March 2, 2006
I Love You, Carnivore
This column is in response to last week's Torah Portion by Rabbi Zoë Klein, who confessed her secret enjoyment of meat, despite her family's predominantly vegetarian diet.
To: My Not-So-Flesh-Eating Wife
From: Her Closeted Carnivorous/Publicly Vegetarian Husband
Worry not, my dear, your struggle is safe with me over vegetarianism. I try to be one, but you know the truth of my dilemma, although it is less debilitating for me than it is for you. After 20 years, I think I'm close to being true to myself when I ignore the leftover Shabbos schnitzel from our Hillel caterer.
You see, as you know, I love meat. Love it! Growing up, although it wasn't kosher, I took extra delight in my mother's marinated flank steak. She also made great meatballs, and do I ever miss Shake N' Bake chicken. How fun it was to overcook hotdogs until they blistered on the grill outside, while watching "60 Minutes" on Sunday evenings as a family.
I have absolutely no repulsion toward seeing carcasses; only a sadness that others are troubled by it. Ultimately, "we are like vanity; our days are as a shadow that passes," as you and I read when we officiate at funerals, so why not accept that the life on the paper plates used in our homes for the kids eating a little meat is temporal? When medical shows present brain surgeries, complete with machines sucking the blood away, I can watch without any angst.
You, on the other hand, must turn the station, and at the site of roadkill, you bristle and say, "God bless it." Actually, thank you for teaching me to do the same.
"Does it really matter if I don't turn off the water while I brush my teeth?" one of my environment-conscientious students queried me the other day. Elizabeth had been caught by another conservationist in the throes of committing what some consider a chilul Hashem, desecration of that which was holy. Wasting water is an act of bal tashchit, our tradition's way of saying that we are stewards of the planet and as such, we have no right to waste or destroy needlessly.
"Industries and big businesses waste far more water every day than people do brushing their teeth and watering their lawns," she added. "Truth be told, I knew that I should turn off the water faucet, but does it really matter?"
"Maybe the key is to try to turn it off but not feel immense guilt for keeping it on, since it has virtually no effect on the environment," I offered as a compromise. She seemed content.
As we left this "lunch 'n' learn" at USC's health science campus, I had an epiphany. I wondered whether Elizabeth was channeling Torah from Sinai for me with my struggle to conquer my yetzer hara, the evil impulse toward consuming fleishigs: If I privately eat the Persian kabob leftovers after our weekly Wednesday barbecue, so that no one knows and it has no impact on anyone, might that be the ideal?
My act of civil disobedience -- refusing to consume the flesh of once-living, breathing animals -- has virtually no effect, perhaps none whatsoever. Agribusiness decides far in advance how many cows to raise and then slaughter without regard to my individual case.
It is almost entirely unlikely that the good folks at Rubashkin's or some other slaughterhouse would ever take an inventory that would reflect my decision. It seems that being a vegetarian in America is as effective for slowing down meat production as trying to convince our son, Rocky, that muesli tastes better than marshmallows.
However, perhaps eating leftovers is still a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of these animals. Kabbalah teaches that when we eat foods, we elevate the divine sparks within them, so by consuming these leftovers, I am ensuring that these sparks are not wasted. It would be wrong to let the leftovers get dumped, as that would certainly be a violation of the law of bal tashchit.
The purposeful consumption of leftover meats then makes sense. However, if anyone were to find out that I was not a true vegetarian, they might never consider a vegetarian lifestyle. This would betray my values: While I can't individually change the meat production levels in this society, creating a vegetarian movement would help keep cows jumping over the moon in perpetuity. I'm pretty much convinced that had my sister, Sylvia, never been a vegetarian, I might have never ended up in this dilemma, which pits my conscience against my cravings.
So, dear, continue to chew gum after eating a hamburger in order to mask the taste of once-living animals on your breath. Even as I argue for public vegetarianism with a strictly private consumption of leftovers, I am beginning to reach the point where even my interest in meat is disappearing. One too many PETA videos, I suppose.
Hoisting and shackling the cows horrifies me, and while kosher, I would much rather take my cues from the likes of Shlomo Goren, Isaac Bashevis Singer, S.I. Agnon and A.D. Gordon, not to mention Albert Einstein, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, all famous Jewish vegetarians.
Our prayers are for Moshiach, a messianic era in which the world order will improve in its very essence. When I say "Bayom Hahu," on that day, I join Rav Kook in imagining a world when we need not sacrifice animals on any altar ever again.
I love you, even if you do sneak a roast beef sandwich from time to time.
Jonathan Klein is the Allen and Ruth Ziegler rabbinic director at USC Hillel.