experts are doing.

Listening to the many discussions astounded me as the picture of how global the world of kashrut has become quickly emerged.

The only thing I had to add to the discussion was my query about how or if we should factor in the environmental cost when deciding about the kashrut of any item. I am not talking about debatable scientific theories that scream out at you “the sky is falling”, I am only asking about areas that certainly touch on Jewish Torah law and it’s intent such as Bal Tashchit (unnecessary waste) for example.

Recent surveys tell us that over 40% of the food we buy is thrown away. Have you seen the mountain of rubbish at the back of any catering hall? I know many send their leftovers to needy charitable institutions, but that is only the waste that is still whole and uneaten. What about the huge leftovers on all our plates?

During the Rabbinical conference there was discussion about various parasites that cling onto fish in the sea. I am not an expert, but I did mention that it well may stop being a problem in a few years time in any case. It is agreed by all that coral reefs in many areas are dying because of ecological damage. If this continues there won’t be any parasites on those fish; in fact, come to think of it there won’t be any fish. Problem solved.

Much discussion was had about the cost of meat and the many kashrut problems that come to the fore when trying to meet the needs of what is an ever growing kosher market. Left unsaid was the problem that so much meat production is coming with huge costs to our ecology. We produce in one country to supply another through third party supervision coming from yet somewhere else.

Wastage is immense and in the end we must pay for it all. Then there are those colorful plastic bags, a favorite hobby horse of mine. They can never be disposed of completely and there are now whole islands of plastic bags floating in our oceans starving the native wildlife that we depend on for nutrition. I can continue with ever more detail but that is not the remit of this article.

All I want to suggest is that we bring these problems to the communal table. It should become part of our lexicon to speak of strictly kosher as not only fulfilling every scintilla of possible Jewish practice, but also reflecting a responsibility for G-d’s Creation. We should be seeking here an opportunity to create a sanctification of G-d for that is definitely what is called for.

I shared with my colleagues in Brussels my fear that in 10 years time we all will be held to task for not having done something. I can’t say that my fears were met with any great groundswell of support. No matter, I will persist because I need to express my feelings that it is about the sugar and not the stirring.

Rabbi Rubin is the rabbi of South Manchester in the United Kingdom and a prominent member of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe (RCE).


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  1. At last – someone wearing a yarmulkeh has started using the brain underneath it! On the other hand, Rabbi Rubin is English, so one can expect that he has had a better secular education – including science – than our local American product who thinks tormenting the “English” teacher was fun, and couldn’t do enough math to figure out why his mortgage was a scam.

    In the US being anti-environmental action is part of the “mystique” that goes with listening to Rush Limbaugh (a college dropout in his freshman year), bashing “liberals” (however they’re defined) and generally being anti anything that requires heavy, or even medium grade, thought.

    Perhaps we can convince Rabbi Rubin to come to the US and lecture on why ideas have consequences, even when Rush and Shawn don’t like them.

    Yashir koach to Rabbi Reuven.

  2. I thought Rabbi Rubin was American born man living in England also? I do admire his sentiment but his style just feels all wrong to me, trying to be up to date and new but comes across as very tired. Hes a older Rabbi I am sure a style which is more natural would suit him. Some writings are rather cringeworthy. Thus the message is lost but at least hes a religious man trying to get important messages across.


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