Conscientious meat eating isnt an oxymoron

It is an incontrovertible truth that the industrialized system of meat consumption in this country is broken, immoral and cruel. Additionally, this corruption has spread into the kosher meat industry, as has been proven over the last years in various ways.

Anyone who chooses, as a response either to these facts or from a more generalized moral stance against meat consumption, has my wholehearted respect. My family, and many other Jewish families in the Bay Area and nationally, choose a different response. Namely: to eat less meat, and for that meat to be raised and slaughtered in manners consistent with the highest standards of Jewish law and ethical treatment of farm-raised animals.

Throughout the ages, Jewish law has consistently spoken to numerous values relating to the eating of animals. They include the proper treatment of animals while alive (tza’ar ba’alei chaim), sensitivity to the familial relationships of animals (shiluach ha-ken), reverence for and awe of the act of killing itself (kisuy ha-dam, birkat ha-shechita and hilchot shechita). One of the more striking aspects of shechita, Jewish ritual slaughter, is the demand that the humans confront, face-to-face, the enormity of what they are tasked with. A shochet, as well as those who witness the shechita, who can truly witness the reality of taking an animal life, are left with a deeper appreciation of the I-thou relationship we are commanded to have with God’s creatures.

The Jewish tradition insists upon the fact that cautious, respectful and occasional taking of animal life for human sustenance can and should be a holy part of our circle of life. Initially, however, the Torah did not grant meat-eating to be part of the purview of human diet. In fact, the text indicates that humans-as-carnivores is a lamentable concession granted us in early human history. This has led some Jews to argue for a return to vegetarianism in the modern day as the ideal state (this argument is bolstered by Maimonides’ view in “Guide for the Perplexed” that the future Temple will no longer feature animal sacrifice).

I am quite sympathetic to this view. However, there is a central point wherein I differ. We live in a current world that is marked by a wide-scale industrial meat industry, a situation I needn’t argue is both wrong and unsustainable. The question is — how do we get from here to there? For we must do something: “The job is not yours to finish, yet neither are you free to desist from trying” (Pirkei Avot, chapter 2). How then do we move to a more redeemed, holy state? From the real, to the ideal?

I believe the way forward is through education toward, and modeling of, a more sustainable vision. Events like the one planned — and then canceled — by Urban Adamah are of critical importance to move us forward to a redeemed state. In a world where most American meat-eaters only know of a cheap-meat, fast-food, obesity-inducing food system, it is critical for our community to model alternate approaches to land stewardship and food. Our wisdom tradition contains crucial, and often radical, insights about the interrelationship between humanity, land, animal and the holy. It is a tradition that has thought about these issues over thousands of years, and over dozens of different cultural contexts. It is what we, uniquely, can contribute to the world conversation.

Those who choose to work toward a redeemed world through veganism have my utmost respect. Strategically, I doubt that resources of time and energy are best spent protesting a community farm, when animal slaughter is happening on a scale tens-of-thousands-times larger all over the country.

But as a Jew and a conscientious meat-eater, what truly disturbs me is that Urban Adamah wasn’t able to give voice to our distinctly and powerfully Jewish message of conscientious meat eating. The beautiful synthesis that groups like Urban Adamah are trying to demonstrate — rediscovering the Torah’s ground between old and new, making the mundane holy — is surely one of our last and best hopes for humanity’s living gracefully and peacefully on this earth.

Gabriel Greenberg is the Rabbi Martin Ballonoff Memorial Jewish educator at Berkeley Hillel and an alumnus of the Adamah Fellowship in Connecticut.


For an opposing view on this issue, read “Vegetarians ready to dialogue on ‘humane’ meat practices”