Tears at the Table, A Response to It’s Not Your Meat: Jason Forbes
Written by Kesher Journal   

By Jason Forbes

I would like to thank the Hashivenu Forum for affording me the opportunity to respond to Rabbi Saal’s paper. I appreciate his willingness to tackle a subject that is rarely discussed in our circles. Though my time to respond and contemplate this issue has been relatively short, my hope is that the discussions here will influence our own ethical decisions and actions positively going forward. I have several comments regarding the paper, but I must start my first at the dinner table.

Raising three children has given my wife and I some interesting perspectives on meat at the dinner table. While one son has never met a chicken he did not like, our other children have had some more sensitive reactions to meat on the dinner table. Our daughter has some aversion to red meat, though she will share in our traditional Shabbat chicken dinner ritual. The most notable experience though was with our youngest son. Several years ago now, when he was about 12, my wife prepared a nice lamb dinner. When the kids came to the table they asked what kind of meat it was, since it seemed different from what they usually expected. Malkah told them it was lamb. Their faces all looked downcast and our youngest son started tearing up and just could not bring himself to eat it. As parents, we felt like we had slain Lamb Chop there on the table and roasted it before their eyes. It was a difficult parental moment. We told them they did not have to eat it if they did not want to. The two of us choked down the dinner but the tears of our children taught us a deeper lesson.

Interestingly enough though, while my youngest son has a soft spot for the innocent lamb, he is fine with an occasional hamburger. The modern meat industry removes us from the reality of the life and death of our dinner. Meat is considered just another form of produce. Humanity has only known this reality since the industrial revolution. Prior to this, it was a normal part of life to see your dinner slaughtered, prepared, cooked, and eaten all in the same day. There was an opportunity to appreciate the life and death of the animal before consumption, a moment for emotion and empathy. As adults, my wife and I had apparently lost the empathy for the poor lambie. Our kids, though, were still young and sensitive enough to comprehend the sacrifice the animal had made for our nice dinner. I have observed that as people get older, we can grow colder to the plight of animals as well as humans. Our children have a lot to teach us in this regard.

I am also pretty squeamish when it comes to the realities of where my dinner came from. If the meat at all bears a resemblance to the real animal, I get queasy. When my wife unveiled a whole cooked fish one Rosh Hashanah, the kids and I all had a meltdown. Head of the year or not, we had no interest in seeing a head on the dinner table, even though I am taught by my Gen-X upbringing that “fish have no feelings.”[1] I don’t mind finding the seasoned filet on my plate as long as I didn’t know the fish beforehand. We have a small pond in our backyard which we stocked with koi a number of years ago. My wife offered to go catch the fatted koi one year and serve it to me for dinner. I was appalled that she would do that. I only want to eat a fish that I did not know. It seems I also harbor some hypocrisy in the seafood department.

The opportunity to write this paper has afforded me the time to think about these inconsistencies in my own relationship to eating meat. I am a very empathic person when it comes to human beings, and animals like pets, and nature. I cry when Bambi and Old Yeller die, yet I do not shed a tear when I have hot pastrami on rye. Where does this ability to have selective empathy come from? Perhaps our anthropologists and psychologists can shed some light on this.

Rabbi Saal provides a good overview of the biblical and rabbinic instructions regarding the humane treatment of animals. He brings in contemporary voices from other faiths and contrasts the approaches of Peter Singer and Matthew Scully. I concur with the assessment that Singer goes too far in equating animal and human rights. I also agree that the sacrificial system does elevate the value of animal life above that of “mere property.” The Torah clearly teaches us to respect other created life through redefining the use of animal sacrifice as it was practiced in the ancient Near East. Considering all of this, I would like to address most of my comments and recommendations as they relate to his section titled “Eating East of Eden.” Here is my revised title to that section.

Eating Out—East of Eden

As Rabbi Saal builds his moral vision, he references the narratives of early Genesis and Isaiah 11 to show us that vegetarianism was the ideal and represents humanity living in full harmony again with God and Creation. It is difficult for me to accept that the animal kingdom must suffer under our dominion because of our disobedience in the Garden. Our own curse of suffering, pain and struggle outside of the Garden is at least directed back on the perpetrators, although it still seems like a disproportionate punishment.

I have a different take-away from the story. The first sins in Eden were related to the mouth, in both eating and in speaking. The root of human sin lies in our impulses and accountability. Desire and eating both represent powerful, fundamental human drives. The story shows us that we must control our impulses, and when we fail to we must be accountable for our actions. Both Eve and Adam fail to take responsibility for their choices. This is extended further in the story of Cain and Abel. God counsels with Cain, “If you are doing what is good, should not you hold your head high? And if you do not do what is good, sin is crouching at the door – it wants you, but you can rule over it.” (Gen 4:7) To me, this seems the main point of the Eden story. Our human nature can get out of control and we must be mindful of unrestrained desires. Personal practices that strengthen self-discipline (like mussar) are meant to bring heightened awareness of our impulses, choices, and potential consequences. One can certainly exercise self-control through eating a vegetarian diet, but I do not think that this is the intended lesson of the Eden stories.

I would also argue that theological discourse should not be undertaken in a vacuum, separated from the realm of scientific discovery. I personally could never have come to faith without reconciling my own faith in the scientific method with my faith in an imminent and transcendent Master Creator. Discovery through science is an exercise in discovering the Creator’s creation. Though Rabbi Saal comes to the conclusion that eating a vegetarian diet was God’s original intention, this does not seem to jive with understandings of human evolution. Scientists have developed theories of our species’ progression from being vegetarians to carnivores to omnivores. This progression along with the advent of cooking likely enabled us to grow more complex and intelligent brains.[2] I believe that the reference in Noach’s story to the concession of eating meat is an acknowledgment of the human progression from gathering the green grasses, nuts and berries to becoming farmers and hunters. Noach’s generation brings together again the harmony between the human and animal kingdoms. Our tradition notes that Noach was a great innovator of farm technology. A well-run non-industrial farm is a symbol of cooperation between man and beast. On the farm, the animals represent both companionship and sustenance for the farm family. This close working relationship is one of mutual respect. Perhaps Noach’s relationship with the animals on the ark began a new era of human and animal cooperation. Though I say this with a smirk, if Noach’s generation was the first one allowed to eat meat, then it was the vegetarians that God washed off the face of the earth.

This progression is part of the story of our species’ success. And with every success we are prone to excess. The injunction is on not eating blood. Even though we are meat eaters, we must remember and honor the life of the animal, which is symbolized within the blood. Meat may be eaten, but the life must be honored. In Rabbi Saal’s words, “it’s not your meat.” With this, I wholeheartedly agree.

The utopian imagery of Isaiah 11 also has lessons to teach us, but I think focusing on the lesson of living a vegetarian lifestyle misses the big picture. The passage starts with the reference to the Davidic Messiah, who restores justice to the needy and chastises the wicked. Within this context, we are painted a picture of the animal kingdom living at peace with each other. As well, the toddler is living at peace with the viper, a clear reference to the Eden story. I find it difficult to read this section literally. If God created nature and the laws of nature, which represent the harmony of creation, how can lion and lamb truly live together outside of their inborn instincts? Could not this more realistically represent the righting of injustice within the human world? The Messiah will correct the humans who prey on others, and raise up the humble and oppressed peoples so they would not be preyed on again. The unifying force is “full knowledge of HaShem.” The passage continues to talk about the Nations and the ingathering of the nation of Israel. The passage is about the pacification of humanity, not a reversal of the laws of nature. Messiah will be confronting everyone who possesses the nature of Cain. The full knowledge of HaShem motivates us to only do good for one another. It will seem like a supernatural peace, but it is not a reversal of the created order. It is merely a realization of the full potential of humanity.

Toward a Moral Vision

Though I do not feel that scriptures give a solid theological ground for God’s intention that we all be vegetarian, I do feel that scriptures help us define our relationship to the animal world. Rabbi Saal referenced numerous examples of Torah mitzvot related to how we are to treat animals with respect. The topics discussed in the book Dominion also outline the biblical mandate to honor and respect animal life.[3] I cannot add much to these resources, but I would like to push the discussion more in the direction of forming more concretely our moral vision as it relates to our responsibilities to animal life. In my limited research for this response, I found several inspirational accounts of people and cultures who remain omnivores, yet maintain a profound respect for the life and sustenance of the animals whose lives are taken for our food.

Firstly, a look at indigenous cultures like the Native American Indians of the Great Plains show people who remain at harmony with the earth and animal life around them. Their history with the buffalo of the plains can teach us many lessons in respect for animal life and conservation. The buffalo provided food, clothing and shelter as their most important natural resource. They followed the herds and hunted only what they needed. The following accounts, from the documentary “Sacred Buffalo People” represent for me a people working in harmony with animal life and all of Creation.[4]

Before our people went on a buffalo hunt, they said a prayer to ‘my Uncle’, the buffalo. And because the buffalo was sacred, there was no part of the buffalo which was wasted. Everything was used. (Art Raymond)

Everything, from the horns all the way to the hooves, was utilized. For blankets, for pails, for food, for thread, or sinew. So everything was utilized. And the buffalo taught them that. The buffalo and the first Creator taught them how to use that. (Gerard Baker)

Before they would do that, before they would start butchering, they would have the holy man, usually the medicine man, he would pray and tell the buffalo why they were doing this. It wouldn’t just be a slaughter. He would tell them, everything is for a use. (Gerard Baker)

These stories remind me of a modern day sage in our own faith. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a pioneering leader in the Jewish Renewal movement, gives this personal account relating to animal slaughter.

I used to be a shochet / slaughterer, going into the slaughter house to shech / slaughter chickens. What I saw was that the suppliers didn’t see these chickens as living beings, only as merchandise. They were dropped off, alive, in cages. They had not been fed any water, were dust dry, and screaming. So the first thing I did was to put some water in their cages.

Then I would send everybody out and start talking to the chickens: ‘You know, I’m not just here to kill you. I’m here to help you move to the next level in the journey between chai (alive) and m’dabber (speaking).’ What I was trying to do was give them an invitation to continue moving from the animal toward the human.

The next thing I did was offer both a kavvanah / intention and a brachah / blessing: ‘Halevai / let it be that somebody should eat you l-koved Shabbos / to honor Shabbat and use the energy s/he gets from you to daven a strong nishmat kol chai / breath of all that lives so that your life, your body, your substance becomes elevated and the sparks in you become raised.’ I took what I learned in chassidus really seriously, tried to apply it in real situations, and I continue in this tradition.[5]

Though Reb Zalman employed the Chasidic theology of reincarnation into his kavvanah, I appreciate his overall approach in honoring the life of the animal and infusing a blessing upon it that it would be a blessing for another soul. Would that we all take such care when we consume meat and honor the sparks of life within other living beings.

Reb Zalman is also an advocate for a more ethically conscious practice of kashrut called eco-kosher, which extends beyond the realm of food. Though the kashrut practices of Judaism go a long way toward honoring the lives of animals slaughtered for their meat, we know that some halakhic practices miss the spirit of the Torah’s mitzvot regarding the treatment of animals. Modern technologies also create new questions about what makes something kosher considering the spirit of the Torah. Rabbi Arthur Waskow articulates the eco-kosher ethic as more than about what we eat and how it was treated, but also what went into bringing it to our table.[6]

What can we learn by renewing the ancient text? For shepherds and farmers, food was what they ate from the earth. For us, it is also coal, oil, electric power, paper, plastics that we take from the earth. For shepherds and farmers, kashrut was the way of guiding their eating toward holiness. For us, eco-kashrut should do the same.

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 Kiddush wine from non-biodegradable plastic cups? Is it eco-kosher to use 100 percent un-recycled 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?

I find the idea of eco-kosher to fit well with the discussions around both of our major papers this year. These Jewish principles figure prominently in the eco-kosher philosophy and should be principles we consider for our own moral vision.

Tza’ar ba’alei chai’im – concern for the “distress of those who possess life”

Bal tashchit – “not ruining” the earth

Sh’mirat haguf – the protection of one’s own body

Tzedakah – sharing of food with the poor

B’rakhah and Kedushah – consciously affirming a sense of holiness and blessing in eating in order to maintain self-control

Wrapping It Up To-Go

While preparing to write this paper, my wife urged me to eat vegetarian for a month. I did not. I’m not there yet, but I have a new consciousness about the life that was given up so it could be on my plate. I am in the process of developing my own moral vision as it relates to food. Rabbi Saal’s paper got me started on this path and I hope to share some of the lessons I’ve learned in this response with my own community. I acknowledge that my own beliefs and behaviors concerning food are full of inconsistencies. I am fascinated and troubled by the blindness most of us have to the suffering and plight of animals used in the food industry. Without a doubt, another mussar morsel needs to be added to my plate this year. My personal character curriculum needs to find tangible ways of bringing honor and compassion to all living things. Maybe my first step is to shed a tear at my own dinner table.

 

 

 


[1] Nirvana, Something In the Way, EMI Music Publishing.

[2] Here are references relating to evolutionary adaptation to meat-eating, accessed on January 11, 2014:

http://www.npr.org/2010/08/02/128849908/food-for-thought-meat-based-diet-made-us-smarter.

http://berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/99legacy/6-14-1999a.html.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121004093508.htm.

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0038447#abstract0.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=cooking-up-bigger-brains&page=2.

 

[3] Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002).

[4] Buffalo and the Plains Indians, http://www.redeyevideo.org/buffalo.html. Accessed on January 11, 2014.

 

[5] Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Rabbi Daniel Siegel,Integral Halachah – Transcending and Including (Bloomington, IN: Trafford, 2007), 95

[6] Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow, “Eco-Kashrut: Environmental Standards for What and How We Eat,” quoted from
http://www.myjewishlearning.com/practices/Ritual/Kashrut_Dietary_Laws/Themes/Contemporary_Themes/Eco-Kashrut.shtml.

 
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