“Shalom. Salaam,” Dr. Joe M. Regenstein said while greeting an audience at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
It was fitting that Dr. Regenstein used both Hebrew and Arabic to say hello, as he is an individual who straddles the worlds of both Jews and Muslims.
Dr. Regenstein, a professor of food science at Cornell University, is head of Cornell’s Kosher and Halal Food Initiative. He is an expert on the rules for fit and proper food in the Jewish and Muslim communities internationally.
He was at the museum recently to present a lively talk titled “Everything You Wanted To Know About Kosher and Halal But Were Afraid to Ask.” Dr. Regenstein’s talk at the Jewish Museum was cosponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council’s Jewish/Muslim Dialogue Group.
One thing that many people don’t realize, Dr. Regenstein said, is that kosher and halal actually have several things in common. Kosher means fit or proper. Halal means lawful. While many people believe kosher or halal foods have been blessed by religious authorites, that’s not actually true.
Food is kosher or halal because specific rules have been followed, he said. “Kosher and halal are kosher and halal because they followed the rules,” Dr. Regenstein said. “The purpose of the rabbi or imam is to say to the public, “In fact, we have looked at the company and they are following the rules.’”
In other words, the rabbi or imam have independently monitored the processing or production line and certified that the manufacturer followed the rules.
Dr. Regenstein says his goal is to increase understanding of kosher and halal in the food industry and among the public in general. It’s an important issue because 40 percent of American food products today are kosher. And worldwide, one out of five people is eating halal.
“Like Judaism, there’s a respect for life and extenuating circumstance. In both religions … if you have to, you can break the law,” Dr. Regenstein said.
Some differences between kosher and halal? Halal doesn’t separate milk and meat. Plus, Muslims do not have specific holiday laws, such as Jews have for Passover.
While Jews who keep kosher would not eat halal meat, Dr. Regenstein said Muslims will eat kosher meat. Individual Muslim leaders tend to disagree on what constitutes “doubtful” food. One may say one food is not halal — caffeine, for example — while another will permit it.
“I have seen four or five such lists,” Dr. Regenstein said. “I have not seen any overlap in any of these lists from one to another. They tend to be idiosyncratic. Most Muslims sort of ignore the lists.”
Both communities require a prayer to be recited before an animal is slaughtered. The shochet (Jewish ritual slaughterer) says a prayer for a bunch of animals. Ideally, the Muslim (any adult Muslim can perform a slaughter) recites a prayer over each animal, Dr. Regenstein said. The horizontal cut is the same in both religions.
Both halal and kosher prohibit pork. The Muslim prohibition against pork “goes beyond the eating. Most Jews will wear a belt made of pigskin. Many Jews will use a paintbrush that’s made with pig bristles. Most Muslims, who are seriously practicing Muslims, want nothing to do with anything to do with a derivative of pig in all aspects of life, not just in food.”
Dr. Regenstein related how he once had a Muslim student who played football. It was only when they had confirmed that the pigskin was not actually made of pigskin that the student could play with a clear conscience.
Dr. Regenstein is heavily involved in animal welfare as it relates to religious slaughter. In Europe, Australia, New Zealand and “a tiny bit in the U.S.,” there is pressure to require stunning before slaughter — which neither kashrut nor halal require.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what religious slaughter is, and it is being combined successfully by those interested in animal welfare with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia,” Dr. Regenstein said. “Part of the reason I try to introduce in the Jewish community these issues of halal in the Muslim community [is that] we’re both doing an unusual form of slaughter that in Western terms is not always considered acceptable.
“The fundamental issue of how we’re going to slaughter animals is an important one, and it is exactly where the Jewish and Muslim community are finding common ground to work together on really serious issues.”
As an animal welfare advocate, he said, both communities have “a fair bit of work to do to bring both sets of slaughter up to a legitimate Western standard of animal welfare. There are lots of places doing it right and there are lots of places not doing it right and the same in the Muslim community.”
The question, he said, is finding a way to balance “both our religious traditions with the need for modern animal welfare.”
Demystifying kosher and halal isn’t Dr. Regenstein’s only claim to fame. Back in the 1990s, he was an unofficial consultant in the more than three year-long process to certify Oreos as kosher, a tidbit that drew laughter and applause from the audience.
Dr. Regenstein’s work has taken him around the world. He recently returned from China, and if the
paperwork goes through, he’s been invited to give his kosher-halal talk in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. JT