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Meat me in the middle

Aspen Jewish Congregation

Parashat Tzav • 07 April 2017

Often when a bar or bat mitzvah student learns they've been assigned this Torah portion, they respond with a groan. It's blood and guts galore, a litany of various types of animal sacrifices. We tend to think of this sacrificial system as so foreign to our sensibilities. Just last week I was at a Torah study where the consensus was that we modern Jews are more civilized than the ancient Israelites. We pray with words, not with blood and smoke on the altar. We are spiritually more sophisticated, not barbaric like the Israelites whose devotion to God required slaughtering animals. So goes this line of thinking.

But I think this way of thinking is arrogant and wrong. If you think the Israelite sacrificial cult is barbaric – have you looked at the meat industry recently? Animal slaughter is alive and well there, at a staggering scale. In 2008, according to the USDA, Americans slaughtered:

  • 35 million cattle

  • 116 million pigs

  • 271 million turkeys

  • and 9 billion chickens (yes, *billion*)

I guarantee you the Israelites did not sacrifice that many animals in the entire time the temple stood! So yes, animal slaughter is alive and well today, it just happens behind closed doors. For the Israelites, it was elevated, open, highly controlled, and ritualized. Maybe we should learn from their approach?

I have an old friend who takes his family most weekends to hunt, dress, and cook their own meat – deer, elk, various fowl. I'm not sure I could stomach all of that myself, but I will say this: It's more respectful to animals than factory farms and industrial slaughter. And it's healthier, too.

I say all of this to you as a huge hypocrite. I like to call myself a non-practicing vegetarian. I do eat meat. We eat almost no red meat at home anymore, but we will when we go out. It's a process for me, an evolution in awareness based on educating myself. Throughout the process, I wonder: What is ethical eating? What is the spirituality of food?

In the biblical tradition, the first humans were vegetarians. The Garden of Eden provided for all their dietary needs. After the flood, God permitted the eating of meat to Noah and his descendants. But the blood of animals remained off-limits. Many rabbinic commentators understand this post-flood shift as a concession to our appetite for flesh. God was not excited for us to eat meat, but was willing to allow it within certain limits. Maybe the "pleasing odor" of Leviticus was really for us (who doesn't like the smell of bbq?).

And that brings us to a simple truth of the sacrificial system: This is a meal. Look at the way the Torah describes bringing certain cuts of meat, burning some and cooking the rest so that the priests could eat it (see e.g. Lev. 7:28-34). Consider that mixing flour and oil on a grill makes a tortilla (see e.g. Lev. 7:11-14). The priests don't have ordinary income, and they have to eat. If you've ever cooked on an open flame, you know there's both a practical sating of appetite and a matter of enjoyment.

We moderns, we who pray with words, because we're so much more "civilized" – we should learn from the sacrifices that our earthly, bodily processes and needs have spiritual depth and moral dimensions. By removing animal slaughter and meat-eating from temple practice – by secularizing it, in effect – we have moved it so far out of view that we have lost our moral and spiritual compass.

That said, I acknowledge it's an evolution for me, and everyone is on a different path. I invite you to join me in being a non-practicing vegetarian, and to continue educating yourself. To reverse the words of the prophet, it's not just the words of our mouths or the prayers of our heart that God wants – our actions, our appetites, our bodies matter, too.

You are what you eat, goes the saying. You are also how you eat. Let us elevate our eating, and thereby elevate ourselves.

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