Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Vegetarianism and Judaism

I don't think I've ever really thought about it this way before, but food has always been a big part of my self-identity.  When I was a child, I was the skinny kid who hated food – my parents put “I'm not hungry” as my quote on the baseball cards they had made up for me for my Bar Mitzvah.  When I started getting more interested in my Judaism in college, beginning to keep kosher (something I had declared, just a month or two earlier, I would never do) was a big part of that transition, and it remains a centrally important part of my own Jewish practice.

Over the past few years, I've struggled quite a bit (theologically speaking) with my relationship with meat.  It's been around15 years since I decided that I would only eat kosher meat in my home (I continued to eat non-kosher meet outside of my house, mostly as a concession to my own weakness).  I stuck to that, fairly strictly, until, a couple of years ago, I became aware of the abuses that were commonplace in kosher slaughterhouses – of the workers and, more relevantly here, of the animals.  I had always learned that one of the laws of kashrut was to prevent all pain during slaughter.  As a disturbing secret video produced by PETA clearly showed, that couldn't be farther from the reality.

I'm skipping over a good deal of study, contemplation, and angst, but eventually I decided (along with Hillary) that it felt more consonant with Jewish ideals to eat meat from animals which had been well cared for, as opposed to slaughtered in accordance with the laws of kashrut (it is possible to find meat which satisfies both sets of requirements, but it's difficult, and wildly expensive).  But, I've also been aware (although often too willing to ignore) how hard it is to ensure that the animals from which we get our meat were truly treated humanely.  There's very little regulation or oversight of the various labels we see on food, and the government's definition of “humane” tends to differ greatly from how most of us would use that word.  In other words, I've slowly been admitting to myself, that despite my best intentions, I'm probably now bringing meat into my house which is neither kosher nor humanely raised.

Then, this week, I read an article in the New York Times Magazine by Jonathan Safran Foer (who, not coincidentally, narrated that PETA video). Foer argues convincingly in favor of vegetarianism.  Part of why he is so persuasive is that he isn't a zealot.  He admits that he likes eating meat, and that he has often backtracked on his commitment to vegetarianism.  Nonetheless, he holds it up as a value, both from a universal, as well as a Jewish, point of view.

To summarize a few key points, eating meat is horrific, from an environmental point of view:

According to reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. and others, factory farming has made animal agriculture the No. 1 contributor to global warming (it is significantly more destructive than transportation alone), and one of the Top 2 or 3 causes of all of the most serious environmental problems, both global and local: air and water pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity. . . . Eating factory-farmed animals — which is to say virtually every piece of meat sold in supermarkets and prepared in restaurants — is almost certainly the single worst thing that humans do to the environment.

It is also horrific, given how these animals are treated, during life and at the time of slaughter:

Every factory-farmed animal is, as a practice, treated in ways that would be illegal if it were a dog or a cat. Turkeys have been so genetically modified they are incapable of natural reproduction. To acknowledge that these things matter is not sentimental. It is a confrontation with the facts about animals and ourselves. We know these things matter.

In the book of Genesis (which we begin reading again this week), Adam and Eve are told that they are allowed to eat of all of the plants, but never are they told that they are allowed to eat meat. That doesn’t happen until after The Flood, and many modern commentators interpret that as a concession by God – God realized that, the first time around, the world was too strict, and that’s why people failed to obey (as any parent can tell you, if you make the rules so strict that a child can’t follow them, then they have no incentive to even try). So, in other words, we are allowed to eat meat, but the Torah is also telling us that not eating meat, being a vegetarian, is much better. It’s the ideal. It’s how things were in Paradise.

I’m not ready to declare myself vegetarian. It is, to put it bluntly, too hard. Being a healthy vegetarian takes a lot of work and, to be honest, I also love meat. I’m not sure I’m strong enough to turn away from it, completely. At least, not yet.

But, when Hillary and I were going through our transition from “kosher” to “organic,” we also decided to try to eat less meat. If eating meat is wrong, then eating less meat is better than eating more meat – it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. And so, although it lacks the grandeur of “I hereby declare that I will no longer eat meat,” I think I’ve decided to swing the pendulum a bit further, and to try, as hard as I can, to avoid meat. To kill as few animals as I can get myself to. It’s a good place to start, if you, yourself, aren’t sure what you want to do.

It’s worth clicking through to Foer’s piece (and, if you have the stomach) to that PETA video. It’s not that eating meat isn’t wonderfully pleasurable. It’s just that, if we’re being honest, it might really be the wrong thing to do.


Candice Stern said...

I read your full post and I completely understand your point of view. However, as someone who grew up around farms I have a slightly cheerier view of the meat and dairy industries than most. I grew up with a very practical view of animals and their place in the food chain. As a result I feel that the eating meat is perfectly fine but that we have a responsibility to the animals. Unfortunately we (modern Americans) have become very disconnected from our food sources. We buy our food in sterile supermarkets with no thought of where it came from and we no longer demand that it is treated respectfully. The result of this being massive slaughter houses and inhumane treatment of animals. There are really only two ways to deal with this issue. One is to purchase meat directly from the farmer and have it butchered by a reputable butcher. The other option it to simply not think about it and just be glad that we have food on our plates as many do not.

David Gershon (Toronto) said...

Welcome to the world of people who love meat and choose not to eat it (or to eat less). Next time you're in Toronto I'll take you for vegetarian bbq pork buns... hmmm. You've touched on all my favorite reasons for not eating meat. But another occurs to me. We were just at an apple orchard the other day. You could smell the sweetness of the apples on the breeze and none of us could resist pulling an apple from the tree and eating it, then and there... right from nature. (Which, thankfully was allowed at that orchard!). But never once have I walked past an animal, a herd of cows, a lamb... and had my mouth water. I honestly don't think we're natural meat eaters. Yes, my mouth waters at the smell of a good barbecued steak. But it's so far removed from nature... it's completely disconnected. Even nicely cellophaned pieces of meat at the grocer is psychologically very far away from the source. I can't imagine too many people having a genuine desire to go out and slaughter that animal in order to get that steak. But to pull fresh sweet corn off the cob, boil it up and sink my teeth in... I'm there.

One more thing... If I lived somewhere where there were truly no viable alternative to meat -- if it was truly a matter of survival, break out the steak knives. But this really isn't the case. Eating meat is really just something we choose for pleasure, at great expense to animals and to the earth.

Karen Farkas Cohen said...

Jason, I think your thoughts and your path show great concern over the "right" thing on so many levels. I have been a vegetarian for 18 years now and I think there is something to the idea that we are really so far removed from our food sources that most people don't realize exactly where food comes from. In our family we raise our children as vegetarians until they can understand that if you eat a chicken nugget, it used to be a live chicken with feathers and then once they can understand that, it is their choice what they want to eat (well, as long as it is Kosher - but that whole ethical treatment thing does bug me a bit). It is tough to change your habits and to stop eating something that you enjoy. I find for me that time has really solidified my ways for me and I have no interest in eating any meat, but it is all about baby steps. Good luck on the rest of your journey.

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

Candice - I agree that, if you are truly sure about the care of the animals (e.g. you see the farm), then a lot of the moral quandary goes away. Not all of it, though - it still seems axiomatic to me that it's better to not kill living things than to kill them.

But, I'd really disagree with your last point. I'm not sure that hiding from the truth is ever a good religious practice!

Candice Stern said...

Jason- To be fair you are correct that hiding from the truth is never good. However, I would argue that we constantly hid from the truth about the origins of our food. Do you truly know where everything you eat came from? Can you be certain that no adulteration has taken place?
I think you see my point.
As far as the religious aspect of this argument goes I have only one thing to say. We all hide from the truth when it comes to the big questions about how we live our lives and the best thing we can do is to constantly try to improve and surround ourselves with those that aide in that improvement.
P.S. I still think keeping kosher is important. I just can't get my husband on board with the idea.