Parshat Shemini: Holy Consumption: Jewish Thoughts on Meat-Eating

By Rabbi Barry Kornblau

I once played with a sheep in the morning and then ate it for dinner that night.  At the time, I was a non-observant teenager living with a farm family in the French countryside, near the city of Le Mans.  They kept a lamb tied up near a hay loft where I would pet and play with it.  One evening after dinner, I went to play with my friend but found only a large pool of blood.  I realized that I had just eaten my playmate.  That was quite a memorable moment!

In contemporary America, we who eat meat, think little about the life or the death of the animals we consume.  We like it that way, too.  If someone is impolite enough to describe the gruesome reality of the “confined animal feeding operations” which produce our meat and eggs, we get squeamish, change the topic, and look away.  We don’t want to know about what goes on behind the walls of commercial slaughterhouses or egg factories whose owners forbid reporters from entering or videoing; or, about single cages as small as an open volume of Talmud in which six egg-laying, beakless hens live their entire brief lives together; or about leaking lakes of cow excrement and waste which, instead of fertilizing the grass which the cows should eat instead of the corn they’re fed, threatens the health of our soil and water.

This is one reason, as well, why most of us divert our attention elsewhere at the beginning of Sefer Vayikra.  Over and over again, we read about slaughtering, flaying, butchering, eviscerating and sprinkling, and about fat, blood, heads, inner organs, tails of sheep and more.  “Yuck!” is one reason why many are queasy about the rebuilding of the Temple and the animal sacrifices that will again be offered there.

I believe these twin discomforts – with knowing about the lives and deaths of the animals we consume, and with the sacrificial system – share a common element.  Paraphrasing the thought of the English essayist John Berger, writer Michael Pollan puts it this way: “The loss of everyday contact between ourselves and animals – and specifically the loss of eye contact – has left us deeply confused about the terms of our relationship to other species. That eye contact, always slightly uncanny, had provided a vivid daily reminder that animals were at once crucially like and unlike us; in their eyes we glimpsed something unmistakably familiar (pain, fear, tenderness) and something irretrievably alien. Upon this paradox people built a relationship in which they felt they could both honor and eat animals without looking away. But that accommodation has pretty much broken down; nowadays, it seems, we either look away or become vegetarians.

I believe the Torah’s perspective on meat consumption assumes the pre-industrial perspective described above as a given: of course man respects the beast with whom he lives, upon whom his life depends, and into whose soulless eyes he looks before slaughtering it.

The Torah, however, adds its characteristic, sanctifying twist: the holier we are and the closer we are to G-d, the more restricted is our consumption of His animal creations.  One way the Torah teaches this is by calibrating the intensity of the prohibitions regarding meat consumption with the covenantal and spiritual level of humanity and the Jewish people.  In the beginning, for example, when Adam and Eve dwelt in G-d’s intimate presence in the Garden of Eden, meat was entirely prohibited.  Only vegetarian fare was permitted (Gen. 1:29): “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed which is upon the face of the entire earth and every tree on which is fruit which bears seed – this shall be your food.”

After 1600 years, G-d struck a new covenant with Noah reflecting humanity’s lowered status after the Flood and forever permitting meat consumption to Noah and his descendants (Gen. 9:3): “Every living, moving thing shall be food for you, just as a green herb; I have given all to you.”  Nonetheless, He still insisted that people respect His creatures by prohibiting their callous consumption (Gen. 9:4): “But you shall not eat the flesh with its life, its blood.”  The Talmud understands this verse as one of the seven mitzvot eternally incumbent upon all humanity: an animal must be entirely dead before a human may eat any part of it.

After Jacob encountered G-d by wrestling with His angel, gaining the name Israel, representing his new status as the father of the first family all of whose descendants would remain within Abraham’s covenantal destiny, G-d added a new meat prohibition to mark the occasion: the sciatic nerve of an animal’s hindquarters.

Generations later, the revelation at Sinai transformed Jacob’s descendants from a collection of familial tribes into a covenantal nation.  Not surprisingly, another meat prohibition was added thereafter (Ex. 23:19): “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Our parashah, Shemini, concludes the story of the sanctification of the Tabernacle and the arrival of G-d’s Presence into the midst of His people (Lev. 9:23).  Continuing the above pattern, extensive meat prohibitions follow immediately (Lev. 11:2): “These are the animals you may eat among all the beasts of the earth…”

In parashat Acharei Mot, animal species acceptable as offerings upon the altar are restricted further (Lev. 17:4): “Any Israelite who slaughters an ox, sheep, or goat…and does not present it as an offering to G-d [in the Tabernacle]…blood shall be ascribed to that man.  He has spilled blood!  That man shall be cut off from his people.”  When the Tabernacle is nearby, a Jew is “cut off”, losing his share in the next world, if he slaughters an animal outside of the Tabernacle.  As Rashi elaborates, he is like one who spills human blood and who thereby forfeits the eternity of his soul.  Improper, private animal slaughter is likened to murder!  Additionally, the blood of animals which cannot be offered on the altar (e.g., most birds, deer) must be covered after slaughter (Lev. 17:13).  We must respect the animal’s life force by giving it a proper burial, so to speak.

Only after the Israelites spread out in the Land of Canaan, thereby distancing themselves from the full intensity of the Divine Presence at the Tabernacle, does G-d finally waive this requirement to offer these animals as an offering (Deut. 12:20-21).

Here, then, is a Torah theory of meat consumption.  First, the Torah permanently permits and sometimes even mandates that we slaughter and eat animals.  Second, reflecting the natural human familiarity with animals of a bygone era (and of my French farm hosts), the Torah assumes our ability to look our meal in the eye, slaughter it fully aware of the gravity of that act, and then eat it.  In contemporary America, then, we must learn to look past the Styrofoam bottom and a plastic wrap top in which supermarkets sell us meat in order to pry open the abusive, intentionally hidden world of modern factory farms so that we all may look, critique and reform their operations.

Finally, G-d sanctifies His people by intensely regulating every aspect of their meat consumption.  Optimally, His holiest people (priests) should slaughter the animal in the open for all to see, in the most holy place (the Temple courtyard).  The flesh should be shared among themselves, G-d (His altar), and the Jew making the sacrifice.  May our adherence to these principles prompt Him to soon grant us the awesome privilege of serving Him through the most sanctified consumption of His magnificent creations.