Monday, 13 December 2010

Jewish Dietary Rules and Food Sustainability

I've often wondered about the Jewish dietary rules - is the prohibition on shellfish, for example, something to do with the fact that in a hot middle-eastern climate, shellfish is more likely to go bad, and lead to food poisoning.

But Rabbi David Seidenberg, at the website , has come up with a fascinating speculation on how what is "kosher" and what is not, actually has profound ecological implications. He starts with the Noah story - and Jewish identity is bound up with story, which we must be careful not to confuse with history, although at times in the narratives (particularly in the Court History of David), the two may well be very close.
I've always believed that keeping kosher was not just a way of creating Jewish identity, but also a way to create a society attuned to the earth. After years of wondering why some animals are kosher and others are not, I found an ecological explanation for these rules.

The Noah story is also the first time the distinction between 'pure' and 'unclean' animals is mentioned (Noah is told to bring seven of the pure (tahor) animals, which are the ones we call kosher.) So even the least universal aspect of kashrut, the "cloven hoof and cud-chewing mouth" requirement, has its roots in one of the Torah's most universal stories. That's a good jumping off point for searching out the universal meaning of these culturally-specific, arguably parochial laws.

Then he considers the parochial nature of the rituals, and I think makes a good point that what is true in Judaism is also true of all societies. As non-Jews, we may think we are not bound by restrictive dietary rules, and yet we have our own taboos. Just imagine the uproar if, for instance, horse meat was available for sale in British supermarkets. Or for that matter, cat or dog, which - as Peter Owen-Jones discovered -are just sacrificed, throats curt and the dead cat or dog flung to one side in African voodoo.

How he draws this into more general ecological principals about sustainability is very interesting, especially as the cost of food is increasing, and it is questionable how much longer the vast quantities of meat that our culture devours can be sustained.

Judaism arose in a particular place within a particular ecosystem. While Jews live everywhere, our rituals are keyed to the seasons and rhythms of the land of Israel. This is not just true of Judaism. Each culture evolved in an ecosystem that shaped not only its diet and cuisine, but also its fertility and rain rituals, its pantheons and ways of worship. The reason why there are different cultures is not primarily political or theological, it's that each society must find a way to teach its generations how to live in harmony with its unique ecosystem.

Before I go more into ecology, it would help to explore a related dimension of kashrut and eating, taught to us by anthropology. One of the primary ways that a culture expresses its values and its sense of belonging in the world is through eating. (Levi-Strauss' The Raw and the Cooked was one of the most important works that established this point.)

In fact, one of the primary ways of "civilizing" ourselves is to separate killing from cooking and eating. For a lion must eat and hunt with one and the same mouth. Only a few species (e.g., primates with hands) can even theoretically make a separation between killing and eating. Humans, in fact, are the only predators who have the capacity to completely separate killing (or capturing) from eating. This truth is embodied by the law given to Noah to not eat "a limb from a living animal" ('ever min hachai).

This civilizing process sounds like something that separates people from Nature. Yet by emphasizing humanity's uniqueness, such rules can also restrain human power and strengthen our empathy with all the other animals.

In Judaism, this drive to elevate our human uniqueness through how we eat is deeply embedded in the powerful rules about how we slaughter animals, the central focus of kashrut. Separating the blood from the flesh is first described in the Noah story, and then in other parts of the Torah, as the way we respect an animal's soul and life in the face of using it for food: ki hadam hu hanefesh 'You will not eat the blood because the blood is the soul'. (Lev. 17 and Deut. 12)

The imperative to not eat the blood, combined with the imperative to not cause an animal suffering, allows for only one way of kosher slaughtering, what we call shechitah. Shechitah is supposed to accomplish both goals (if done properly) by using an extraordinarily sharp knife to cut the carotid arteries, jugular veins and trachea of an animal in one cut. Done correctly, it's supposed to allow the blood to flow out and the heart to continue pumping, while rendering the animal unconscious.

Salting meat to draw out any remaining blood, and most importantly not cooking the flesh produced by an animal's death with the milk that nurtures life (basar v'chalav or milchig and fleishig) are more ways of creating separations between the life of an animal, the death of an animal, and the act of eating. All these rules and rites sanctify the act of incorporating another animal into our own life and body. These laws are uniquely a part of the covenant of the Jewish people, but they are hinted at in the respect for the animal's life and soul expressed in the Noah story.

Just as rules about how we kill and prepare meat distinguish human beings from other animals, rules about the way people harvest plants, which separate farming from foraging, are also a "civilizing" force found in most cultures. In Judaism, laws about pe'ah (not harvesting the field corners), leket (leaving the gleanings), and kilayim (not interspersing species in a certain kinds of fields), not only underline our humanity; they also add a dimension of holiness and restraint to the act of taking from the earth.

All of these ritual laws, even those that begin in some sense as universal principles, create both a separation between humanity and other species, and between Jewish culture and other cultures. Along with this comes a sense felt by many Jews that Jewish culture is somehow more civilized. That sense of election, so to speak, is a strictly anthropological dimension, without any direct ecological benefit. But the other anthropological meanings discussed above, to the extent that they create a heightened sensitivity to the lives and species that we use and eat, as well as an awareness of death and life itself, are universal in scope and have a clear ecological benefit.

Returning to the main point: every religion arises in or is shaped by a place and teaches how to live in that place. Though every ritual has many levels interpretation, e.g. historical, theological and personal, the ecological meaning may be the soil in which all else grows. The depth of this meaning is not in generalities, but in the details.

In the case of kashrut, for example, the rule about not eating blood makes it almost impossible to eat hunted game. In an ecosystem where humans depended on large herds of wild animals like buffalo, as we find in the North American plains, this rule would be almost impossible to follow. But in an ecosystem where wild herds and habitats are less productive, a hunting culture is unsustainable. A culture where humans can carefully control the size of domesticated herds to fit the limits of the ecosystem and the needs of the population is what's called for. That was the ecosystem which shaped the religion of our ancestors.

This brings us to that most puzzling of categorical rules: which animals we can and cannot eat. Almost everyone knows the rule: mammals that chew their cud and have split hooves are kosher; all other land animals are not. (Lev. 11 and Deut. 14) What do these two characteristics of hoof and mouth mean? Anthropologically, there are many interpretations, some of which can be found in Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger. But ecologically, there is a specific meaning, which goes far beyond any hygienic or other rationalistic or symbolic interpretation.

That meaning practically speaking is straightforward: any animal that chews its cud can eat grasses and plants that are inedible to human beings, and any animal that has split hooves can walk (and graze) on land that is too rocky to farm with a plow. These characteristics together mean one very clear thing: the only land animals that we can eat according to the laws of kashrut are animals that do not compete with human beings for food.

The rules we still follow in Judaism would in their original context in the ancient Mideast have allowed a civilization to thrive, without destroying the ecosystem it depended upon. In an ecosystem which is in some ways marginal, that is, an ecosystem which depends on intensive human input (agriculture and herding), as well as upon intensive "divine" input (i.e., rain, as it was understood by our ancestors), there was no room for devoting good farming land to livestock.

Embedded in this wisdom about locale is another truth: any culture which allows domesticated herds to compete with humans for food also pits farmers against herders. More importantly, it pits the poor who have no land against owners who control both land and herds.
We can easily see the dynamics of this problem in the modern world, where rising world food prices endanger the poor in many countries. Those prices are driven up in part by the industrial practice of feeding grain to cattle, instead of giving them their natural diet of diverse grasses and other pasture plants, and they are also driven up more recently by the use of grain to make ethanol fuel. Instead of competition between herders and farmers, we have competition between feeding our SUV's and cattle, and feeding other people.

Ecologically, the sacrificial system also had a very specific lesson: the life and soul of the animal, found in the blood, remained holy, even after the animal was slaughtered, and the only suitable use for this lifeblood was as an offering to God.

The kind of industrial meat-production we see in our time would have been impossible, because it would fly in the face of every ecological, humane, and health consideration that underlies kashrut. The sacrificial system also fits into a broader pattern of rituals and rules related to animals and to the land, a pattern that gives us a unique model for how to create a sustainable civilization.

My hypothesis for why animals must have cloven hoofs and chew their cud is just that: a hypothesis. It fits into a broader understanding of how the Jewish relationship to food is structured by the Torah, with its emphasis on equity and the sanctity of both human life and all life. If this theory could be proven wrong, kashrut would still have its other meanings. But in a time when all of the world's religions need to help us steer towards sustainability, it is worth so much to know that Judaism, from its earliest time and earliest stories, has an ecological underpinning that we can all listen to and search for.

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