This Thursday we will all gather for the American holiday of Thanksgiving. While it’s not a Jewish holiday, the common focus on consuming plentiful quantities of delicious food touches on a “Jewish issue.” Jews have a long and complicated relationship with food. It goes back to that forbidden fruit in the Garden, to the biblical laws of kashrut and continues on with bagels and chicken soup and to Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and the new Jewish sustainable food movement. We also have a long and deep relationship with thankfulness. The name “Jew” comes from Yehuda, which means “thankful.” So, it is a good time to ask, “What are the Jewish ethics relating to food?”
Once we “dig in” (so to speak) to the subject of food, it is clear that it is entwined with so many areas of life: whether we are conscious of it or not it puts us in daily relationship with the earth, from which almost all our food comes, so food is an environmental issue. It is one of the most important factors in our health. It is produced by farmers, laborers, and a variety of other workers, so it relates to issues of economic justice. It is a family and social occasion to sit down to eat, so it is an issue of interpersonal relationships, and it is one of the primary areas of sensual, physical, desire, and so it relates to issues of moral and spiritual development.
We could spend a semester on this but let me now focus on just one point in the Jewish ethics of food. Starting from The Beginning – Genesis, Chapter One, God tells the first humans,
“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” (Genesis 1:29).
It is clear that the first intention of God in creation was that humans should be vegetarians! It is only after the flood, after God has realized that humans are not, perhaps, up to all God’s original high expectations, that there is a dispensation to eat meat. The speech that God gives to Noah and his sons when they leave the ark clearly is another “creation” speech. The language and content remind us of Genesis Chapter One, but with important differences:
“God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky — everything with which the earth is astir — and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. 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” (Genesis 9:1-4).
Now, humans are allowed to eat meat, but with the important caveat that we are not allowed to eat the blood. The blood is the symbol of the life. Moreover, in biblical Hebrew the word for life is actually the same as soul, so the verse might be translated “You must not, however, eat flesh with its soul-blood in it.” In other places in the Torah we learn that the biblical practice was ideally to pour the blood onto the altar. The message is that, since humans have proved ourselves unable to fulfill the original intent of being vegetarians, we are allowed to eat animal meat, but we may not delude ourselves that the life/soul of the animals is ours. God is the author of all life and we are not to be as gods, claiming for ourselves the life/soul of the animals.
This biblical prohibition on eating blood is taken up by the rabbis as one of the foundations of the laws of kashrut, the kosher dietary laws. To this day these laws are practiced by Jews. However, we don’t often enough reflect on their original meaning: though we may eat animal flesh, animals possess a life given by God. That life deserves respect. The prohibition on eating blood is meant to remind us of this fact. This prohibition needs to be taken together with another biblical commandment never to cause unnecessary pain to animals.
In this perspective, the Jewish ethics of eating speaks clearly against the practices we see today in the industrial production of meat. The vast majority of meat produced today in the U.S. comes from huge factory farms in which the animals are crowded together, fed fattening food not their natural diet, and then given antibiotics in order to keep them healthy enough in these inhumane conditions to reach the slaughterhouse. They are reduced, in other words, to units of meat production, not animate beings with a God-given life.
We are blessed with many gifts, and Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to recognize and enjoy the bounty that reaches our tables. But, especially if we are eating meat, whether or not we are eating kosher, we can still be informed by this three thousand year old wisdom from the Torah: the life of the animal is a sacred gift from God. We are only permitted to eat it on the condition that we recognize that fact. For us today this means looking to the best of our ability at how the animal was raised and treated. Did the farmer who raised this animal treat it with respect? Was its slaughter done in the most humane way possible?
In my experience, when I know the whole story of what I’m eating, when I know that it was treated with the respect due to a sacred gift from the farm to my table, I am able to bless the food — to really say thank you with all my being. My full belly is accompanied by a full heart.