Upon approaching the Promised Land as we read in this week’s portion of Re’eh, Moses envisions ordinary meat consumption in the land apart from the volitional sacrificial institution that availed it to the participants, and the occasional game meat that one availed to himself. Yet, he associates such secular eating with ‘’a desire’’ or ‘’craving’’, rather than with an essential or normative human need. In fact, Moses wants his people to eat farmstead meat as rare as an average Israelite hunter would indulge in eating game meat: ‘’…and you may eat in your cities according to your heart’s entire desire, just as the gazelle and the deer are eaten, so too may you eat it’’ (Deut. 12:20-22). Even as the Israelite was permitted to burn the midnight oil and hunt on occasion “deer, gazelle, and roebuck, wild-goat, ibex, antelope, and mountain sheep” (Deuteronomy 14:5), the Torah wants him to match the rate of his livestock meat eating with the frequency that he ate such game.
A traditional commentary – Baal Hatoorim – ignores the common rules of Torah punctuation and reads the relevant (Hebrew) text as a call to distance oneself from eating meat: “… when your appetite craves eating meat, whenever your appetite’s craving may be, you shall eat meat, let it be far away from you…” Although the text and context mean that when the site of God’s sanctuary is far away from one’s domicile, (– what made meat offerings a logistical challenge, if not a hurdle –), the commentator coerces the text so it would ascribe the distance not to such a far-off location for sacrifices, but to the distance that one should keep from eating meat, (not unlike the command to keep far “from a false matter”).
That strong desire for meat has its origin “in the moral blemish which is in man’s soul” writes Rabbi Avraham-Yitzhak Kook. When the Torah permits, however, meat eating (though driven by lust) it is evident that such eating is only retroactively acquiesced in. And that it is seen as a luxurious activity that ideally should be avoided. Meat was not a usual faire or commonly anticipated as a daily meal, and it took a special event to offer and eat it. Otherwise, meat was mainly available in a religious center, or for celebrating a festival (D 12-7, 1S 9-12, Prov. 7:14), or for marking the expiration of an oath.
More hurdles on the path to meat
Among its various restrictions on meat eating, the Torah also forbids the eating of “torn animal” (if retrieved from a predator). Nevertheless, the Torah does not caution or forewarn of any harsh divine retributions against those who would eat such proscribed meat, nor does it reward those who would avoid eating it. Because meat was not a common or frequent dish, eating meat retrieved from a livestock animal that was fatally mauled or mangled by a predator allowed shepherds the opportunity to partake of such meat whenever that was available. At the same time violating the Torah prohibition against eating from a “torn animal” required the eater to merely launder his garments and bathe in water (Ex. 22:30, Lev. 17:15, 22:8). Ezekiel, a prophet-priest, alludes to the prevalence of eating meat that “was torn by animals” among his folks, though he exculpates himself from so doing, at least since his “youth”. By contrast, those eating any animal blood incur God’s wrath, (or His “concentrated attention”), so that “I will turn away from all My other pursuits in order to punish him” (Rashi’s take); refraining from eating bloody meat also yields a reward “so that it will go well with you and with your sons”.
Rabbi Yehudah, a preeminent Talmudic figure went even farther by forbidding anyone except Torah scholars from eating either beef or chicken (P’sachim mem-mem). Moreover says the Talmud, one may eat meat upon craving it, yet only meat that comes from his own livestock (rather than purchasing it in the market); yet, he is still forbidden to slaughter his entire flock or herd for food.
All in all, once we get into the fine print of the Torah, beyond its sanctioning of eating meat and its attendant restrictive protocol (as in this weekly portion), it is quite possible to notice the overarching sense that slaughtering animals for food is flawed as a value though acquiesced to in practice.