(RNS) — A couple of weeks ago Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, ruled that the cultured meat (grown from animal tissue in a lab) produced by an Israeli food tech company is both kosher and pareve — that is, neither meat nor dairy, but comparable to vegetables, eggs and fish. Whereupon Rabbi Menachem Genack, who oversees New York’s Orthodox Union Kosher Division, told The Washington Post that his organization may rule differently.
Now there’s a dog-bites-man story for you. What is the Talmud after all but a collection of 63 legal tractates devoted to rabbis disagreeing with each other?
Be that as it may, the kosher status of meat grown from animal cells is clearly consequential for observant Jews. And, under Jewish law, the issues are tricky.
For example, should the cells used to grow the material be considered actual meat? If so, is their presence substantial enough to warrant requiring them to come from a properly slaughtered animal? And, given the biblical rule against eating anything removed from a live animal, would the cells have to come from one that’s already been (properly) slaughtered?
Or take the question of appearances. Despite giving cultured meat his blessing as a species of vegetable, Lau insists that it shouldn’t be marketed and sold with non-meat products lest the Jewish public be led to sin by getting “used to eating dairy and meat products together.”
That injunction would presumably apply to undeniably meat-free products like Burger King’s Impossible Whopper — a faux cheeseburger made with an all-vegetable patty that looks and tastes pretty much like the real thing. To be sure, Burger Kings are not kosher restaurants, so anything cooked in one cannot be considered kosher. But what of an Impossible Whopper served in a bona-fide kosher eatery?
Moreover, anyone familiar with the range of kosher foods on offer today knows that it’s possible to buy bacon-tasting beef as well as kosher beef sausages that masquerade as chorizo and andouille. Shouldn’t those also be forbidden on the identical grounds that eating them might give Jewish people the idea that real bacon, chorizo and andouille are ok to eat?
But let’s leave it to the professionals to jump down those, uh, rabbi holes. More consequential so far as I’m concerned is how cultured meat relates to what’s known as eco-kosher.
Conceptualized by the late mystical Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in the 1970s, eco-kosher extends the meaning of kashrut from defining what foods and eating practices are forbidden to restricting consumption based on ecological considerations. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a leading proponent, puts it this way:
We should ask: Is it eco-kosher to eat vegetables and fruit that have been grown by drenching the soil with insecticides? Is it eco-kosher to drink Shabbat wine from non-biodegradable plastic cups? Is it eco-kosher to use 100 percent unrecycled office paper and newsprint in our homes, our synagogues, our community newspapers? Might it be eco-kosher to insist on 10 percent recycled paper this year, 30 percent in two years, and 80 percent in five years?
Along those lines, we should ask: Is it eco-kosher to consume beef when the climate crisis is being significantly worsened by the worldwide demand for it?
The answer has got to be no. To help reduce cows’ emission of methane and the destruction of forests for grazing land, we should remove beef entirely or in part from our diet. For those of us unable or unwilling to embrace an entirely vegetarian or vegan existence, cultured meat — with cheese or not — would seem to be the eco-kosher way to do our part.
What do you say, Rabbi Waskow?