Is Turkey Kosher?


Q: I’ve heard that turkey may actually not be kosher. Is that true?

A: From a halachic/ethical standpoint, it is 100% kosher. Or not.

The halachic problem, dealt with in excruciating detail in this article from The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, is that, for birds, the Torah offers no identifying features to distinguish kosher from the non-kosher species. It just lists some examples of non kosher birds and expects us to figure out the common denominators, but the list is incomplete. And back in biblical times, the turkey was not yet known.

The Mishnah specifies four ways of determining the kashrut of a bird, including that it not be a bird of prey. A principle behind kosher laws is that “you are what you eat,” and we prefer not to be violent scavengers. On all counts, this resilient but peace loving bird would seem to pass that test. But as a relatively new face on the scene, the turkey has caused confusion and controversy; in the Middle Ages, some major authorities expressed reluctance to add any new birds to their “permitted” list, absent an ancient tradition (mesorah) legitimizing it.

While almost all authorities now consider the turkey kosher, some families have maintained a tradition of refraining from eating it. As Rabbi Joshua Heller puts it, his old family custom presents him with a November Dilemma:

Do I follow a more general family tradition, which is at variance with conventional Jewish practice, or follow instead the counter-tradition passed down from my own branch of the Heller clan, which is to disregard that restriction? Perhaps, in addition to meat, milk and Passover dishes, I need to purchase a fifth set just for Thanksgiving? Or do I just give up and go to my in-laws?”

But beyond the halachic question, there is an ethical question as to whether turkeys should be eaten at all. Full disclosure: I’m a vegetarian. I don’t even eat Tofurkey, which looks like turkey (and if PETA gets its way will soon become the new name of “Turkey, Texas,”). For me on Thanksgiving, “Pass the kugel and green beans!” is just fine – as long as I also get to see the Packers devour the Lions.

Rabbi Marc Soloway writes, “As delicious as that turkey dinner is on Thanksgiving, it is an increasingly ironic way to celebrate freedom and gratitude,” given the fact that almost all of the 45 million turkeys eaten by Americans each Thanksgiving have lived horrible, painful lives.

Jonathan Safran Foer elaborates in “Eating Animals,” his scathing critique of factory farms:

“Today’s turkeys are natural insectivores fed a grossly unnatural diet… Given their vulnerability to disease, turkeys are perhaps the worst fit of any animal for the factory model. So they are given more antibiotics than any other farmed animals. Which encourages antibiotic resistance. Which makes these indispensable drugs less effective for humans. In a perfectly direct way, the turkeys on our tables are making it harder to cure human illness.”

My sympathies were stoked this week when watching the PBS “Nature” program, “My Life as a Turkey,” describing Joe Hutto’s year of parenting a gaggle of wild turkeys he’d raised from birth. He literally learned to talk turkey, and they taught him much more than he taught them.

Turkeys evidently have much to teach all of us about being thankful. They are smarter than many think and, like other animals, they have a complex emotional life, including expressions of joy, sadness and playfulness. “We do not have a privileged access to reality,” Hutto says, “So many of us live either in the past or the future and betray the moment and in some sense we forget to live our lives. These wild turkeys were reminding me to live my life.”

At my Thanksgiving table this week, where turkey will be consumed, I just might speak of how these tough birds teach us to appreciate each meal, each caring touch and each moment of life, long before the make their acquaintance with the shochet. It’s time for all of us to thank that the “Bird of Courage” that Ben Franklin preferred over the eagle. When President Obama pardons that lucky turkey at the White House this year, we should demand that he pardon them all. Why should the 99% suffer! It’s time to Occupy the Hen House!

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more moving nature documentary than “My Life as a Turkey.” Watch it and you might just be inclined to change your own family’s mesorah – about turkey, and about ethical eating too.