Category Archives: Animal Rights

Torah Ecology: Beshallach 2018 (Ex. 13:17 – 17:16)

Beshallach focuses on food and water, essentials for life, and how these necessities shape and define relationships. Last year I explored these themes and how structural elements in the story reveal them. This year I will examine the Animals’ Story subtext, how it adds density to the themes and illuminates the relationship between human beings and other animals.

Following are the animal references in the portion:

Ex. 14:9 – “…the Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea, near Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-zephon.”

Ex. 14:23 – “The Egyptians came in pursuit after them into the sea, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and horsemen.”

Ex.15:1b – “Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”

Ex. 15:20b – “And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”

Ex. 16:3 – “The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.'”

Ex. 16:8 – “‘Since it is the Lord,’ Moses continued, ‘who will give you flesh to eat in the evening and bread in the morning to the full, because the Lord has heard the grumblings you utter against Him, what is our part? Your grumbling is not against us, but against the Lord!'”

Ex. 16:11 – “The Lord spoke to Moses: ‘I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Speak to them and say: By evening you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; and you shall know that I the Lord am your G-d.'”

Ex. 16:13 – “In the evening quail appeared and covered the camp; in the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp.”

Ex. 16:20 – “But they paid no attention to Moses; some of them left of it until morning, and it became infested with maggots and stank. And Moses was angry with them.”

Ex. 17:3 – “But the people thirsted there for water; and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

As we have seen in these portions, the fate of the animals follows that of their humans and augments the main narrative.

There was a time when I had to memorize the song in chapter 15. It’s cadence and imagery always stayed with me, especially the refrain, סוּס  וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם (soos v’rochvo ramah va-yam) – “The horse and its driver He hurled into the sea.” And thus the Egyptians’ horses suffer the same fate as their drivers although they bore no guilt for the sins of their society.

In Ex. 16:3, 8 and 11, we hear about the barely concealed grumblings of the hungry Israelites, longing for the “fleshpots” (סִיר הַבָּשָׂר – seer ha-basar) of Egypt. There are two interesting points here:

  1. Is it likely the Israelites as slaves in Egypt would have been “sitting by” the fleshpots, eating their fill?
  2. In Ex. 12:32, when Pharaoh orders the Israelites to go, he finally tells them to take their flocks and herds. In 12:38, we learn, “Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.” What was the purpose of the livestock if not to provide milk and meat? Nahum Sarna suggests (JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, p. 86) “livestock is the most valuable possession of the pastoralist, who can seldom be induced to part with an animal. Besides, the people had probably already suffered losses for lack of adequate pasturage.” Maybe. But they seem to sacrifice a lot of animals without those same worries.

Two thoughts occur to me as alternatives to Sarna’s explanation for the Israelite complaint when they were surrounded by their own herds. The first is, the fact that they are not killing their animals for food offers a parallel similar to the horses being hurled into the sea along with their riders: the Israelite herds, like the Israelites themselves, are saved from death. The animals’ story corresponds to their humans’ story.

My second thought is related to the word “flesh” (basar – בָּשָׂר). It refers to a dead carcass. It is the word used in the Flood story when G-d says He will destroy “all flesh.” In the Flood story, there is a negative connotation to the word as humans and animals are referred to as merely basar, carcasses, not nefesh, that part of creatures animated by the breath of G-d. Here it is associated with Israelite gluttony and their distrust and ingratitude. The fleshpots were Egypt. Now, on the path to freedom, it is time for something else.

The negative association to basar is amplified in the verses about the quail, Ex. 13:16 and 20. Gluttony and distrust results in environmental distress, maggots and a stench.

In Numbers 11, there is a similar story about Israelite complaints at Taberah and their nostalgia for the food in Egypt. In this story, the negative association between basar, “flesh”-eating and gluttony and ingratitude is even more explicit: “‘Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you; because that ye have rejected the LORD who is among you, and have troubled Him with weeping, saying: Why, now, came we forth out of Egypt?'”

Finally, in Ex. 17:3, the themes come together in these words: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” From the vantage point of the complaining Israelites, the livestock may end up dying — not as food but rather from thirst. The fate of the livestock is bound up with how the Israelites perceive their own fate, brought out of Egypt to be killed from lack of food and water.

Yet the animals, like the Israelites, are destined for another future. G-d brought the Israelites and their livestock out of Egypt to save them, and water will come. As the Egyptians’ animals went down into the sea with the Egyptians and their chariots, the Israelites’ animals are going up to the Land of Israel with their humans, fed and watered by the hand of G-d.

Animals in the Bible

One of the things I have noticed and commented about as I have read the Torah story about animals is that they progressively lose stature in relation to human beings: “Gone are the days in the Garden when animals, as much as humans, speak and act in the unfolding story of creation. Now humans are the only actors, and animals are either “beasts of the field” or domesticated, mutely serving humans in a variety of ways…” This is the animals’ story in Genesis — a loss of status in creation.

As I try to understand how we came to use, kill, eat, even abuse animals so thoughtlessly, one answer as I read the text is that we regard ourselves superior to them. Better to kill and sacrifice an animal as payment for a sin we commit than a human being. But how did we arrive at this idea? Was it more than mere anthropocentrism?

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari talks about the evolution of religions from animism to polytheism to monotheism. Of animism, he says, “When animism was the dominant belief system, human norms and values had to take into consideration the outlook and interests of a multitude of other beings, such as animals, plants, fairies and ghosts…Hunter-gatherers picked and pursued wild plants and animals, which could be seen as equal in status to Homo sapiens. The fact that man hunted sheep did not make sheep inferior to man, just as the fact that tigers hunted man did not make man inferior to tigers. Beings communicated with one another directly and negotiated the rules governing their shared habitat.”

Conversely, “farmers owned and manipulated plants and animals, and could hardly degrade themselves by negotiating with their possessions. Hence the first religious effect of the Agricultural Revolution was to turn plants and animals from equal members of a spiritual round table into property.”

This thought and the contrast Harari presents fascinate me from several directions. Possibly the first chapters of Genesis do more than merely preserve elements of a folkloristic past, subdued because it was rejected. Perhaps these chapters are not only visionary but preserve the memory of a transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society and with it the memory of a time when humans didn’t see themselves superior to other living beings. This thought helps me begin to understand how a text that brings us the extraordinary vision of Genesis 1-3 also presents us with a system of sacrificing animals in our stead and eating them.

Once humans make the full transition to a world in which “plants and animals are no longer equal members of a spiritual round table” but are mere property, “commodities,” as I call them, it is an easy step to succumb to another evolutionary trait Harari identifies, our sense of us vs. them: “Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’. We are people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for them. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely even human.“ — or in the present conversation, “they” (animals) are not human and so have less value.

Granted, the Torah never presents the idea that animals are commodities explicitly or comprehensively. It is clear in various stories I have discussed in the course of my study that veganism is a preferred, if unrealistic, ideal. Torah vocabulary signifies profound similarity between humans and other creatures while leaving the difference somewhat vague: both animals and humans are “basar” (flesh, meat, carcass, material substance) and “nefesh” (soul, flesh animated by the breath of G-d). Only humans are Tzelem Elokim, “in the image of G-d,” but it’s not entirely clear to me what that means or how it differs from nefesh. Rabbinic interpretation tells us it refers to moral discernment, and I’m comfortable with that for the most part — yet it’s a precarious difference. Any moment in which human beings fail to exercise moral discernment is a moment in which they are fully animal and in no way superior to other creatures.

Why is it important how we came to the view that humans are superior to animals and the environment and on what basis? Because that worldview led in contemporary times to our crimes against other life on the planet and our environment. Only by seeing other life and the planet as commodities can we breed animals solely for the purpose of short lives of suffering so we can kill them to satisfy our appetites. Only by seeing the environment as a commodity can we take from it whatever we want without thought for its well-being — unless we simply exclude this activity from view and consciousness, as manufacturers strategically do. Ultimately, though, that separation from the reality of factory farms and environmental destruction doesn’t relieve us of either responsibility or consequences.

The possibility that the biblical text presents as vision a memory of an animistic world view suggests so many possibilities to me in terms of how we heal our world today. Here are some of my thoughts:

  • I like the idea of animism, that other life is included at “the spiritual round table,” that we communicate with each other directly and negotiate the rules of our shared habitat.
  • I appreciate a biblical text that includes another world view, namely animism, alongside the one presented in most of its following pages. It gives that other worldview priority of position in its first three chapters (although with a nuanced reference to domesticating animals).

Taking from those models, perhaps we can begin to deconstruct our us-them mentality and our superiority complexes. We can, as in the first chapters of the biblical text, learn from others, including from other creatures on the planet and from our environment as we let them speak to us. We can learn from the wisdom of ancient traditions, no view perfect but each with a glimpse of “truth.”

No creature left behind

For some reason today, I thought about Zlateh the Goat, a beautiful story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Of this book, including the story of Zlateh, the New York Times says, “beautiful stories for children, written by a master.” But they are not just for children. This is a powerful story of love and compassion and communication at the most profound level between species, different animals, human and goat.

Zlateh the Goat struggles with the challenges of reality as does another child’s story, “Carp in the Bathtub” by Barbara Cohen, a story in which two young children “learn some very grownup lessons when they try to save the fish their mother bought to make into gefilte fish” for the Passover Seder.  One writer calls the story “an early lesson in mortality and heartbreak.” The kidnapped fish ultimately ends up where it is destined to be, fulfilling its purpose on the Seder table. The children’s father teaches them a lesson about the purpose of each life on earth, and the youngsters receive a “real” pet, a cat, after Passover.

Many of us, myself included, experienced the lessons of both books consciously or unconsciously at some time in our lives. We learned that animals are living beings with souls and compassion and an ability to communicate — and we learned that in our culture, they have a purpose, which is to entertain us or to end up on our plates or in our clothing.

But as we get older and explore the realities of life and death on factory farms and question the messages of culture, some of us wonder: Can any creature possibly be born with its purpose to be systematically slaughtered after a short, constricted and unnatural life separated from its home, family, friends and natural habitat? The answer of “Carp in the Bathtub” isn’t sufficient for our world today just as the message of kashrut is only the beginning of an answer left for us to update for this moment in which we live.

One lesson the Torah teaches is that but for the grace of G-d and not our own merits, we too could be prey. Perhaps it’s time to remember and reimagine our place in creation along the lines of the first chapters of Genesis.

Torah Ecology: Noach (Gen 6:9 – 11:32)

“Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the LORD your God gives you.” (צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ) – Deut. 16:20

Religions begin with looking at the world and seeing a problem, then imagining solutions. For the Torah and later Judaism, that problem is injustice. Since injustice is a problem in relationship, the solution the Torah imagines is a body of laws to guide first humanity, then a subset of humanity, the Israelites, in establishing right relationships.

The justice issue informs the overarching thematic structure of the Torah, set out in Genesis 1-9: creation, moral failure, roll-back of creation, a new creation. When morality fails and relationships are out of balance, catastrophe follows. When justice fails, worlds return to pre-creation emptiness and void. All of creation interconnects and depends on each part, and each part connects to and depends on others. Moral failures in any area of life affect everything.

My primary purpose in Torah Ecology is to explore what the Torah envisions as correct relationships. From my study so far, I believe the parameters are much wider than the human realm, embracing other creatures and the whole earth.

Ethical consciousness and responsibility pervade all of creation, human beings, non-human animals, the earth itself. Not only human beings but non-human animals fail to fulfill G-d’s plan for creation, and both are morally accountable. The earth is G-d’s instrument in ensuring justice. From this week’s portion:

“The earth became corrupt before G-d; the earth was filled with lawlessness. When G-d saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh (בָּשָׂר – basar) had corrupted its ways on earth, G-d said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh (בָּשָׂר – basar), for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Gen. 6:11-13).

Our assumption is that G-d intends to wipe out humanity because of its “lawlessness,” because it “corrupted” its ways, but the text doesn’t say humanity — it says “all flesh” (בָּשָׂר – basar). The word signifies the substance or flesh of a being, most often without life in it, a carcass suitable for food or for sacrifice on the altar. It refers to any kind of creature.

The word בָּשָׂר – basar, meaning flesh, contrasts with נֶּפֶשׁ – nefesh, often translated “soul” — yet Gen. 12:5 reports that “Abram left Haran with his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the נֶּפֶשׁ (nefesh) – persons that they had acquired in Haran…”  The story of Noah and the flood suggests that נֶּפֶשׁ (nefesh) has an even more comprehensive meaning than “persons,” that like basar, it doesn’t only refer to human beings. Perhaps a better translation, then, is living being, substance given life by the breath of G-d.

Along these lines, Gen. 1:29-30 reads, “G-d said, “See I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land (חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ – hayyat ha-aretz), to all the birds of the sky (עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם – of ha-shamayim), and to everything that creeps on earth (רוֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ – romes al ha-aretz), in which there is the breath of life (אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – asher bo nefesh hayyah), [I give] all the green plants for food.”

In Gen. 2:20, we learn of a further division of land animals into domesticated and wild: “And the man gave names to all the cattle (בְּהֵמָה – behemah) and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts (חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה – hayyat ha-sadeh)…”

Once again, in Gen. 2:19, all creatures are living beings: “…and whatever the man called each living creature (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – nefesh hayyah), that would be its name.” All creatures are livings beings (נֶפֶשׁ – nefesh) brought to life with the breath of G-d. Ha-Adam, humanity, is but one genus in the family of living beings.

The word ”flesh” (בָּשָׂר – basar), then, in this context means all creatures were lawless and corrupted their ways on earth. The text emphasizes this point in the phrase, “The earth became corrupt before G-d” (וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ – va-tishaket ha-aretz). It also implies that all living beings were already dead, that the breath of life wasn’t within them. They were not נֶּפֶשׁ – nefesh. They were “basar,” carcasses, devoid of the breath of life.

Certainly this theme isn’t presented in a one-to-one correspondence, life vs. lifeless flesh. The creatures who enter the ark are “all flesh in which there is the breath of life” (מִכָּל-הַבָּשָׂר, אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ רוּחַ חַיִּים – mi-lol ha-basar asher bo ruach hayyim) – Gen. 7:17. But it is the ongoing and repeated association of flesh with the beings on earth before the flood that focuses attention on the material and therefore transient aspect of life on earth, dependent on the breath of G-d for life.

More than that, skillful and repeated use of flesh, בָּשָׂר – basar, and נֶפֶשׁ – living being, points to the equality of all creation in this respect: all creatures, not only humans, depend on G-d for life, and their life is the breath of G-d. At the same time, all creatures, including humans, without the breath of life from G-d are merely meat, dead carcasses.

The emphasis on the equality of all being on earth finds another expression in Gen. 7:23: “All existence (כָּל-הַיְקוּם – lol ha-y’kum) on earth was blotted out — man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth.” An alternate translation of “existence” is “substance,” again a reference to the material aspect of all creatures on earth, human and otherwise. And those who leave the ark are all “living things of all flesh” (כָּל-הַחַיָּה… מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר – kol hayyah … mi-kol basar) – Gen. 8:17.

What Noach describes is a world in which all living beings became lawless and corrupt and all, therefore, suffered the consequence of their moral failure. Creation rolls back to watery emptiness and void but for the tiny remnant, human and non-human, who still have G-d’s breath of life in them, כָּל-הַחַיָּה (all living beings), floating on the vast, dark water in a tiny ark.

The story of the flood reverses the imagery of the creation story in Gen. 1 and is rich with allusions to that creation narrative as creation rolls back. But it is the reference to corruption in the flood story that makes me wonder what, exactly, brought on this roll back to pre-creation darkness and emptiness. Significant differences between the first creation and the new one that follows the flood suggest an answer.

The key Hebrew stem sh-h-t, “corrupt,” appears seven times in the flood narrative, according to Nahum Sarna in the JPS Torah Commentary. These further comments are telling: “The universal corruption is further defined as hamas. This term parallels “no justice” in Job 19:7 and is elsewhere the synonym of “falsehood,” “deceit,” or “bloodshed.” It means, in general, the flagrant subversion of the ordered processes of law.”

This helps us understand the nature of the lawlessness and corruption permeating all of creation that brought on the flood. A comparison of Gen. 1:29-30, quoted above, and Gen. 9:2-5 tells that story, once again including non-human creatures with humanity in both moral failure and consequence. Gen. 1:29-30 provides “every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit” to human beings for food and “all the green plants for food” to every kind of creature. In other words, both humans and animals are offered a vegan diet. Everything changes in the post-flood world:

Gen. 9:2-5: “The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it. But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man (brother).”

The new creation of Gen. 9:2-5 differs profoundly from the creation of Gen. 1-3 that it mirrors. G-d specifically allows meat-eating to humans, generating fear throughout the animal kingdom. Immediately this reluctant permission is ringed with prohibition: not to eat flesh with its life-blood in it. Further, human beings are not to kill their “brothers,” their fellow humans, an allusion to the story of Cain and Abel, suggesting that every homicide is fratricide.

The passage also, however, pre-supposes meat-eating among animals and cautions they will now be held accountable if their prey is human. Both animals and humans, in taking life that was not permitted to them in the original order of creation, acted lawlessly and corruptly. For both animals and humans, there were consequences for moral failures tied to unjustly taking life that returned the world to watery emptiness and void. In the new creation, while G-d gives humans and animals permission to continue their practice of eating meat, restrictions surround the practice and they are warned of their accountability.

Humans killed their own family, and animals killed humans for food in the pre-flood world. This is the lawlessness and corruption that subverted G-d’s plan and brought down the first creation. In the brave new world post-flood, G-d recognizes and accepts the reality of human and animal natures and recluctantly, and I have to imagine sadly, allows meat-eating with restrictions to humans and animals according to their natures.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

A new practice for Yom Kippur

Jewish tradition teaches that G-d can only forgive transgressions bein Adam l’Makom, those transgressions we commit against G-d. G-d cannot forgive transgressions bein Adam l’havero, between us and our fellow human beings.  Therefore, before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we apologize for ways in which we may have hurt others, intentionally or unintentionally. In this way we enter the Day of Atonement ready to engage in the process of teshuva, or “return” to the path of fulfillment and joy.

Teshuva is about renewing a relationship that has been sundered, not simply curing one party’s guilt. It is about curing a hurt that has caused a rift between parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister, friend and friend. As much as is possible, it returns things to the way they used to be.

If there is a section of the Torah that comes immediately to my mind when I hear the phrase, “the way they used to be,” it is the first three chapters of Bereishit, Genesis. I am reading those chapters this week, very carefully, as I prepare to begin the cycle of Torah readings once again on another holiday coming soon, Simchat Torah, rejoicing in the Torah. This section comes to my mind because it describes an ideal world, a beautiful, lush, creative, harmonious world…a world in which no creature kills another for food or any other purpose.

The key word is “harmonious.” The world in the first three chapters of Bereishit is not one in which there is no violence because everything is the same. In fact, this is a world rich with difference. Creation is all about differentiating one thing from another, and as creation proliferates, so does difference — and G-d sees that it is all good.

This vision has always led me to think that the path to a world of beauty, joy and fulfillment is not involved in reducing differences, whether they are religious or cultural or political or racial…but in rejoicing in them, seeing them as good, and respecting the wisdom that makes us all experience and see the world in different ways. At the same time, I believe our greatest ethical challenge as human beings is to overcome our fear of and sense of superiority toward “the other.”

In recent years, I have begun to extend that appreciation for difference beyond the human realm. Increasingly I see that human superiority (whether in intelligence or emotion or compassion) is nothing more than a construct — one created by those who place themselves at the top of that pyramid. In reality, other creatures on the planet have different ways of being intelligent or emotional or compassionate, perfectly suited to their environment and survival requirements.

And yet, as Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli professor of history and the author of the international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, says of factory farm animals: “The disappearance of wildlife is a calamity of unprecedented magnitude, but the plight of the planet’s majority population—the farm animals—is cause for equal concern.  In recent years there is growing awareness of the conditions under which these animals live and die, and their fate may well turn out to be the greatest crime in human history. If you measure crimes by the sheer amount of pain and misery they inflict on sentient beings, this radical claim is not implausible.”

This utter disregard and disdain for other life on the planet is worth contemplating as we enter Yom Kippur. This year I want to include in my own apology to all those whom I have knowingly or unknowingly wronged an apology to all creatures I have knowingly or unknowingly and thoughtlessly used.

As I find ways every day to expand my own consciousness of the times my awareness of and appreciation for “the other” fails me, my hope is to do my part in tikkun, repairing the world, “curing a hurt that has caused a rift” in creation. As I return to that extraordinary vision in the first chapters of Bereishit, I want to be part of returning or bringing our world closer to powerful potentiality.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Two Models to Feed the World: IFS & Torah

“Much have I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most from my students.” – Rav Hanina ( Talmud: Taanit, 7a)

I finished teaching a class at McHenry County Community College this past week called “Conscious Choices: Thinking About Food.” I taught the class last year, but each year it’s different as our food situation evolves (or devolves) and my own knowledge base grows.

My formal coursework has been in religion and Bible. I have enjoyed taking and teaching many classes. Informally, I read widely about food, the environment, sustainability and agriculture, in particular animal agriculture. I maintain a Twitter feed primarily for the purpose of following trends and picking up leads to interesting reading. This year I also enjoyed an online class in “The Ethics of Eating” from Cornell University. I fed myself and my family and friends for 50 years, operated a large organic garden, worked in the food industry, and now I work (very part-time) on a farm.

Finally, though, what most encourages me to constantly reshape these classes is student input. An aha moment for a student is an aha moment for me. In the last series I taught, that aha moment was hearing Alex Hershaft, Holocaust survivor and animal activist, speak. This time it was a comment from Michael Pollan’s 2008 “An Open Letter to the Farmer in Chief,” “But if taking the animals off farms made a certain kind of economic sense, it made no ecological sense whatever: their waste, formerly regarded as a precious source of fertility on the farm, became a pollutant — factory farms are now one of America’s biggest sources of pollution.”

He continues, “As Wendell Berry has tartly observed, to take animals off farms and put them on feedlots is to take an elegant solution — animals replenishing the fertility that crops deplete — and neatly divide it into two problems: a fertility problem on the farm and a pollution problem on the feed lot. The former problem is remedied with fossil-fuel fertilizer; the latter is remedied not at all.”

There is a lot of talk these days about 2050 and the need to feed a predicted world population of 10 billion. How will we accomplish that? Are there enough land and water resources? How do we bring true food security to the “food insecure?” As our world continues to change, will we perhaps all become food insecure? Can our current path make us healthier and happier?

As the class evolved, I realized that I was teaching two models for “feeding the world.” The first model is the one offered up by our American culture: the Industrial Food System (or IFS). The second is what I will call the biblical model. Each of these models utilizes different strategies to produce food, and each produces different results.

What I understood as I taught this year is that not only is each of these models a “system” in every sense of the word, but like any good system, each has a purpose or mission that defines its objectives, strategies and results.

Michael Pollan introduces his Open Letter this way: “The food and agriculture policies you’ve inherited — designed to maximize production at all costs and relying on cheap energy to do so — are in shambles, and the need to address the problems they have caused is acute.”

But if the IFS mission of maximizing production at all costs has failed, so has the biblical mission of expanding the realm of ethical consciousness. This mission has failed not so much because of a problem in the message but more from the dismissive attitude of a secular world toward sacred texts and wise teachers in human history.

We are not the first generation to sit on the edge of catastrophe, yet we reject ancient teachings before we even take time to know what they are. Their wisdom barely enters our consciousness as we struggle with problems that threaten our continued existence on the planet.

Yet just as there may be things of value to glean from the Industrial Food System before we reform it or throw it out, there are things of value to take from the Torah and other ancient teachings.

When I began my Torah Ecology project, my intention was to focus on food, animal rights and the environment. In this first year of my project, my interest isn’t so much on specifics like what people ate but more on what it meant to them — or at least what it was supposed to have meant to them according to the “Author”/authors of the Torah. Understanding this takes me on some thought journeys that seem far afield, but ultimately each week of close study contributes something to my ability to get inside the biblical worldview.

When I redesign the class for next year, I will organize it very specifically around these two models, the IFS and the biblical model, maximum production vs. maximum ethical consciousness. How does each of these models relate to human health, other species on the planet and the planet itself? What does each model say about our relationship to other species and to the planet? Specifically, what does each model say about animal agriculture, agricultural workers, health, waste and human consciousness?

One thing I know about our current food culture is that it encourages a total disconnect from the sources of our food. That disconnect in turn generates distortions in our relationship to transcendence, our environment, other human beings, other creatures, even our own bodies. Working in the fields planting and harvesting, sharing the fields with other animals and cooking with real food break down that disconnect, restoring satisfying, beneficial and meaningful relationships. The biblical model expresses that understanding of interconnectedness.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Sapiens means “wise,” but are we?

This morning, as so often happens, I was alerted by @JewishVeg, to an excellent book by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian and a tenured professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  The book is Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind, companion volume to his more recent Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Because I’m preparing to teach a class and suspected it might provide some good background material, I downloaded a summary of Sapiens to read this morning.

This is a book I recommend for anyone interested in the development of humanity and in particular, our relationship with our planet and other life on it. This relationship is my focus in my own study project as I work my way through the Torah this year and probably for a number of years to come as I begin to add in interpretive traditions.

The statement that first drew my eye was in the image with the @JewishVeg post (please visit the JewishVeg website at jewishveg.org for lots of great information and resources:

In reading the summary version of the book this morning, I discovered other thoughts and ideas that I’m excited to explore further with Prof. Harari, among them:

  • His thought that wheat domesticated humans and not vice versa, reminiscent of Michael Pollan’s idea about apples in his book In Defense of Food.
  • His statement that religion is a fundamental feature in the development of humanity and that it unifies, not the reverse. He says that the ability to imagine a reality is what creates and binds social groups. This corresponds to my own thought that everything is a construct including language itself, and our existential reality is that to become fully human, we must choose what will shape our perception  or risk being shaped willy nilly without our participation.
  • His statements about capitalism, based on the idea that the future will be better than today, and that capitalism is a “religion,” positing that economic growth is essential because freedom, justice and happiness need growth in the economy. As I challenge assumptions and constructs in other areas of my life, I’m inspired to challenge this one.

Most of all, I was drawn back to the quote @JewishVeg highlighted, and I went to read more. These two articles focused on Prof. Harari’s idea that human beings are catastrophically destructive to life on the planet, utterly contrary to what the Torah prescribes for us:

http://www.ynharari.com/topic/ecology/

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/25/industrial-farming-one-worst-crimes-history-ethical-question

If time is short, read the summary, but consider the important information and perspectives Prof. Harari brings to the decisions you make every day.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

There’s The Ideal…And Then There’s The Real

Sometimes when I study Torah these days I get a little lost in the details of animal sacrifice and numbering and valuing people and animals.

My original purpose in this study was to  try to understand what the Torah says comprehensively, pervasively, about our relationship to the planet and every other creature on it. Certainly there are verses here and there that I can draw on to make the argument for ecological sensitivity and veganism, but I wanted something more pronounced, something woven systematically through this carefully constructed, nuanced text.

The more I study the Torah, the more I regard it as the product of a unified consciousness. Its extraordinary construction, the parallelisms, the chiasms, the repeating themes and images, the nuanced vocabulary…all come together in an impressive architecture that makes an inspired and compelling set of statements about the meaning and purpose of our existence.

I still believe the comprehensive message I seek is there. I see tantalizing hints of it constantly as I study. And of course there are those strong, clear verses here and there, just the things my spirit needs to hear. The comprehensive message, though, seems ultimately to elude me as I read about things like the princes of Israel bringing hundreds of animals to the Tabernacle for slaughter. My imagination springs into life, and I lose my connection to the big meaning behind and under and throughout, as I try to understand the particular meaning within this bloody, terrifying spectacle.

Terrifying, at least, from the animal’s perspective. Was it terrifying for the priests and Levites? The Israelites in attendance? Was there supposed to be an aspect of terror? Of awe? Because certainly there is that dimension to life itself. Even in our modern, secular era, the existentialists identified that.

And what about responsibility, guilt, atonement, gratitude? Aren’t these all fully human experiences and emotions? If we are fully open to our human experience, if we are fully human in that experience, is it possible that experience can be without overwhelming moments of gratitude or of realizing the stark limits on living without causing harm?

Finally, at least at this point in my progress, I come back to the idea that a harmonious, beautiful vision is put before us, an ideal world in which there is no bloodshed and no violence in creation. Harmony reigns, not hierarchy, and there is a continuity between transcendence, creation and human beings. Ethical consciousness pervades everything.

And then there is the real world, the world in which we live, the only world we know. It is a world in which ethical dilemmas are almost always Gordian knots. There is no escape from the reality of life, no deus ex machina, no magic. G-d’s compassion in the Torah is to teach us how to navigate through that real world, how to keep that picture of an ideal world in our sights, but at the same time stay focused on what is and find joy in it.

Even if the surface language of blood sacrifice seems contradictory to the deep language of the Torah, I still believe the message is consistent throughout, although I cannot yet detail how that works. It’s like holding two ideas simultaneously in my consciousness, an extraordinary beautiful ideal and a real world where good enough is our best hope.

As a former employer liked to say to me of our plans for the organization, “there is the ideal…and then there is the real.” The Torah gives us an ideal to keep in our hearts and imagination as we live in the moment, striving to extend holiness in a very real world. There is a message in the sacrifices that still escapes me, although from time to time I grasp pieces of it, like torn bits of brightly colored fabric floating over the abyss.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Conscious choices…becoming more fully human

Today a book I’ve been excited to read came in the mail: Barbara J. King’s Personalities on the Plate: The Lives & Minds of Animals We Eat. I learned of it from Facebook, which everyone loves to hate but where I learn so much. A friend shared a post from the Nonhuman Rights Project which mentioned the book, and I knew it was something I wanted to read.

I started reading this morning, and I am not disappointed! Barbara King explores through the lens of science the same issue that energizes my own explorations through the lens of religion and, in particular, the Hebrew Bible. The issue that draws us both is what she calls “the invisible toggle switch” in our minds, our “peculiar duality” in relation to other animals, animals we admire in one moment and consume the next.

From my perspective, food is the root of every religious impulse. It is through eating that we confront the central paradox of life, that it requires taking life to sustain life. The choices we make define us as human beings and form the substance of religions. Religions provide a framework for confronting this paradox and practices that guide us through it. To the extent that we maintain our “peculiar duality” with respect to eating fellow creatures, we dwell in the land of unconscious living.

My current biblical studies project suggests to me that the profound direction of the Torah, the basis of its myth, ritual and ethical legislation, is toward living consciously. If we take its message seriously, each time we act impulsively, without intention, unconsciously, we are not fully human, we do not fulfill our mission as human beings, and we are an affront to creation.

I don’t say that judgmentally.  I’m one of the most absent-minded people around. It is my work in life to become more fully conscious, to be “awake,” as my son calls it, aware. I have at least three opportunities a day to focus my attention, to work on becoming more fully conscious, and that is when I eat my daily meals. It is through this work that I can become more aware in other parts of my life.

In the Introduction to her book, Barbara King states this as her purpose: “The need for clear-eyed seeing is the central message I want to bring forth in the pages to come: it takes effort, and it pays off, to see the animals we designate as our food. Even as we bring them to our family tables and our restaurants in their anonymous billions, other animals sense, and sometimes suffer; learn, and sometimes love; think, and sometimes reflect. Their lives matter to them, and they should matter to us too.”

Although I am on the path toward veganism, it is not a symbiotic relationship with our fellow creatures that I see as the symbol par excellence of our ethical morass today. It is the billions of animals bred for slaughter in our names and for our use. We have no connection to these creatures. They are anonymous. We take no responsibility for their lives or for their deaths. We take no moments for either gratitude or atonement. Our pleasure in the moment is our only value as we eat.  The “toggle switch” in our lives works very well, and when it does, we are not fully human.

I look forward to reading this book and learning the science of thought, emotion and social behaviors of animals we eat. I look forward to knowing “who is on our plates.” I expect I will weep as I contemplate the reality of the world we have built for ourselves.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Cooking, Pulling Weeds And Resisting

I never thought I’d hear myself say this: Trump gave me a huge gift when he was elected.

It’s hard to imagine myself saying that because my inspiration usually comes from very different kinds of sources. Yet perhaps it’s just the mind- and spirit-numbing nature of Trump’s presidency that compels me to reexamine myself and clarify my course through life.

Like the 2008 recession, Trump’s presidency causes me to take additional steps on my journey toward self-awareness. Taking these steps involves some education and some house-cleaning to bring my values in different segments of my life into alignment. Most importantly I had to recognize both my limitations and my abilities as I figure out how best to respond to an event I experience as nothing less than a cataclysmic step backward in our culture and democracy not to mention our responses to a suffering planet.

I never considered myself a “political” person. In fact, until 2008, I was fairly apathetic for reasons I’ve explored with myself in recent months. Post Jan. 20, I tried to get politically involved in the traditional sense of that word. I attend meetings, I volunteer occasionally, I go on marches. I’ve learned a lot, but one of the things I have learned is that this isn’t the best place for me to contribute passionately and knowledgeably. Of course I’ll still continue to be as involved as I can, but I needed to focus my energies in other directions:

  • I deepened my exploration of veganism through my own cooking and writing.
  • I jumped at the opportunity to create recipes to go with the boxes that come from my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), Bob’s Fresh and Local.
  • I understand my volunteer work in the farm fields in a different way, as something much deeper and broader than physical and spiritual health.
  • With a fairly extensive background in academics behind me but little involvement for a quarter of a century, I decided to work my way through the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. I wanted to discover in greater depth what it has to say about human life in relation to the planet and other life on it. My blog posts on this topic, largely notes to myself as research, will become the basis of a book. More importantly, my research is providing me with a strong foundation for steps toward meaningful activism. At the very least, it provides me with information I use in evaluating people and policies.
  • I’m teaching for the first time in many years, which demands from me further clarification of my thinking and message.
  • I decided to engage with my synagogue in ways I haven’t before, to take on a role beyond participating in services and preparing food now and then. While it’s shaky ground for me to take on a role in shaping policy, I hope it will be a growth opportunity I can manage.

I think these steps toward more and deeper engagement in various aspects of my life will begin to converge at some point. As my passions become more focused, a path toward taking on my part, however small, in reshaping our world will become apparent.

My engagement with food and the environment developed over the course of 45 years, not so much through academic or professional expertise but through hands-on involvement. I had the opportunity to create a large organic garden in 1972 following the birth of  my first son, the same year that hippies tore up the turf in Berkeley, California. I think part of their impulse probably matched my own, a reaction against Big Food, Big Ag and Big Brother, who don’t always know best. I felt that packaged foods, pesticides and our alienation from nature were somehow an assault on our physical and spiritual health.

I read as much as I could put my hands on at the time. One little book in particular drove my decision to become vegetarian, a path that has had its zigs and zags. That book was Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe. Her message still resonates with me today, that there is a social justice connection to what we eat.

Until I worked in the food industry, though, I didn’t make that connection at a gut level. Then one day I was writing a post and came across an article that mentioned the life expectancy is lower in Mississippi than in the rest of the country and related it, at least in part, to food culture — and to the non-availability of truly nutritious food.

As Michael Pollan pointed out, yams in the produce aisle don’t have health claims attached to them since that won’t make money for Big Food, and our government subsidizes things like corn, that produces cheap high fructose corn syrup. And as that article pointed out, large food deserts force people into gas stations for food products, and gas stations are even less likely than supermarkets to feature nutritious life-sustaining foods. Something clicked about the relationship between food, social justice and public policy, and I really got it.

There was another milestone two or three years ago, well after I began my exploration of veganism. As I expanded my understanding of justice beyond the human realm, I worked hard to adjust my cooking practices, to separate from well-loved recipes, to find my new cooking philosophy or adapt my old one (real food) and to represent myself through food passionately and deliciously among family and friends already wearied from my years of vegetarian experiments with them. Then one day I looked down and noticed my leather shoes and realized with some shock how segmented my own thoughts are. I grew up in a world in which animal products were pervasive. There was simply a disconnect for almost all of us between the lives of our fellow creatures and the food we ate and clothes we wore. Despite my efforts to resolve that disconnect, there it was.

It’s curious how  we can think we’re fully conscious, making choices based on our values…and then discover our own human frailty, the ways we are embedded in cultural perspectives. And that took me to a path of reexamining another cultural perspective, our deeply held belief that we are superior to other creatures.  My husband’s offhand comment started me along my thought path. My biblical studies are guiding my next steps.

My studies and cooking are one avenue to focus my thoughts, prod myself to examine my cultural assumptions and modify my course through life. My work at the farm, something I had time to take on once I sold my cafe, is another.

I love the beautiful, fresh real food sparkling in the sun with drops of moisture. I love having my hands in the dirt that produces the food. I love experiencing the rhythm of the seasons in my body as I work out in the fields. I love the little lessons I learn in each moment that I work. I imagine the deep wisdom I find in the Bible comes in part from its source in a more agrarian world.

But it is the complete exhaustion at the end of the time I work in the fields, especially at the beginning of the season when I’m rusty after the cold months when my exercise levels drop, that takes me back to Diet for a Small Planet and the lessons I learned from Frances Moore Lappe about social justice. Considering those who do this work for long hours every day, struggling to support families on little pay and with no recognition or appreciation, living with insecurity and worse, brings me back to her themes.

This connection, this social justice theme, connects me to biblical themes of justice within communities and among nations, justice for all life on the planet, environmental justice. It reminds me that every area impacts and influences the others. It is all interconnected.

I was struck this week by this line from Leviticus 18:28 following a set of moral injunctions: “…that the land vomit not you out also, when ye defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.” Like human beings, like our fellow creatures on the planet, the land itself has moral consciousness. It is all interconnected, and our sins against one impact the other.

Cooking and digging in the dirt along with biblical stories, then meaningful study of this text, have had a significant role throughout my life in shaping and reshaping my consciousness about creation, my place in it and what I need to do at this time in our history.

And so I arrive at how cooking and working the fields became my political activism.  First, my work encouraged me to lift the veil, to look at what is behind the things I see in front of me, whether on my plate, in the claims on commercial foods, or in the pages of the Bible.

Each breath I take with clarity of consciousness, each bite of food, each interaction with another person or with a community of people, is activism. Only with clarity of consciousness about the reasons for my own choices can I have a larger role in shaping my communities.

And there are many ways for me to do that, to be active, including:

  • cultivating the habit of looking behind the veil,
  • sharing ideas about the implications of what we eat
  • sharing the specifics of delicious, healthful, affordable eating,
  • supporting local, sustainable agriculture, and
  • supporting other community efforts directed toward food and environmental justice.

I continue to learn about so many aspects of my world, so many things I didn’t know or that I kept from coming to full consciousness. I’ve lived long enough to see how the action of many individuals can change things and to learn that ONLY the action of many individuals can reshape the culture. And I have Trump to thank for intensifying my effort and compelling me to find the political meaning in my work.

From Bob’s Fresh and Local website:

“But the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.” ~ Wendell Berry – The Unsettling of America
For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.