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Food for Thought: Jewish Perspectives on Meat Consumption© Parashat Shmini 




My brother gave a toast at my cousin's wedding, at which he gave the cardinal sins of our family to our new cousin. Here was one of them: "When you have the family over for a party, make enough food for about three times the amount of people. The biggest sin would be running out of food. You will never hear the end of it."


Let me explain further about food and our family – when we have a family gathering, there aren't just one or two main dishes; there are six, not two side dishes, but twelve; not one dessert, but four. My sister went to a holiday dinner at one of our non-Jewish friend's homes, and they had turkey, mashed potatoes, a vegetable, and a dessert. She kept looking toward the kitchen for the mother to bring the meal out, but this was it! So why did my brother make this declaration? Well, it's because of us, meaning Alissa and me. We purposely did not put out much food for one of our kid's birthday parties one year because we wanted to be minimalistic. We were sick of the excess when it came to food.


Just four days after my brother's toast, we had Layla's Simchat Bat. We didn't want to make the same mistake—we ordered a lot of food—if 100 people RSVPed, we ordered for 140. Here's the problem—200 people showed up.


And guess what? We ran out of food by the end. No one went away hungry, but we had just enough, even though not everyone could eat as much as they wanted.


But was that such a bad thing? Not having enough meat? That's what I want to discuss today: our relationship to food, especially meat.


Over the years, we have become even more aware of our relationship with food for various reasons, but one is simple – kashruth. I believe kashruth restricts what we can eat, forcing us to think differently about food.


In our parashah this week, Shmini, we read about the laws of kashruth.


In short, our relationship with food, especially meat, has changed over the years. When my grandparents lived in Europe, they would eat meat, but maybe only chicken, and it was only once a week, and their meals were much smaller. I explained this to Alissa to explain why having excessive food in our family is a statement – we are free here in America, and we've made it. This is common to most immigrant cultures who have come here. Who can forget the scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, when Toula's aunt wants to feed the new fiancé Ian Miller, and he tells her he's a vegetarian – what do you mean you don't eat no meat?!? It's ok, I'll make you lamb." That's our family, but meat and Judaism have ups and downs.


This week's parashah and the whole book of Leviticus can give you the impression that there are no places for vegetarians at a Jewish table, but that's far from the truth.


In the first pages of the Bible, Adam and Eve are told that they can eat from all of the trees in the Garden—except one. What does that mean? The implication is that they can eat from any of the trees---but only from the trees. They were told to name the animals, but not to eat them. Adam and Eve were meant to be vegetarians.

It was only with Noah, who lives---not in the Garden but in the real world---the world of work—that the eating of meat is permitted. It is permitted—but only on one condition. The Torah says: "Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat. You must not, however, eat flesh with its lifeblood still in it." Some commentators say that humans were allowed to eat meat because of our taste for blood—in other words, our violent tendencies.


And then, in our parashah of Shemini, we have the laws of kashrut. They provide a list of those animals that we can eat, and those animals that we cannot eat, and where we can eat meat. In chapter seventeen of the book of Vayikra, we are told that "if anyone slaughters an ox or a sheep or a goal and does not bring it to the Tent of Meeting to present it as an offering before the Lord, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that person. He has shed blood. That person shall be cut off from among his people." That worked when the people all lived around the central shrine. But what do you do when the central shrine is in Jerusalem, and you live many miles away---in Beersheva or in the Galilee? Are you supposed to take an animal with you, travel many miles with it, and offer part of it as a sacrifice whenever you want to eat meat? That would obviously be difficult to do. And so we are told in Devarim that if it is too far to go to the central shrine whenever you want a meat meal, you may slaughter and eat meat where you live, but again, only under certain conditions. And that meat that you are allowed to eat at home, and not as part of a sacrifice in the central shrine, has an interesting name. It is called "basar ta-avah' ---which means: 'meat that you crave' or 'meat that you lust after.' That phrase has a negative connotation: meat that you lust for. It sounds like the Torah grudgingly and reluctantly gives in to the human being's craving for meat, but that does not really approve of it. The Jewish people have had a long history after the Torah was completed.


Consumption of meat became synonymous with Simcha, with true joy and happiness. In the Shabbat Zmirot, the cute songs we sang were actually a way for the rabbis to teach Jews the laws of Shabbat. In these songs, we sing verses like "mey-erev mazminim kol miyney matamim, mib'od yom muchanim tarnigolim mifutamim," which means: in advance of the Sabbath, all kinds of tasty food have been prepared, fattened chickens have been made ready while it was still day. And the chorus is: "lihitaneg bita-anugim, barburim, slav vidagim" “this is a day to delight in chicken, quail and fish”.


But we must remember that eating meat on Shabbat was akin to eating the sacrifice on the altar. Meat was rare and expensive—it was a treat.


And so I return to my immigrant family, which is also mixing into an American culture that values overconsumption of meat. Kashruth in America, unfortunately, has become synonymous with the overconsumption of meat.


Recently, an April Fool's article in the Times of Israel told the story of a rabbinic couple who served dairy only at their Shabbat lunch table, and the congregation almost fired him. But the comments were shocking because they thought it was a real article– “I would never be a shul member where meat was not served! The Rebbetzin is just being cheap! I would never eat a table that didn't have three types of meat on it!”


And so, we need to start acting more like our ancestors, and truly eat meat sparingly, and think about our food even very closely as the system of kashruth demands. And I hope that our example can rub off on the rest of our country because the world needs to stop consuming so much meat:


The United Nations Environmental Program gives us the following facts:


  1. With the effects of the climate changes that are now taking place, such as the droughts that seem to take place every year, the lakes that dry up or become polluted, and the farmlands that used to be fertile but that are now becoming deserts, the amount of farmland that is being devoted to raising food is becoming too much for us to afford.


  1. Right now, in the United States alone, more than half of all water consumed supports animal agriculture. Given what climatologists tell us, we will soon not have enough water to sustain this rate any longer.


  1. Animal agriculture is inefficient to the extreme. You have to invest eight to twelve pounds of grain for every pound of edible beef that you get back! If we gave up raising so many animals for food, all of these crops that we are now raising to feed these animals would be enough to feed every man, woman, and child on the planet, which accounts for 1/6 of the world's population, 1 billion who face daily food insecurity!


Food is important, we need it to live, and yes, it can make us happy, but simcha is not just about us, it's also about the world.


This dvar torah is admittedly incomplete. I neglected to talk about other things that Kashruth in America has unfortunately become synonymous with: labor abuses and animal cruelty. Those who work in the industry, many of whom are undocumented workers, have been mistreated by Jewish owners and forced to work in terrible and illegal conditions. Animals at meat packing plants were mistreated before ritual slaughter. These topics require separate discussion.


But today, starting this week, all of us can take action on at least one thing – what we personally consume.


Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, as well as Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who was the Chief Chaplain of the Israeli Army and then the Chief Rabbi of Israel, were both vegetarians. They both claimed that when the Messiah comes and the Temple is rebuilt, lions will lie down with lambs, meaning even lions would become vegetarians. The Temple sacrifices would only consist of the vegetarian sacrifices.


Unfortunately, I'm still too weak to give up meat entirely; I'll wait for the Messiah to come. However, as we look at the story of meat in the Torah, we see that there might be a lot of blood, but God takes this blood very seriously. Blood is not meant to be wasted – it's meant to be lifted up and made holy – it's made to get us to think differently about how we eat.


After our Simchat Bat, I apologized to my parents, who themselves didn't really eat – and they said, I think for the first time in our family's history – are you kidding me? Being surrounded by that many people for such a joyous occasion – the energy of love and holiness filled us up.


And so, my blessing for us all, is that we celebrate more, but eat less – let's fill ourselves up with true simcha, and with less meat.

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