Jonathan Safran Foer at B'nai Jeshurun
Foer noted from the onset that the synagogue was a fitting venue to have a discussion about the ethical issues related to eating animals. He said that religion strives to lessen violence and suffering in the world and that it affects our relationship with the Earth and nature. He said that while he does not consider himself particularly observant, the Judaism passed down to him from his parents and grandparents "informed" Eating Animals.
He read a sample of the book's opening chapter, which also appeared in The New York Times Magazine last fall. The concluding line "If nothing matters, there's nothing to save" was a great "thesis" to shape the conversation that followed.
The first person to ask a question during the Q&A was yours truly. I pointed out that Eating Animals shines a spotlight on the very few farmers who truly have high animal welfare standards and asked Foer if he thought that KOL Foods, Mitzvah Meat, and other supposedly humane providers of kosher meat were at the same level. Foer did not want to speak about those companies individually, and he said that he doesn't know of any kosher meat providers that live up to the standards of the best farms mentioned in Eating Animals. He pointed out that even for the best of the best in his book, "There's no such thing as 'ethically produced' exactly"; anyone seeking out meat should acknowledge that there is some compromise on ethical standards in even the best-case scenarios.
Foer then said that the ideals behind kosher slaughter are commendable, but kosher meat isn't as great in practice. "Does the practice match the idea? ... I think it doesn't," he said. He spoke of not just the letter of the law but also the spirit of kashrut, which relates back to the concepts of dominion and human-animal relationships. Foer said that it'd be extremely difficult to find kosher meat that lives up to the spirit of kashrut. He added that if it does exist, it would be rather difficult to consume such meat with significant frequency or quantity.
A spirited discussion followed, and it was a joy to see so many people raising their hands and seriously interested in the issues. No fewer than three audience members asked Foer about eggs and dairy products. Eating Animals does not advocate veganism per se, and Foer acknowledged that he mostly follows a vegan diet but is not totally vegan. I was rather pleased with his answers. He noted that he has struggled to be completely vegan, but it's an ideal he strives toward currently and he can see himself being vegan in five years. He said that labels can get in the way and shouldn't define his mostly vegan dietary habits. He discussed how in many cases, animal welfare conditions are worse for dairy cows and egg-laying hens than they are for animals raised for just meat. He also added that labels like "free-range" and "cage-free" don't always mean what they appear to mean and do not automatically signify acceptable animal welfare practices.
DawnWatch has said of Foer, "He is fast becoming one of the animal advocacy world's most compelling spokespersons—well worth hearing." I couldn't agree more. It was delightful to hear him speak so articulately and effectively about issues related to eating animals, all while not forcing his conclusions down people's throats. From conversations with other people at the event, it was clear that through Foer's public speaking and his book, he has opened many people's eyes and gotten them to change their eating habits.