In his “Off the Pulpit” e-mail column today, Rabbi David Wolpe declares his long-time vegetarianism. Rabbi Wolpe is one of the leading rabbis in the country—an accomplished author and speaker who leads one of the major Conservative congregation in the west, Sinai Temple. In the past we’ve run stories on hos he single-handedly, using his considerable rhetorical gifts, swayed his congregation to give up their gas hogs for Priuses, or donate to help Israel, or any number of other worthy causes. But has he ever tried to ween them off animal flesh? Not that I know of. Sinai Temple is a big, meaty shul. About a third of the congregants are Persian Jews, and I suspect there’s not lot of veggies in the lot. A Persian meal may be tricked out with a thousand pilafs and adorned with bowls of fruits and nuts and haystacks of fresh herbs, but the heart of the exercise is meat: stews, kebab and, as the community has grown wealthier and more Americanized, hunks of roasts. This is a people who loves their meat. They would follow their beloved rabbi anywhere—he has proven that—but even he knows how far to lead.
That has to be challenging, because not eating animals is very much part of his heart and soul. As he writes:
I have not eaten chicken or meat for decades. I readily acknowledge that Judaism does not ask this of me. Kashrut is not vegetarianism. But kashrut is a reminder of Judaism’s concern with animal suffering.
The Talmud tells the story of a frightened calf on its way to slaughter breaking free to hide under the robes of Rabbi Judah Hanasi, one of the greatest of the Talmudic Rabbis. Rabbi Judah Hanasi pushes the calf away declaring, “Go — for this purpose you were created.” This insensitivity was punished, the Talmud relates, and the rabbi later repented. (B.M. 85a)
Tza’ar Ba’alei chayim, acknowledging and preventing the suffering of living creatures, is an important Jewish principle. Nature may be “red in tooth and claw,” but we are both part of nature and commanded to rise above it. For human beings, instinct is the beginning of the story, not its culmination. To make those in our power suffer, whether people or animals, is to darken our own souls.
Many biblical heroes are shepherds; animals too must rest on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:20) and the bible legislates many other protections for animals. We are the custodians of creation. Our first responsibility is to be kind.
To attend a Persian feast (let along an Ashkenazi steak-and-chicken fest) is to see the fruits of factory farming laid out in abundance. As much joy as the rabbi takes in celebrating with his congregants, he has to wince at the buffet. At a benefit for the Shoah Foundation last year, we sat next to each other. The food was well above average—pumpkin ravioli in sage cream sauce, rare lamb chops—but the rabbi told the server he wouldn’t be eating. He nursed a glass of red wine all night—“My kind of meal,” I said.
Many years ago I ate with him at his favorite restaurant, Real Food Daily on La Cienega. My sense is the rabbi isn’t just veggie, he leans vegan. He plunged into whatever was on offer, but I was less enthralled. With its tempeh burgers and Tofu Reubens, Real Food always struck me as faking real food. If I go vegan, give me an honest sabzi polo, not a substitute deli dish. Anyway, the rabbi was happy.
But does eating meat somehow lower us, does it, as the rabbi says, “darken our own souls?” I’m not convinced. As Barbara Kingsolver writes:
“I find myself fundamentally aligned with a vegetarian position in every way except one: however selectively, I eat meat. I’m unimpressed by arguments that condemn animal harvest while ignoring, wholesale, the animal killing that underwrites vegetal foods. Unaccountable deaths by pesticide and habitat removal—the beetles and bunnies that die collaterally for our bread and veggie burgers—are lives plumb wasted….
…“We raise these creatures for a reason.” *What, to kill them? It seems that sensitivity and compassion to animals is lacking in this comment.
“To envision a vegan version of civilization, start by erasing from all time the Three Little Pigs, the boy who cried wolf, Charlotte’s Web, the golden calf, Tess of the d’Urbervilles…
“Recently while I was cooking eggs, my kids sat at the kitchen table entertaining me with readings from a magazine profile of a famous, rather young vegan movie star….What a life’s work for that poor gal: traipsing about the farm in her strappy heels, weaving among the cow flops, bending gracefully to pick up eggs and stick them in an incubator where they would maddeningly hatch, and grow bent on laying more eggs. It’s dirty work, trying to save an endless chain of uneaten lives. Realisticially, my kids observed, she’d hire somebody.”
“My animals all had a good life, with death as its natural end. It’s not without thought and gratitude that I slaughter my own animals, it is a hard thing to do. It’s taken me time to be able to eat my own lambs that I had played with.”
Rabbi Wolpe points out that, “Many biblical heroes are shepherds,” but of course those shepherds raised animals for food and ate the animals they raised. Meat suffuses the Bible—raising it, cooking it, sacrificing it. It strikes me that the Torah at least accepts and more likely promotes killing animals as part and parcel of a holy life.
That leaves the major question of how: how do we treat animals, kill them, and eat them? That is where holiness enters the equation—that is where we have the opportunity to raise ourselves beyond our “animal nature.”
But, still, the rabbi needs to eat, and eat well. So below is a recipe for Sabzi Polo, an herby Persian pilaf fluffed with herbs and studded with the fresh fava beans that are in the farmers markets these days. The picture and slide shows shows Santa Monica Kosher Market’s sabzi, as well as its shishlik grill which fills the parking lot each Sunday and sends plumes of agonizingly fine smelling smoke (to me, not Rabbi wolpe) down Santa Monica Blvd.
6 cups water
4 cups uncooked long-grain white rice
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup water
1 bunch fresh dill, chopped
1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
3 cups fresh fava beans
1 T. ground turmeric
1/2 c. shelled pistachio nuts
salt and fresh grown pepper to taste
In a large saucepan bring water to a boil and 1 t. salt to boil. Pour rice into boiling water. Boil until rice rises to the surface of the water. Drain rice and return it to the saucepan. Stir in the oil and water. Mix in the dill, parsley, cilantro, fava beans, salt and pepper.
Cook the rice over medium heat for 5 minutes.
Reduce heat to the lowest setting. Cover and simmer for 40 to 45 minutes.
Turn out onto platter and decorate with tumeric and shelled pistachio nuts.