The modern consciousness has little room for cattle. We still love to eat them, but these days our meat is chopped up into lots of pieces, slung on hooks, sent down chutes, and placed in neat little packages. By the time we buy these packages and throw them onto the grill it’s easy to forget that they used to be part of an animal.
Yet, how would an ancient Israelite have BBQ’d?
The Book of Bereshit charges the human race with “working and protecting” the earth. Bereshit teaches that before Noah human beings were vegetarian, suggesting that this is in some ways an idyllic state. Animals, and even the inanimate objects of nature, are cherished in Jewish culture as creations of the Life of the Worlds. It is nothing less than a tragic waste, and a prohibition in Jewish law, to destroy animal life needlessly or use earthly resources recklessly.
Yet at the same time the consumption of meat, along with wine, is a deeply entrenched symbol of Jewish life, representing the joy we feel on holy days with family and friends. In addition, animal sacrifices were a major aspect of ritual life in the Temple in Jerusalem.
So how does animal sacrifice and meat-centric holy days make sense in light of the Torah’s vegetarian ideal and its respect for animal life?
Sacrifice represents an understanding that the greatest purpose non-human animals can serve is to provide sustenance, survival, and meaning to human beings.
There are many unique, wonderful, and beautiful creatures on earth. Yet, none can work to better the world–or to destroy it–like the human being. A cow will happily live out its life chewing grass, digesting it, pooping it out, and birthing or fathering calves. Human beings can aspire to so much more.
Animals are therefore enormously uplifted when used for a righteous human purpose, be it human survival or human moral and spiritual improvement. Jewish sacrificial rituals achieve this upliftment.
Many of theses rituals may seem strange and primitive to the modern person; an animal is slaughtered, its body is roasted on an open fire, and its blood is sprinkled on the altar. Yet if we think about it, sacrifice is about the most respectful, humane, and beautiful way to kill and eat an animal. It embodies a sensitivity for the solemn gravity of animal slaughter, expressed in meticulous ritual.
This solemn respect is a sharp contrast to modern slaughterhouses, which are brutally efficient places. In the best of them cows are stunned–sometimes still capable of feeling pain–and then shot in the skull with a pneumatic pistol rod. In the worst of them “animals are routinely skinned while apparently alive, and still blinking, kicking, and shrieking.”
In such places, the death of the animal is given little weight. A perfectly shaped metal rod punctures the skull and the brain, the body is hung on a hook, and blood unceremoniously flows into a drain in the floor. There is no pause for reflection upon killing another being. There is no acknowledgement of the forces that have given the human so much dominance over the cow. There is no special recognition for the miraculous body fluids that give us life.
Animal sacrifice provides meaning and a celebration of life in the face of death. It expresses the solemnity of animal death yet it also represents the death of the human being; offering livestock for the altar is an act of self-sacrifice because food is life-sustaining. When an Israelite gave his food away to the priest or shared it with all of his friends and family, he was in a real sense sharing his life-force.
So instead of mindlessly grabbing a burger off the grill, an ancient Israelite biting into a nice steak hot off the altar might have been filled with a powerful sense that life is a gift rather than a right. He might have had a clear-eyed recognition that this gift of life is delicate and precious, that the Creator offers life in each and every moment so that humans can live, improve the world for all creations, and give of themselves to others.