The day after our return from a short vacation to a location not known for its kosher restaurants or other dining options (which describes many places both in our country and around the globe), I got a text from my husband in the late afternoon about planning what to have for dinner. It began: "GIVE ME MEAT!!!"
I would be far from the first to note that the Torah seems to be ambivalent about the eating of meat and its permissibility. In Gen. 1:29, the first humans are told by God:
See I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.
Even animals, it seems, were originally meant to be herbivorous, as in the next verse (1:30):
And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.
Similarly in the creation account of Gen. 2, God makes trees grow for food (2:9) and tells the original human that any tree in the Garden of Eden – other than the tree of knowledge of good and bad – is permitted for consumption (2:16-17). It is not until after the flood that God or Torah make any mention of the permissibility of eating animal flesh or the conditions under which people may do so (Gen. 9:3-4):
Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.
Although human beings are omnivorous and do eat meat, this does not seem to have been part of God’s original plan or intent at our creation.
By the time of our parashah, which takes place at the end of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the fact that human beings desire to consume meat is taken as a given. It is significant, however, how Deut. frames its acknowledgement of this fact:
When the Lord enlarges your territory, as He has promised you, and you say "I shall eat some meat," for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish. (Deut. 12:20)
Prior to this law of Deut., the Israelites in the wilderness were only permitted to eat meat that was from an animal that had been brought to the Tabernacle and offered as a sacrifice. Deut. anticipates a time when there will be a single, centralized place of sacrifice in the Land of Israel – the Temple in Jerusalem – which will be too far for most people to go to on a regular basis. At that time, it will be permitted to slaughter non-sacrificial animals for meat in other locations, anywhere Jews desire to eat meat. Indeed, the talmudic tractate that explains the laws (which I will return to in a moment below) by which animals are to be slaughtered for meat is known as "Hullin," meaning meat that is profane, ordinary, non-consecrated – i.e., not sacrificial. Yet as the modern scholar of Bible and biblical commentary, Nehama Leibowitz has observed, "The wording of the above dispensation is odd indeed!...how grudging is such permission granted! If you cannot resist the temptation and must eat meat, then do so — seems to be the tenor of this barely tolerated dispensation."
What is more, in order for meat to be permitted, it must meet certain criteria. This week’s parashah contains the primary requirements for producing meat that is kosher:
It must come from a permitted animal – these are listed in Deut. 14:3-20.
It must be properly slaughtered; animals which have died a natural death or by means other than ritual slaughter are forbidden (the rabbis extend this to animals that had organic or other life-threatening physical defects at the time of slaughter) – Deut 12:21, 14:21.
The consumption of blood is forbidden, and therefore blood must be drained and extracted from the meat to the fullest extent possible – Deut 12:23-25.
These are not necessarily the only places in which these rules appear, but it is noteworthy that all appear in close proximity in this parashah. These restrictions are often, and reasonably, understood as a means of making the consumption of meat a more conscientious, and frankly, complicated process. We may be allowed to slaughter animals and consume their flesh, but not in any way we like. If we are going to eat meat, we will only do so through a process that takes a great deal of effort to do properly.
When these rules are observed, the meat that comes from that slaughter is kosher for eating. But the word "kosher" in Hebrew has a much broader meaning than its use in the area of ritual requirements for food. Its meanings include concepts such as "fit," "proper," "worthy," "right," and "pleasing." A document that is prepared properly is "kosher." When someone immerses in the mikvah, an attendant observes to be sure that there has been a complete immersion, and declares it "kosher" when done. A "kosher" person is someone who is known for their worthy and proper conduct (something we should all aspire to be!).
As the text I got from my husband indicates, I and my family do eat meat. I do desire it, I do like the taste, I do find it a useful source of nutrition. I have on the whole reconciled myself to the idea that sometimes an animal dies so that I can eat and live. But of the members of my family, I am the most ambivalent meat eater. And that its because while I can fairly readily insure that the meat I and my family eat is ritually kosher – we are fortunate to live in a community where kosher meat is widely available and to have the financial resources to purchase meat regularly – I find there are many reasons to wonder if our meat is kosher by the broader, more subjective definition of the word. In the era of the modern industrialized food production, we are confronted by questions such as:
Who are the workers who produce our meat, and what are the conditions under which they work?
How are animals treated prior to slaughter? Are they kept in cages that hardly allow them to move or lie down? Are they fed a diet of foods natural to them? Do they have to be medicated with high doses of antibiotics to counteract the effects of filthy living conditions and/or unnatural diets that do not provide the nutrients they most need?
What are the environmental effects of the ways in which we raise large numbers of meat animals today? How is their waste disposed of? How much energy does it take to transport animals to slaughterhouses and meat to stores?
To its credit, the Conservative Movement has not entirely ignored (some of) these issues. In 2000, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards adopted a responsum co-authored by Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff and Joel Roth on the practice of shackling and hoisting animals prior to slaughter:
They ruled (and the Committee unanimously agreed) that in light of other more humane methods now being available, the process violates another principle of Jewish law, tza’ar ba’alei hayim, the prohibition on excessive cruelty to animals. And yet – meat produced in this way meets the technical requirements of being kosher, and therefore the two rabbis were hesitant to lay out any practical conclusions (such as forbidding observant Jews to purchase and consume meat slaughtered in this way – presuming one could even obtain such information) other than advocating for kosher meat producers to abandon this method.
In both Israel and North America, Conservative halakhic authorities have also addressed the particularly dismal conditions in which veal calves are often raised prior to slaughter. Rabbi David Golinkin, of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, first published his examination of this topic in Moment Magazine in 1993, and subsequently in his collection "Responsa in a Moment." He concluded:
we have seen that it is forbidden for a Jew to raise veal calves in the fashion described. What about the Jewish consumer? Is he or she allowed to purchase and eat this type of veal? Our reply is once again in the negative…By buying and eating veal raised in confinement, we encourage those who raise calves to continue these practices and imply that these practices are compatible with the humane tendency of kashrut. They are not.
Rabbi Pamela Barmash reached similar conclusions in a responsum that she wrote for the CJLS (http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/assets/public/halakhah/teshuvot/20052010/barmash_veal.pdf), which received a vote of 9 in favor, 5 opposed, and 7 abstentions in 2007, thus making it a viable halakhic opinion for the Movement. She reviewed the rabbinic laws of animal cruelty at length, delved deeply into the production of veal around the world, particularly in the U.S. and Israel, and determined that the conditions under which many or most veal calves are raised cannot be justified under Jewish law. Even if technically kosher, veal produced in this manner, she ruled, is prohibited for consumption by a halakhically bound consumer.
Finally, I would also encourage readers to see the standards that were laid out for certifying the ethical sourcing of food (including but not limited to meat) prepared as part of the efforts in the Movement to establish the Magen-Tzedek certification:
All of these are, of course, problems for communities well beyond our own. Anyone who chooses to eat meat, of any kind, can and should confront them. But as a Jew who is observant of the laws of kashrut, and other laws and customs of ethical consumption besides, this week’s parashah is a reminder directly to me and others like me of the ethical considerations I ought to, but don’t always, bring to my eating choices. As we enjoy our Shabbat meals this week – whether we choose to include meat or not – may we all be called to a higher level of mindfulness.