Do Jewish 'Enviros' Have to Be Vegetarians?
On Tuesday, The Jew & The Carrot featured a thoughtful essay by Rabbi David Seidenberg titled "The Meat of the Argument: Do Jewish Enviros Have to Be Vegetarians?" I'll start off by answering the question in the title: No. In rare situations, when animals are raised and shechted in conditions like those of the goats killed at last year's Hazon Food Conference, it's not necessary for Jews to be vegetarians in order for them to be true environmentalists. Rabbi Seidenberg does a good job of articulating the position shared by Hazon (the organization responsible for the conference and The Jew & The Carrot), and while it is not a view that I endorse, it is one that I have come to understand. But there are several factors that we must consider.
The conditions for the Hazon Food Conference goats were relatively humane but not perfect. Rabbi Seidenberg claims that the goats were shechted "in the most conscientious way one could ask for kosher slaughter to be done," but I believe that slaughtering an animal as part of a spectacle in front of a large crowd (in which "some people were really shaken up," as The Jew & The Carrot's Leah Koenig put it) does not constitute "high enough" "integrity of the shechitah" (Rabbi Seidenberg's words) for it to be acceptable. Furthermore, while the living conditions of the animals on the farm that the Hazon Food Conference goats came from might be "as good as it gets," they aren't perfect. In a must-read heebnvegan guest post last year, Jackie Topol (who was a fellow on the grounds of the farm that the Hazon Food Conference goats came from) talked about how her fellowship led her to go vegan. In her guest post, Topol questioned her experiences collecting eggs, milking goats, and separating kids from mother goats. Perhaps the only "perfect" alternative is not to raise and kill animals for food at all.
The "relatively humane" conditions that the Hazon Food Conference goats were raised and shechted in are different from the conditions of animals killed for the vast majority of store- and restaurant-bought meat in the U.S. That meat almost exclusively comes from large-scale commercial operations that prioritize profit over animal welfare, leaving animals to suffer myriad abuses and injustices that heebnvegan readers and Hazon supporters are already familiar with. In addition, the environmental devastation caused by factory farms and industrialized slaughterhouses should be unacceptable to any true environmentalist. The situation presented in Rabbi Seidenberg's essay is distinct from the usual considerations associated with the "Should Jews eat meat?" question.
"Relatively humane" kosher meat is not available on a large scale and probably never will be. Conversations about what's best for the Jewish community must take this into account. In December, in response to a post by Koenig about the goats shechted at the Hazon Food Conference, I asked, "Given [the Orthodox Union's head of shechita] Rabbi Mandel’s point that Jews 'eat as much meat as we do' (i.e., that the market for kosher meat is quite large), how is it possible for this 'model' of shechita to be 'what the future of Jewish meat eating could look like' (i.e., on the large scale)?" Koenig replied, "Your first question is a really good one and I don’t know the answer - I do know that CSAs are also a 'drop in the bucket' compared to the large scale industrial food system …." I appreciate Koenig's response, but until someone does know the answer and can provide it, I'll assume that there isn't one. I think that focusing on isolated situations can distract attention from bigger issues. At worst, I think that discussions like this (as important as they are) might fit this description offered by Rabbi Seidenberg:
[There] was a part of me that worried we were giving people a reason to kvell over their own meat-eating, that [vegetarians at the Hazon Food Conference who supported the position that it was acceptable to shecht the goats and even ate some of the meat themselves] were affirming for [meat-eaters] their membership in the fraternity of carnivores. In the Torah and prophets, eating meat is sometimes treated as a kind of drunkenness. When the lives of creatures are at stake, I am wary of that kind of revelry.
Last but not least, the question "Do Jewish Enviros Have to Be Vegetarians?" implicitly suggests that only environmental issues should be considered in the "Should Jews eat meat?" debate. That's like asking "Do Jewish Enviros Have to Be Good Parents?"—there are many reasons for Jews to be good parents that have nothing to do with the environment. There are many reasons to avoid meat, of course, as I discussed last year on my Counting the Omer blog, where I featured 49 reasons to go vegetarian. As Jewish Vegetarians of North America president Richard H. Schwartz noted in response to Rabbi Seidenberg's essay, "animal-based diets and agriculture violate Jewish mandates to preserve our health, treat animals compassionately, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people and pursue peace" and "animal-based diets are contributing to heart disease, several types of cancer and many other chronic, degenerative disease[s]."
Kol hakavod to Rabbi Seidenberg for sharing his thoughts and to The Jew & The Carrot for keeping the conversation going.