In this week’s parsha, as Noah stands outside the ark surveying a post-deluge world, God blesses him and gives him new dietary parameters: “Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.” (Genesis 9:3) This divine permission to eat meat is a big departure from the instructions given generations earlier to Adam and Eve, who were only allowed to eat a vegetarian diet.
No explanation is given in the torah for this change, which is bundled together with other injunctions against eating the blood of animals and against murder. But the rabbis argue that the permission to eat meat is an attempt to put boundaries on something people were doing prior to the flood, killing animals wantonly and without regard to the fact that to eat an animal was to take a life. God was setting up checks and balances to explicitly prevent this cruelty.
But “This concession to human weakness is not a license for savagery,” argues scholar Nahum Sarna. Meat cannot be eaten without recognition of its origins in life; God’s permission can be seen as the original injunction to eat mindfully.
Today, there are growing options for the consumer who wants to eat mindfully through sustainable, humanely raised kosher meat. But, the availability of this meat brings up a serious ethical question: have we fulfilled our obligation to God by eating humanely raised meat, or should we be aiming for Edenic ideal of not eating meat at all?
Can eating meat ever be a holy act? I posed this dilemma to Naftali Hanau, owner of Grow and Behold, an ethical kosher meat company. Hanau, a former vegetarian (because of the historical lack of humanely raised kosher meat), argues that questions of sustainable eating must go beyond whether or not one should eat meat.
There are many overlooked trade-offs in the food system. “How is it any better to eat conventional tofu, made from genetically modified soy and grown on a field covered in petrochemical fertilizer? Conventional food does not get a free pass on environmental sustainability just because something is a vegetable.” He pointed out that Amish farmers who raise his chickens – moving the coops by hand and restoring the soil – leave a smaller environmental impact than conventional vegetable farming.
One question I posed to Hanau was whether having greater access to sustainable meat meant he ate more of it, as I have found to be true in my house. He said that it had not, but that it was still an ongoing conversation in his family about how much meat to eat. Purchasing sustainable meat is not a license to eat it mindlessly, he says.
All forms of eating can be savagery. All of them can be holy. This was the challenge to Noah and to us.
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is director of education and outreach for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America.