The Genesis:3 Project
Every moving thing that lives shall be for you to eat, just as I gave you all the green herbs. Genesis 9:3
I like meat. I keep a kosher diet, meaning I eat less meat than opportunity presents, but give me a choice between haute cuisine consisting of the aforementioned green herbs and a simple pastrami sandwich and, nine times out of ten, my only question will be “what kind of mustard do you have?”
But there is no question that humanity was meant to be vegetarian according to the Bible. The permission to eat every moving thing that lives (later restricted for the Jews) appears after bloodlust seems pretty well established from Cain forward.
Meat is expensive to produce and it damages the environment. We have to divert land from producing food for people to growing huge quantities of feed for animals. The animals themselves create effluence – solid, liquid and gas – that challenges the purity of land, water and air. The parts of the animal we can’t or won’t eat do not nourish the earth when we dispose of them. The places meat is “harvested” are fit for very little else and, therefore, sit abandoned or neglected when their technology is obsolete or the market tanks. And getting meat from where it is raised and slaughtered to where it is sold and eaten requires conveyances and fuel consumption and all sorts of things that make “locally sourced” irrelevant for most people.
My stomach overrules my conscience in these matters. I am not open to vegetarianism, and my admiration for vegans is matched by my pity for them whenever I have a pizza or a bowl of ice cream.
Yet, there is one argument I cannot answer to my own satisfaction. I deal with it through distance, denial and distraction. Eating meat means taking life. And yes, I know the words to "Dona Dona" (and the Talmudic antecedent, Bava Metzia 85a). And yes, I know that technically speaking sentience is a relative quality among fauna and flora. But in order for me to enjoy a burger or a bowl of chicken soup or a brisket, something has to die. Violently.
Like most modern consumers in this generation, I am protected from the practice of slaughter by euphemism and plastic wrap. The rabbi who served my congregation in the 1930s and 1940s also schechted (slaughtered kosher) chickens in his back yard. The father of a dear friend was a kosher butcher and when he accidently cut off a piece of his thumb, he wrapped it in butcher paper and went to hospital to have it reattached. And one of my kids, taken by the Jewish day school to a kosher slaughterhouse at a tender age, returned home a vegetarian. (The school has since suspended the visits and my child has suspended the vegetarianism.) But me? I buy my protein with an expiration date stamped on the paper label attached to the wrap.
Here's what I cannot ignore, however. In order for me to slap a steak on the grill, a lot of people have to do the jobs from which I want to avert my eyes. Some of them are highly skilled and some of them are exquisitely educated about animals and health standards and environmental impact. But most of them are people willing to take the jobs the rest of us won't consider because they have to. Especially here in the United States, they accept these dirty and distressing tasks in order to keep a roof over the heads of their families or to earn enough money to send back to those families in another place. Their pay is modest. Their recourse for mistreatment is limited. The dangers they face are disabling.
Please don't read this as a wholesale indictment of meat producers. I am not suggesting that we need to resurrect Upton Sinclair to update The Jungle. But especially if I am going to insist on a habit that compromises some life for my indulgence, then I can't allow myself to distance, deny and distract. Workers deserve not only a fair wage, but a decent life. That is, I hope, a logical statement, but just in case it isn't, I add that it also reflects Jewish values. And adding the layer of my kosher commitments to my consumption of barbecued beef means I can't segment my attempts at Jewish integrity. I'm ready to pay more for kosher meat, but also to insist that the workers, mostly non-Jews, who prepare it and transport it to market share fairly in that increased cost. Eating meat means taking life from animals, but it should not mean taking life from other people.
And finally, a commercial of sorts, though I have no stake, financial or otherwise, in the product. My friend Seth Goldman, whose "Honest Tea" you might drink, is one of many people creating an intriguing alternative to the environmental challenges of my culinary preferences. "Beyond Meat" is manufacturing plant-based protein that mimics meat in taste and texture, but not in waste and calories. It may be many years before I can buy a hunk of plant-based protein to stick in my crockpot, but I am glad to know that sooner or later I will not be slicing into the brisket that destroyed the world.