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.