A major brouhaha is emerging among kosher-observant Jews: will it be permissible to eat lab-sourced “meat”? This is no narrow question but rather one with huge implications for the future of Judaism specifically, and its impact on the world in general.
There are two types of “impossible meat”: 1- plant-based; 2- sourced from meat stem cells. Both have one similar, potential issue whereas the second has an additional unique problem. The common issue is “mar’it ayin” – it looks or tastes like something unkosher (and thus could confuse another Jew who wouldn’t understand the circumstance or real nature of the food). For example, if food scientists develop a lab-grown product that is indistinguishable in taste from pork, should it be permissible? One’s instinctive response is to say “no,” but the history of culinary halakhah shows that initial negative reactions can be overcome over time. For instance, when Rich’s non-dairy creamer came out, the initial reaction was “no” as it looked just like milk, usually served with coffee at the end of a meat meal. The solution? To serve it in its original cardboard container; guests unfamiliar with it would ask what that was. The host(ess) would explain, let the guests read the non-dairy ingredients, and within a relatively short time it became standard fare in Orthodox homes.
So too halakhic decisions. A week ago, the greatest “posek” (halakhic decisor) of our era passed away: Rabbi Moshe Tendler z”l, who also had a PhD in Microbiology from Columbia University. Many years ago, he was asked whether swordfish were kosher, as traditional practice said “no” but there were several poskim several centuries ago who wrote that swordfish were kosher. Rabbi Tendler did what every good scientist would do: looked at adult swordfish under a microscope – and found that they did not have scales (one of the two signs needed for fish to be kosher), so he ruled that they were unkosher. However, what he did not know was that swordfish are “born” with scales and lose them as adolescents. The Talmud states that if a fish had scales at any time in their life cycle, then they are kosher. So what’s the practice today? Depends on who you ask, or how you want to follow the halakha: based on the straightforward rules of the game (swordfish are kosher), or traditional social practice (unkosher).
All of this is to say that when it comes to halakhic questions regarding food, there is a lot of leeway – as the Talmud itself showed in its rabbinical debates regarding whether fish and chickens are to be considered meat. The verdict – based mainly on sociological/psychological considerations – was (and continues to be) that land-based chickens are very similar to animals, so they are considered “meat”; fish are viewed as different from animals, so they are pareve (but generally not eaten on the same plate with meat).
Which brings us to “impossible meat.” I am not a rabbinical posek, so I won’t even try to offer any “decision” – just offer several considerations. First, given the growing antipathy to killing animals, we might easily reach a time when live animal meat is outlawed – just as several European countries have already prohibited kosher slaughter as being too cruel to the animals. (True, but ironic given that an important Jewish value is avoidance of unnecessary pain to animals.) Such a general prohibition will be made much easier once production of lab-grown meat reaches industrial scale. Thus, do rabbis want to declare a decisive prohibition that could potentially paint Jews into a very uncomfortable corner tomorrow?
Second, animal husbandry – especially ruminants such as cows – is devastating to the environment, another central concern of 21st century life. These animals’ flatulence constitutes a significant part of global heating, given that it consists mostly of methane that is twenty times as “warming” as carbon dioxide! And we are not talking only about the proportionally miniscule number of Jews in the world; many Moslems (who adhere to Halal) take their cue from kosher foods. Another reason that future animal meat might be prohibited.
Third, Judaism has another “principle”: an edict that the public finds it too hard to abide by is rendered ipso facto nugatory. If animal meat is abolished, any rabbinical prohibition might well be ignored (especially if it is based on sociological considerations and not on clear, halakhic rules from yesteryear) – not something that will bring honor to the halakhic profession!
Fourth, the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin, 49b) explicitly states that God told Adam to eat only plant and vegetable food and not animals – and many subsequent commentators agreed for reasons of human self-control and also avoiding pain to animals. In short, it’s not as if Judaism commands eating animal meat; quite the opposite, the general ethical thrust is to abstain from meat.
To be sure, none of this involves the specific chemical and biological elements of “impossible meat” and their effect on any halakhic decision e.g., what if the “meat” is developed from man-made synthetic cells? what if the stem cell comes from a non-kosher animal? Etc. But these too can be interpreted with different halakhic approaches: where there’s a will, there’s a way.
In the final analysis, the rabbis will most probably disagree, and each observant Jew will be left with a voluntary decision based on multiple considerations – some as noted above and others still to come. With the halakha, there is nothing “impossible” – not even ersatz pork or shellfish.
P.S. Just to show how “flexible” (or creative) the halakha can be when it comes to questions of food, here’s a “stumper” of a question that even many rabbis can’t answer correctly (the answer appears directly below): How can one produce and eat a completely kosher, real cheeseburger i.e., with real animal meat and real milk-based cheese?
Answer: According to the Talmud (Khulin 113b), milk removed from the udder of a ritually slaughtered cow is considered to be “meaty”! It thus can be used to make cheese that is considered “meat.” Slop that cheese on a hamburger patty and presto: a completely kosher cheeseburger! Here’s the Talmudic source:
מסכת חולין (קיג:) – “בחלב אמו ולא בחלב שחוטה”: המבשל בשר… בחלב הנמצא בבהמה שמתה או שנשחטה… פטור, ואין לוקין על אכילתו משום בשר בחלב