Last week, the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark killed a healthy two year-old giraffe named Marius. Zoo staff dissected Marius’s body in front of visitors, calling it “an educational program.” They stored Marius’s meat to be fed to large carnivorous mammals.
Without a context, this story is horrifying. In fact, zoo staff members have received death threats.
But there is a context, important in the world of zoos. Zookeepers responsibly try to prevent overpopulating a zoo or inbreeding a small herd. In the U.S., zoos rely on contraceptives, rarely killing healthy animals. European zoos, however, criticize American practice as unnatural and unhealthy in the long term. Thus, in Europe, the average professionally run zoo kills five large mammals per year.
From a Jewish perspective, should this context quell your horror? Not necessarily.
Giraffes, you may be surprised to learn, are kosher animals. Giraffes meet the Torah’s criteria for kosher mammals: they have split hooves and chew their cud. Many scholars say they are listed explicitly in Deuteronomy (14:5) by the Hebrew name zemer. To be fit for eating, a kosher animal must be killed with a cut to the neck; the giraffe’s long neck makes it very easy.
However, it’s just not socially acceptable in Jewish circles to eat this beautiful, exotic animal. When the ancient Israelites built their mishkan (portable desert sanctuary), they covered it with skins of an animal called in Hebrew the tachash. The exact meaning of this rare Hebrew word has confused scholars. Some say it is a mythical animal; others say it is a dugong from the Red Sea; still others say it is an African giraffe. The Talmud describes the tachash as a large, kosher, non-domesticated animal, with beautiful skin and a horn on its head.
Kosher animals ought to be treated with great respect—though often, in our world of factory farms, they are not. Our Torah’s account of the Exodus includes explicit mention of the sheep and cows who walked to freedom. In the book of Jonah, God asks the prophet, “Shouldn’t I care about a city with 120,000 people, and also many cattle?” Anthropologist Mary Douglas points out that only kosher animals were allowed to enter the Temple precincts; thus, they were in some sense part of a covenant of holiness. From an anthropological perspective, one particular kosher animal—the sheep—seems to emerge as Judaism’s totem animal. Our ancestors were shepherds; we still blow the shofar, a ram’s horn, to announce the New Year; observant Jews wear a talit and with tzitzit—woolen fringes.
Contrary to these values, people often treat food animals horribly. With a little interspecies imagination, an industrial farm looks like an overcrowded detention camp. You know the shocked question, “How could people treat one another like this???” Some animal activists answer, “We practiced on animals, and transferred the skills.”
Perhaps you remember the animated DreamWorks movie Chicken Run. Spoiler alert: a group of chickens escapes from a factory farm. The farm looks very much like your worst nightmare of a secret maximum-security military prison. If you have not seen the movie, do try to watch it. It’s actually funny and inspirational, not gruesome at all—but it does make you think twice about human-animal relations.
So, yes, be horrified. Be very horrified.
But do not lose hope. Instead, take action. Keep in mind a famous principle from the Talmud: “Whoever saves a single [human] life, it is as if they have saved a whole world.” When you save a life, you give life to a person’s future generations. You make it possible for the living person to help others. One life is connected to other lives in a great network, and one saved life means more than you can imagine.
Keep using interspecies imagination: Whoever saves one animal life, it is as if they have saved an entire world. When you adopt an animal from a shelter, choose vegetarian for a single meal, or sign a petition, you are a node in a network that changes the world. You help save one animal life; you demonstrate a more respectful way of living with other species; you undercut lessons of dehumanization; you influence human behaviour. Torah teaches that animals and humans are intertwined, practically and psychologically. Think about how you can make use of that teaching.
Traditional Jewish memorial prayers say: in honor of the one I remember today, I pledge tzedakah—righteous deeds and charitable donations. If you are one of Marius’ many mourners, what action will you take?
Today’s lunch included stir-fryed Purslane. Until two weeks ago, I’d never heard of it or, to my knowledge, tasted it before. It is one of more unusual items available from the CSA (community supported agriculture) that we signed up for this Summer. I love our CSA. Unlike many programs, which provide you with a box of pre-selected items, our local farm allows you to choose your own, based on a point system, so that you can create your own weekly combinations.
I’m blessed to be living in a part of Central MA where there is an abundance of local farms. Many offer CSAs, and there are also many local farmers’ markets. Our town has a weekly market where the offerings of several local farms can be found, including meat and eggs, local wines, cheeses, and a local, small scale bakery. Farmers’ markets may not be the cheapest way to shop, but a season’s worth of fruit and vegetables from a CSA is quite economic. Both offer an opportunity to bring a different kind of mindfulness to the buying and eating of food.
Two years ago, inspired by the collection of essays edited by Rabbi Mary Zamore, ‘The Sacred Table‘, my partner and I began to have a different kind of conversation about the food we ate, and particularly about Kashrut. I’ve been talking about the concept of ‘Eco-Kashrut’ for a very long time. I taught about it when I was a Hebrew school teacher in London back in 1990, having read Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s early writings on the topic. Yet, while I had somewhat inconsistently tried to bring environmental awareness to my food shopping choices, I hadn’t really developed personal practices that I was happy with. I still haven’t – it is a work in progress.
After reading Zamore’s book and, more recently, ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma‘, I was propelled to make some different choices. I grew up in a home where we kept kosher and, until very recently, have continued to keep a fairly traditional form of kashrut in the house. Certainly, within the Reform movement, I would be in a minority in maintaining any observance of traditional kashrut laws – early Reformers often dismissed them as a ritualistic practice that had no truly ethical or rational basis, and served to separate us from the non-Jewish host population. While I’ve not necessarily found the Reform argument persuasive (it would have been more persuasive if, simultaneously, the movement had offered up a thoughtful, ethically-based alternative), the contribution of The Sacred Table, a publication of the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis – the Reform rabbis), provides that very alternative.
The more that I have studied and learned, the more that I am troubled by the Kashrut industry. There are those who are doing good work to try and provide a path for observant Jews that is both traditionally kosher and ethically viable, with the Conservative movement leading the charge on providing a ‘hechsher’ (a stamp indicating kosher approval by an authorized team of rabbis) for foods that meet both kosher and ethical standards. But there is a long way to go before such an approach gains much traction among the majority of the kashrut-observant.
And so, for the first time this past year, I have started to move away from some of the kosher observances in our own home toward choices that, upon deeper consideration, offer something that feels ethically and environmentally grounded. We’ve started with the CSA and an attempt to buy more from local sources more of the time. We’ve cut down on meat consumption considerably, and will buy non-kosher meat too. Last Thanksgiving, our local, free range turkey was sourced from a small scale farm less than 50 miles from our home. And we try to buy fish that is from the ocean and of a kind that is not currently at risk but sourced sustainably. Its an imperfect system – nothing quite covers all of the bases, and we’re not yet consistent in our choices. But as I head back to the CSA tomorrow to try something new that, perhaps, I’ve never tasted or cooked before, I believe that I’m making progress, and I’m thankful to others who have been working hard to bring conversations about food, ethics, and the environment into the Jewish arena.
This week we heard news from Germany that a regional court ruled that circumcision amounts to bodily harm, even if parents agree to it. There is, as of yet, no law to make the performance of the ritual illegal, but the ruling has nevertheless caused concern. The Conference of European Rabbis are gathering in an emergency meeting to consider a response.
There is news out of Europe on a fairly regular basis that challenges the legitimacy and ethic of one of two ritual practices that impacts both the Jewish and Muslim communities – circumcision, and the practice of shechitah (ritual slaughter) as part of the process of making animals kosher to eat. When this news reaches US shores, we sometimes jump to the conclusion that there is more than a hint of antisemitism (or, increasingly, Islamophobia) behind these challenges. And there is certainly something to that. But it is also the case that these are conversations that take place within the Jewish community too. As a congregational Rabbi, often engaging with and counseling new parents on the question of circumcision, I know that there is much more involved in this conversation, and desire to have it respectfully and fully. In truth, I have a position and I will share it, and it is in favor of traditional Jewish circumcision. But, as a Reform Rabbi, while I seek to educate about this traditional practice and encourage it, I hold to the principle of ‘informed choice’ which is a hallmark of the Reform movement. Ultimately, I will engage parents and their child, performing rituals of welcome into Jewish community and covenant, both in the traditional context of brit milah (the Jewish ritual of circumcision), or as a baby naming ceremony held after a baby is circumcised in a hospital or, in rare cases, where parents are strongly opposed to circumcision at all.
Just this past weekend, at the end of the first week in my new congregation, I co-officiated with a Mohel (trained and qualified to carry out the circumcision) at a traditional brit milah. The context was one with a Jewish and non-Jewish parent, committed to involvement in Jewish community life. For the non-Jewish relatives, this was a new experience, and certainly one that caused anxiety. The mohel, with over 26 years experience, did an expert job of explaining what was happening, how babies respond to medical procedures, and contextualizing the ritual in its historic and halachic (Jewish legal) framework. For sure, everyone was relieved when the act was done, as is only natural; the baby’s only griping was prior to any procedure, in protest to having his legs held still by his grandfather, but the explanations and additional blessings also provided a great deal of comfort.
As the Mohel explained, there are good, medical reasons for waiting until the eighth day for a circumcision; something that our ancestors thousands of years ago may have learned by observation – for the little amount of bleeding that takes place, by the eighth day the natural process of blood clotting has fully developed in an infant. For those who choose to have a circumcision in a hospital, it often takes place before mother and child go home, much sooner. And it is done behind closed doors, with a doctor and nurse. Having had a congregant in my last congregation who was a specialist in this area invite me one day to watch him perform such a circumcision (for a non-Jewish infant) in the hospital, I know that great expertise is brought in both cases. But a mohel who has performed numerous circumcisions in the presence of an infant’s most intimate family certainly brings nothing less than great care and gentleness to every moment of the ritual.
For those who choose not to circumcise their son at all, wanting the child to decide for themselves when they are old enough to make an informed decision, I cannot authentically provide an argument that will conclusively deny their concerns of inflicting pain or carrying out a medically ‘unnecessary’ procedure on their child. I disagree with them – I have not witnessed an infant expressing more than very brief discomfort at a circumcision (discomfort that can be due to having their legs held still, and not necessarily from the procedure itself – most Reform-trained mohels use some kind of numbing agent prior to the procedure) – and I believe there is medical evidence to indicate greater health in this area later in life if circumcised. I also know that is a much more complex procedure later in life, with a much, much longer healing period following. But, ultimately, this is a question of belief for some parents. Jewish faith, and a heritage that commands this act of us, is also, ultimately, a belief.
I hope that the German, secular, courts, do not take further action to intervene and interfere on this matter. But I remain open to having honest and compassionate conversations about circumcision.