Friday, December 29, 2006

Is Cloned Meat Kosher?

Being Jewishly-observant often gives me a rather odd view of the news. For example, when I first heard about Fry-O-Diesel, a Philadelphia-based company that is trying to perfect the process of converting waste grease to clean-burning fuel, my first thought was, "is this 'kosher'?" After all, this Philly-based company would surely be making their fuel from the greasy Philly favorite, the cheesesteak, and Jewish law forbids us from deriving any benefit from a milk-meat combination!

The same sort of odd thoughts went through my mind when I heard about the FDA's recent conclusion about cloned meat: It may be safe, but is it kosher?

I haven't been able to find any answers to that question yet. In the Orthodox community, most of the discussion about cloning to date has dealt with cloning humans: cloning for reproductive purposes, and cloning for medical purposes (e.g., for stem cell research and treatment). You may be surprised to hear that the Orthodox rabbinate for the most part supports stem-cell research, within some limitations.

It surprised me a bit that I couldn't find any serious discussion of the kashrut of clones, given that the highly-publicized first mammal cloned from an adult cell was Dolly the sheep, and sheep are kosher. That was followed two years later, by the cloning of cows in 1998. In 2000, pigs were cloned -- definitely not kosher!

I suspect that the kosher status of clones will not be a problem. It appears that Orthodoxy has already generally accepted the kashrut of genetically-modified foods, which is a much more dicey issue of Jewish law: it is essentially hybridization, which is against Jewish law, and it often involves splicing the genes of non-kosher animals into kosher plants, in addition to the unnatural production aspect that it shares in common with cloning. The consensus about GMOs seems to be that, although the process of creating them may be a violation of Jewish law, once they are created the means of their creation does not affect their kosher status, and the genetic material used is broken down to the point that it is too small to count.


FDA decision

Jewish Opinions on Cloning Generally
Please note: even though several of these titles use the word "kosher," they are speaking of meeting the requirements of Jewish law generally, not about Jewish dietary laws specifically; they mostly talk about cloning for reproductive or medical purposes

Jewish Opinions on Stem Cell Research

Jewish Opinions on Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

"Secular" Christmas

I was contacted recently by a reporter from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for an article about the "secularization" of Christmas. We hear this a lot at this time of year: that Christmas has become a secular holiday because its most popular observances -- decorations, presents, etc. -- are not inherently religious. But this notion, that secular observances make a holiday secular, is completely contrary to the Jewish way of thinking about holidays and their traditions. From a Jewish perspective, doing secular things for a religious holiday makes the secular things religious; it does not make the religious holiday secular.

In Judaism, many of our holidays are observed with traditions that are quite mundane and secular in nature. What, after all, is so very religious about eating fried food, gambling for chocolate coins and lighting candles, as we do on Chanukkah? Or playing hide-and-seek with a piece of matzah, as we do on Passover? Or camping out in a booth on your patio, as we do on Sukkot? Or getting drunk and having a carnival, as we do on Purim? Or eating three large meals, as we do every Shabbat? But from a Jewish perspective, any activity we perform as part of the celebration of a holiday is understood to be a religious activity, regardless of whether that activity could be done at another time in a secular context. There's nothing inherently religious about eating latkes (fried potato pancakes). If we eat them because it's Chanukkah, then it's a religious activity; if we eat them during Passover because they are unleavened, then it's a religious activity; if we eat them on an ordinary day because they're a tasty treat, that's not a religious activity.

What about something as simple as decorating for the holiday? Isn't that a secular activity? In Jewish tradition, we would refer to decorationg as "chiddur mitzvah," beautifying the commandment. We see it as an act of great religious significance when we expend significant amounts of time and money to make a holiday or other observance more beautiful, more enjoyable. When I decorate my sukkah for Sukkot, hanging pictures on the walls and decorative gourds from the roof, that is a religious activity in Judaism.

There is really no question that all of the "secular" activities that go on at this time of year are being done because it is Christmas. People put up a Christmas tree and decorations and lights because it is Christmas, not just because it's pretty. They buy presents because it is Christmas, not just because it’s a nice thing to do. They eat candy canes because it is Christmas, not just because they taste good. They listen to Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman because it's Christmas, not just because they're catchy tunes. They extol the virtues of Peace on Earth and Good Will Towards Men because it's Christmas, not just because it's a good idea. And whether they focus on this aspect or not, and whether this aspect is important to them or not, they know that Christmas commemorates Jesus’ birth.

From the Jewish understanding of religious activity, these secular customs do not make Christmas secular; Christmas makes these secular customs religious. I think on a gut level, a lot of Jews feel that, though they may not be able to explain that feeling. That is why many Jews feel so alienated at Christmas, and so outraged when Christians try to pressure us to observe Christmas customs.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Importance of Chanukkah

In December 1984, I was a junior in college and an officer of our campus Hillel (a Jewish student organization). The people who ran the College Center came to us with a question: they were getting ready to put up the Christmas tree in the College Center, and wanted to know if they should put up the Chanukkah menorah with it. In the past, they had always put both up at the same time. But in December 1984, Chanukkah was late, starting after classes ended for the semester, so they wondered whether the menorah should be up at all when the holiday was not occurring.

The Hillel board discussed the question and it was generally agreed: Chanukkah is not Jewish Christmas, it's not a major holiday, it's not a big decorating holiday, and we should not decorate for it when it's not even occurring. We took what we thought was an important stand, and told them not to put up the menorah.

The next night, as I was walking through the College Center, I saw the Christmas tree ... right across the atrium from the Chanukkah menorah! Our Hillel president, Gary, happened to be there at the time, so I asked him what was going on. Didn't we decide that we didn't want them to put up the menorah?

Gary looked rather embarassed. He explained that he had been talking to our friend Carla earlier in the day. Carla is Jewish and was a regular at our Hillel brunches and dinners, but she was not religious. She told Gary how she felt about seeing the Christmas tree without the menorah, how alone and cold and left out it made her feel. He immediately went to the College Center and told them, on behalf of Hillel, that we had changed our minds and we wanted the menorah up.

I think about that story a lot at this time of year, whenever I hear people comment on the fact that Chanukkah is not an important holiday. Indeed, I say the same thing on my site, and from a religious perspective, it's true: Chanukkah is not very important religiously. It's not in our Bible; it doesn't have any non-working festival days; the only commandment is lighting candles, which can be done at somewhat flexible times.

But for many Jews in America, Chanukkah is the only Jewish holiday they know, the only one their families celebrated together. And yes, they probably celebrated it with elaborate presents each day for eight days, and with blue and white lights, and with "Happy Chanukkah" decorations, and maybe they even celebrated it with a "Chanukkah bush." But they also lit candles and played dreidel and ate latkes, and they called what they were doing "Chanukkah," not "Christmas." At a time of year when there is enormous social pressure to conform to the Christmas norm, they stood up and said, "I am Jewish; I don't celebrate Christmas, I celebrate Chanukkah." And the importance of that should never be understated.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

War on Chanukkah Update

The holiday situation at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has been resolved. Christians can now sleep soundly, knowing that their Christmas trees are safe and back on display at Sea-Tac airport. Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky assured Port officials that he would not file a lawsuit to force them to allow a menorah display. The rabbi said, as he has many times since this began, that it was never his desire to have the trees removed; that he wanted to "add light to the holiday, not diminish any light."

Chabad's menorah, however, will not be displayed this year. And there has been a predictable antisemitic backlash. The Anti-Defamation League reports that the rabbi received hundreds of hate mail messages related to this situation. Many synagogues and other Jewish organizations completely unrelated to this situation, organizations outside of the Seattle area and unaffiliated with Chabad, have also received disturbing messages, and are considering the need for security during Chanukkah celebrations.

FYI: The news stories about the resolution of the situation give some more detail about how the misunderstanding arose. A member of Chabad who is a construction consultant for the airport approached a Port staffer in October or November, as the Christmas displays were going up. However, he was given the runaround for several weeks, through many people who told him different things about whether a menorah would be allowed. The law is clear, however, and the rabbi's attorney sent Port officials a legal memorandum laying out what the law has to say in these cases. This may well have been the first time that the proper levels of the Port heard about Chabad's request. Legal experts agree that the Port could have allowed the menorah along with its Christmas trees in such a way that it would not have been an endorsement of religion, and that would have been the end of it. But the Port officials panicked and took down the trees instead.

News links (please note: the linked articles, like any news items, may be removed at any time):

Monday, December 11, 2006

The War on Chanukkah

At this time of year, we frequently hear about a supposed "War on Christmas," the odd idea that it is somehow offensive to wish people a "Happy Holiday" or "Seasons Greetings" instead of "Merry Christmas." But I'd like to talk to you about the War on Chanukkah, about an airport that was so strongly opposed to displaying a menorah in the midst of their plethora of Christmas decorations that they chose to take down their 15 Christmas trees rather than allow a menorah.

In October, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was approached by Chabad Lubavitch, a Chasidic Jewish organization known for its outreach. Chabad wanted to put up a menorah -- at their expense -- in the airport, as they do in many locations around the world. The menorah would stand side-by-side with one of the 15 Christmas trees already displayed at the airport. However, instead of meeting the offer with enthusiasm as many cities and facilities around the country do, airport officials dragged their feet on the request.

With Chanukkah rapidly approaching -- it starts at sunset on Friday December 15 -- and no response from airport officials, Chabad put some pressure on. They told the airport that they would consider a lawsuit if the airport did not allow the to put up their menorah. There is certainly a basis for a claim of discrimination: this public facility (not a private business) puts up the decorations of one religious holiday with their own money, but does not allow a decoration of another religious holiday at the same time.

The airport's response? They took down all 15 of their Christmas trees and blamed the Jews. The President of the Port of Seattle Comission said, "It was either, 'put up the menorah,' or they would go to federal court and sue us 18 hours later. They wouldn't wait."

Wait? Wait for what? For Christmas? Christmas decorations are already up; Chanukkah starts Friday; what were they waiting for? What did they expect Chabad to wait for?

And who do you think is going to get the blame for this mess? The airport officials, who would rather take down Christmas trees than display a menorah, or Chabad, who simply wanted to spread a little Chanukkah cheer at their own expense? I'm seeing a disturbing -- but not surprising -- amount of message board chatter blaming Chabad. Many of the messages seem to think that Chabad demanded that the trees come down, which was never a part of the Chabad agenda.

News links (please note: the linked articles, like any news items, may be removed at any time):