More meat to chew on — then again, maybe not

My last column discussed some halachic issues regarding laboratory-created meat.

One question that I did not address there is why we might bother with such meat in the first place. There is livestock aplenty from which to get meat to eat. Jewish law, however, would seem to favor lab-created meat — especially whether we should be eating meat from live animals at all. More about that below.

First, however, let us consider that category of Jewish law known as bal tashchit, do not destroy. As noted here so often, this category of law is based on Deuteronomy 20:19-20, and forbids indiscriminately destroying anything of value to anyone or anything. Judaism’s environmental protection laws derive from this. For example, because of bal tashchit, it is prohibited to burn fossil or even replenishable fuel too quickly. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat 67b.)

Global warming is a concern of bal tashchit. In October 2018, a United Nations report, issued by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, argued that the fewer food animals there are in the world, the better it will be for the environment. Livestock emit methane, which is considered to be among the most potent greenhouse gases. The IPCC study found that livestock methane emissions have been climbing steadily in the last few years. If lab meat can obviate the need for ever-increasing herds of livestock, that would satisfy bal tashchit.

Another important area of law to consider falls under the rubric “You shall take exceeding care for yourselves.” Although it is derived from Deuteronomy 4:15, which has nothing to do with health, it is the basis for Jewish law promoting a healthy lifestyle.

The late 19th century commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch put it this way in his voluminous work, Horeb: “You may not weaken your health in any way or even shorten your life…. Therefore, avoid anything that could possibly injure your health.” (See Chapter 62, Verse 428.)

Several Torah laws illustrate the point, but two in particular do so for our purposes. Deuteronomy 21:20 prohibits overeating and overdrinking. Deuteronomy 14:3 prohibits ingesting any harmful substance. It follows from these two laws that if there are substances in food that may be harmful (rather than are outright harmful, which are forbidden from the start), we must at least limit our consumption of those substances. A 2017 study by the National Cancer Institute and published in the British Medical Journal found that eating a lot of red meat increases by as much as 26 percent a person’s chances of contracting a number of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, infections, kidney disease, liver disease, and lung disease.

Obviously, if lab meat can produce “fatty meat” that also is healthier meat (that is the plan), “take exceeding care for yourselves” also is satisfied.

An aside: While meat-eating is allowed, the emphasis clearly is on eating fresh fruits and vegetables (see, for example, BT Shabbat 68a). That is why the Talmud tells us, “It is forbidden to live in a city that does not have a vegetable garden.” (See JT Kiddushin 4:12, 66d.)

Actually, to say “meat-eating is allowed” is overstating the Torah’s view. Despite the Sages of the Talmud promoting “meat and fish” (basar v’dagim) as required staples of ritual meals, “Jewish tradition does not command carnivorous behavior…,” according to the contemporary halachist Rabbi J. David Bleich, who is no advocate of vegetarianism because eating meat on sacred days, at least, “result[s] in feelings of gladness and joy.” (See his article, “Survey of Recent Halakhic Periodical Literature: Vegetarianism and Judaism,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, vol. 23, no. 1, 1987, pages 82–90.) Meat-eating was not commanded by God. It is a concession God made when He realized both humans and animals would eat meat no matter what He said.

In the beginning, God clearly intended all creatures to be vegetarians (see Genesis 1:29-30). “Ideally,” wrote the late Rabbi Pinchas Peli, “according to the Torah, humans would confine their eating to fruits and vegetables, and not kill for food.” (See his Torah Today, page 118.)

In commenting on Genesis 1:29-30, the mid-20th century rabbi and scholar Umberto Cassuto put it this way: “We may not…slay [animals] in order to eat their flesh; [our] proper diet shall be vegetable food…. Not only man but even the animals were expected to show reverence for the principle of life.”

The concession came after the rampant bloodlust that led to the Great Flood. As Genesis 9:1-6 states, “Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.” Cassuto, for one, maintained that the prohibition regarding eating meat was only “temporarily suspended” after the Flood, but was “never annulled.” In the Messianic Age, he wrote, “the prohibition [will] come into force once more.” (See his “A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part One, pages 58 and 59.)

Moses himself hints at this being a concession to the lustful urge for meat in Deuteronomy 12:20, when he amends an earlier law by expanding the permission to eat meat because “you have the urge to” do so. That phrase is gratuitous, unless meat-eating was not the Torah’s ideal (in which case, it makes no sense).

Why was meat-eating originally proscribed entirely, and why does the Torah eventually place limits on the meat-eating it allows? It is directly related to the fact that to eat meat means an animal must die. The Torah is very sensitive to animal suffering of any kind, much less to killing an animal for any reason, including eating.

It also clearly wants us to be cognizant of the fact that all creatures have feelings. “Judaism regards animals as sentient beings. They may not think or speak, but they do feel,” wrote Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in a Torah commentary to the Torah portion Kit Tetzei in 2008. “They are capable of distress. There is such a thing as cruelty to animals , and as far as possible it should be avoided.” (See, for example, the laws in Deuteronomy 22:6-7 and 10, and Deuteronomy 25:4.)

So serious is the Torah about this, it even commands us to respect an animal’s need for rest (the Shabbat commandment, among others makes this clear; see Exodus 20:9 in this week’s Torah reading).

This sensitivity is subsumed in the category of law known as tsar baalei chayim, giving pain to living creatures. It follows, then, that lab meat, which inflicts no pain on animals and takes no animal’s life, is not only to be preferred over “real meat,” but is something we should encourage and support.

The current government shutdown prompts me to digress from meat-eating and end by citing three laws from Leviticus 19:11-14: “[Y]ou shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another…. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning…. You shall not … place a stumbling block before the blind [by making false and misleading claims]. You shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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