Locusts are nothing more than especially gregarious grasshoppers. When hordes of the generally solitary insect come together because of, for example, a nearby drought, a remarkable thing starts to happen: the grasshoppers’ appearances darken, their appetites grow and they begin to breed incessantly. This sudden mutually reinforcing group disposition morphs a pleasant, chirping bug into a voracious, pestilential plague.
Jews are familiar with the effects of group mentality. We appreciate that shared group consciousness creates community. We recognize that aligned values and behaviors – whether we are aware of them or not – enable the tribalism (although we don’t call it that today) that has supported our people from biblical times. Historically, minhag hamakom, the local practice, was often more important than the inherited law.
As Jews, we also appreciate the dangers of groupthink. Whether in outbursts of racist hooliganism at soccer matches or the societal transformation of 1930s Germany, we understand that people will behave and believe in group settings in ways that they never would as individuals away from others.
Group behavior also induces complacency. If a society has a laissez-faire approach to the poor, injustice swarms as well. Personal levels of consumption and environmental impact seep from one person to the next, becoming acceptable, if not desirable, to the whole.
While the locust mentality is at times prized in Judaism, as individuals, we are also meant to fight the swarming urge, emulating Abraham’s iconoclasm or Abraham Joshua Heschel’s audacity.
Returning to locusts, according to the midrash, when the eighth plague descended upon Egypt, utterly destroying all vegetation, the locals collected and pickled the insects as a food source.
Grasshoppers, indeed all insects, are not only a food of last resort — 80% of the world’s population eats insects. While most of the Jewish world refrains today, many varieties of grasshoppers are kosher according to the Torah (although there are halakhic obstacles to their consumption for most Jews with Yemenites as an exception).
Western civilization nauseates at the idea of insects as food – properly called entomophagy – because of mutually reinforcing group thinking. Our reasons for restraint are not rational. We gladly eat bee vomit (honey), we pay top dollar for baby cow thymus (sweetbreads), and not long ago the idea of raw fish (sushi) for dinner would have been revolting.
In fact, insects are already becoming more common on the Western plate. As Dana Goodyear points out in The New Yorker, insects have migrated from “Fear Factor” to “Top Chef Masters”. Indeed, during the 2013 locust breakout in southern Israel, these pests experienced a surge in gastronomic popularity and last year the United Nations released a fascinating report on the future prospects of entomophagy.
Insects may indeed be the future of protein – and for good reason. Pound for pound, insects have as much protein as beef and they are mineral rich. Their environmental footprint, especially concerning methane and other greenhouse gasses, is negligible compared to cattle and because of our genetic distance from them, insects are less likely to pass along certain diseases. Significantly, it takes a lot less feed to fatten bugs than animals.
For kosher keeping Jews, grasshoppers have the advantage of being pareve and ritual slaughter is not required, eliminating nagging ethical questions about shechita, especially given the likely lower consciousness of the bug world. While raising livestock for slaughter in feedlot conditions is rife with animal welfare concerns, insects generally prefer crowded environments (and that only matters if they’re farmed and not caught in the wild).
Marketing will need to be addressed for entomophagy to catch on in new communities. White meat and dark meat don’t easily lead to an embrace of green meat. Bug burgers and hopper dogs are much more likely to succeed than eating grasshoppers on a skewer. I remain hopeful for the future of edible insects as a growing part of the western (if not Jewish) diet.
Ultimately, about this issue and others, responsible individuals must ask themselves to what extent are they are willing to buck a trend and act against group norms. What creature comforts, so enshrined in our collective consciousness as normal or even internalized as inalienable rights, would we change to allow for a more prosperous world? How much are we willing to be different than the Goldbergs next door?