By Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah reading is Shemini, Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47.
When I became observant in my early 20s (I’m now 44), one of the first decisions I had to make was about kashrut (see Leviticus 11). I was a pescaterian at the time, so dropping shellfish wasn’t a big deal. But after a few years, initially for health reasons, I decided to eat meat.
Eating meat is a heavy thing. In Judaism, it is a compromise position; we were originally supposed to be vegetarian. It’s only after the Flood that humans are given license to eat meat. So in Shemini, the Torah spells out what kind of meat we can eat.
Many commentators, from ancient to modern, have tried to figure out a logic to the distinctions of which animals can be eaten and which can’t. One of the most interesting explanations is the ecological approach taken by Rabbi David Seidenberg, drawing on the work of scholar Aloys Hüttermann. Seidenberg writes: “…any animal that chews its cud can eat grasses and plants that are inedible to human beings, and any animal that has split hooves can walk (and graze) on land that is too rocky to farm with a plow. These characteristics together mean one very clear thing: the only land animals that we can eat according to the laws of kashrut are animals that do not compete with human beings for food. The rules we still follow in Judaism would in their original context in the ancient Mideast have allowed a civilization to thrive, without destroying the ecosystem it depended upon. In an ecosystem which is in some ways marginal, that is, an ecosystem which depends on intensive human input (agriculture and herding), as well as upon intensive ‘divine’ input (i.e., rain, as it was understood by our ancestors), there was no room for devoting good farming land to livestock” (neohasid.org).
While it is inspiring that the underpinnings of ancient meat-eating kashrut show a deep ecological attunement to living on the land, the actual practice of contemporary raising of meat for kosher slaughter is an ecological nightmare. The primary reason for this is that, rather bizarrely, kosher certification does not deal with how an animal is raised, but only how it is slaughtered.
Virtually all kosher meat sold in U.S. supermarkets is factory farmed. For cattle, this means that while the animals may spend the first year of their lives on range land, they are then shipped to massive concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where they are fed mostly corn (which cattle do not naturally eat). CAFOs, also referred to as feedlots and stockyards, are giant, zero-grazing lots where beef cattle stay until slaughter. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions are endemic and CAFOs are major environmental polluters. For me, the word “sheketz” from our parshah (Leviticus 11:11), conventionally translated as “abomination” comes to mind to describe these operations.
To put this in the clearest way I can: I believe that while factory-farmed meat may be technically kosher, it is deeply unethical. Fortunately, there are alternatives. In the DMV, we are blessed to have Kol Foods (kolfoods.com, based in Silver Spring), the only kosher meat supplier that sells 100 percent grass-fed meat. I’ve been a customer of theirs for almost 10 years. Their farms practice regenerative grazing, which actually takes carbon from the over-saturated atmosphere and buries it underground.
As with any ethical pattern of consumption (such as not buying sweat-shop produced clothing, or chocolate made by forced child labor), it costs more. But if the alternative is supporting an ecologically disastrous, suffering-filled factory-farmed alternative, it’s a very small price to pay to eat meat.
Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde is the co-rabbi of Oseh Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Laurel.