Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tofu: The Other White Meat

Mark Twain once wrote that: "Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside."

Ahhh....if only life were that easy. Do what we want. Eat what we want. With complete disregard for the implications of our actions. The Greeks had a name for this philosophical approach to life. They called it hedonism. And for some reason, I think it's pretty hilarious that the notion of "living for the moment" - for achieving a sense of personal pleasure in the moment, in complete disregard of anything else, is an actual philosophy. To me, it just sounds like going on vacation. (How ironic that there are a chain of resort hotels that call themselves Hedonism...)

Let's be clear: Judaism and hedonism just don't get along very well (maybe with the slight exception of Purim). One of the functions of Jewish law is to establish the difference between right and wrong in the world. We know that murdering and stealing are wrong. We don't get to do those things, just because they might feel good.

For some reason, though, when it comes to food, our ethical senses have always been blurred. Over the centuries, we humans have convinced ourselves that we have a RIGHT to eat and consume whatever we want. If it tastes good, and gives us a sense of pleasure, we should eat it. No matter what.

Killing another animal? No problem. Fattening it up while it's alive, specifically so that it will taste better after it's slaughtered? No problem. Genetically manipulating a fruit or vegetable so that it is guaranteed to grow (and taste) perfectly every time. No problem.

Quick tangent: I remember learning about the genetic engineering of vegetables for the first time YEARS AGO - at Disney World of all places. Check out the video and quick article that the Christian Science Monitor put out last year about it. I know, I know...who am I to complain about the genetic manipulation of veggies? Everyone's doing it. Even Disney. And if I'm going to continue shopping at my local Ralph's for my groceries then I have no choice but to buy produce that has been scientifically messed with. But still: it's a little weird, isn't it?

Anyway: low and behold, Judaism has a long history - not just of opposing hedonism in general - but specifically of opposing hedonistic eating. Our laws of kashrut (the jewish dietary laws) are the obvious example here. Certain kinds of animal (like cows) are in. And certain kind of animals (like pigs) are out. We're not supposed to eat bacon. Doesn't matter how good it tastes.

It's interesting to note that Jewish dietary practices evolve (or devolve depending on your perspective) over time. We're potentially in a period of change right now. Jews across the denominational spectrum are chattering about the extent to which fair labor practices, the humane treatment of animals, and the environmental impact of food production should have on whether any given food is classified as "kosher." Hazon has been doing a lot of great work in this regard. And, the Conservative Movement has been on the front lines of this effort, having recently introduced new kosher guidelines and a new heksher (a logo or label to indicate that a food has the 'seal of approval' of a particular mashgiach, or kosher inspecting authority):

But what about getting 'back to basics'? Back to the original Jewish style of eating: vegetarianism.

This week's Torah portion, Parshat Breishit (the first of the Torah!), notes the following:

God 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, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food." And it was so. (Gen 1:29-30)

The Torah can't be any clearer: It was God's initial intention, at the beginning of time, that Adam and Eve not kill/consume animals. Animals weren't even allowed to eat one another! From these two verses, a long and elaborate Jewish tradition of vegetarianism emerged. (You can read a lot of the later Jewish sources on this here.) the Torah went on to allow certain kinds of meat to be eaten. But that doesn't mean that we should.

Noted author Jonathan Safran Foer made an impassioned case for vegetarianism in last week's NY Times Magazine. I strongly urge you to read his article here. He also narrates a graphic but important video that you can watch here.

If you take the time to read the article and/or watch the film, I am pretty confident that you'll give vegetarianism more serious consideration. And, if not vegetarianism, then maybe you'll become a flexitarian (like me!). Flexitarians are MOSTLY vegetarian...We aspire to give up meat completely, even if we haven't done it just yet.

There are so many good reasons to eat less meat. And the only good reason to eat more of it is...because we like how it tastes. That might be good enough for Mark Twain. But we Jews should live our lives to a higher standard. We should be more mindful of our impact on other animals, and on the planet. And we should eat more tofu and veggies as a result.

Shabbat Shalom.

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