One of the most dramatic and meaningful stories in the Bible is read this week in synagogues around the world.
It is a food-related story and it merits our attention, yet it is seldom discussed. Or depicted in movies.
The story, found in Numbers 11, describes part of the Israelites’ journey in the desert, before their thunderous encounter with God at Mount Sinai.
As you likely know, the Torah tells us that God sustained the Israelites on a diet of manna. And manna was described as similar to coriander seed. A vegan dish, to be sure.
It probably won’t shock you to learn that some of the Israelites complained about the fare and demanded meat, never mind that the manna was filling and healthy.
So who were these meat-lovers? The Torah described them, in Hebrew, as ha’asafsoof. The Jewish Publication Society translates that as “the riffraff.” Not exactly a neutral description. Just another case of the Torah expressing disdain for meat-eating.
Moses, who consulted public-opinion polls long before there was Gallup, heard the riffraff and relayed their concerns to God.
If The Beet-Eating Heeb can be so bold as to paraphrase God Himself, His response was something like this:
They want meat, do they? I’ll give them some meat, alright … until it’s coming out of their nostrils.
Actually, that’s pretty close to a direct translation.
God then called forth a mighty wind that deposited quails – yes, quails – throughout the Israelites’ camp.
Fire up the barbecue!
In normal circumstances, the fat and cholesterol might have killed the riffraff, but not for a few years. God decided to cut to the chase. The Torah says:
“The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when the anger of the Lord blazed forth against the people and the Lord struck the people with a very severe plague. That place was named Kibroth-hattaavah.
Kibroth-hattaavah? That translates to, “the graves of craving.”
Did The Beet-Eating Heeb say something about the Torah expressing disdain for meat-eating?
Nothing subtle here. First, God tells us explicitly, in Genesis 1:29, that we are to eat plants and only plants. Then, as if He hadn’t made His point perfectly clear, meat-eaters are described as “riffraff” who are struck down by a plague and buried in the “graves of craving.”
Don’t get The Beet-Eating Heeb wrong. He would never refer to today’s meat-eaters as riffraff. That’s a little too harsh.
And BEH would be the first to acknowledge that there is another, albeit complementary, interpretation of this story. Some theologians say the Divine wrath was provoked simply because some Israelites were not content with God’s beneficence. They wanted more. That the “more” was “meat” is not the key to the story, per this interpretation.
However, viewed in the context of the entire Torah, the fact that meat was involved appears significant. Very significant.
Consider this: In Numbers 11:4, the Hebrew word used to describe the riffraff’s desire for meat is “ta’avah.” JPS translates that as “gluttonous craving.”
Now fast forward to Deuteronomy 12:20, when the Israelites are getting their final instructions before entering the Land of Israel. They are told that they can eat meat, if they have the urge to do so. Well, not urge, exactly. Here again, the desire for meat is described as “ta’aveh.” A gluttonous craving.
So what’s going on here? Is the Beet-Eating Heeb crazy, or does it seem that God would prefer that we not kill animals for food?
To put this in contemporary perspective, God has given us an Earth with an incredible bounty of fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains to sustain us. Yet we succumb to our “ta’avah” and kill billions of animals a year.
As we recall from the recently observed holiday of Shavuot, it’s worth noting that the Israelites were only deemed spiritually worthy of receiving the Torah after they had returned to a diet of manna, not meat.
Interesting story, eh?
How many vegans can you name who live in Southeastern Montana, where cattle outnumber people by a ratio of about 100-to-1? (Conservative estimate.)
Think that’s tough. Try this one:
How many religious studies professors can you name who research what our sacred texts say about the proper treatment of animals?
The Beet-Eating Heeb hates to show up his beloved readers, but he can name someone in both categories. It helps that it’s the same person.
Meet Lisa Kemmerer.
Tenure-track positions are hard to find in academia, which might explain why the professor who has written one of the most authoritative books on the intersection of animal welfare and religion is on the faculty of the Montana State University – Billings.
BEH, as one of the very few bloggers who writes about the theology of veganism, feels fortunate to have found Lisa.
Her book “Animals and World Religions” (Oxford University Press) is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the role that religion can play – make that, should play – in ending the oppression of animals.
Lisa and The Beet-Eating Heeb recently talked about her important work – and about what it’s like to be a vegan advocate in cattle country.
BEH: Lisa, what’s it like to be vegan in Billings, Montana?
Kemmerer: My social life is limited. It’s a ranching place, very conservative—not always comfortable.
I know there are other vegans out there, but they’re students, in a different space in life. They can’t provide a community for me. I don’t know any vegans in Billings that I have commonality with, and of course I simply don’t eat out.
BEH: Many of your students are cattle ranchers themselves. How do they respond when you tell them that the widespread suffering of farm animals is a violation of religious principles?
Kemmerer: I have lots of ranching students in my classes and they bristle at animal ethics. They especially bristle at hearing that what they’re doing is inconsistent with their own faith.
Why am I beating my head against a wall with a bunch of ranching students? I’m needed here. It’s not socially comfortable for me, but I think it’s necessary.
BEH: If the major religions emphasize the compassionate treatment of animals, how did we get into a situation where we’re slaughtering 9 billion farm animals in the U.S. alone?
Kemmerer: People can ruin any religion. There is no religion that teaches us that what is happening in animal agriculture is OK.
Humanity has a tendency toward ignorance of religions. We have a tendency toward selfishness. We tend to be arrogant. Between ignorance, selfishness and arrogance, we create a recipe for the dismissal of religious teachings.
In Genesis 1:29, after creating a vegan world, God said creation was “very good.” People can read these passages three times, but they aren’t hearing that the world was intended to be vegan. That’s where arrogance and selfishness come in.
One of my frustrations is that the religious community isn’t generally interested in these issues. It’s frustrating and sad because it’s so important—the suffering is so great.
BEH: The Beet-Eating Heeb knows a lot about the emphasis in Jewish texts on the compassionate treatment of animals, but what about Christianity?
Kemmerer: It is true that the Jewish tradition is rich with how to relate to nature and animals. Christians share these texts with the Jewish tradition. I wish they would pay more attention to this part of scripture. Too many Christians are ignorant of Jewish texts, but they are foundational to Christianity.
BEH: Was Jesus a vegetarian? There seems to be some debate about that.
Kemmerer: The Bible doesn’t tell us what Jesus ate. And what he ate doesn’t make much of a difference, no more than it makes a difference what Jesus was wearing on his feet.
The real question is: What would Jesus think of what we’re eating today? What would Jesus think of our slaughterhouses? No sincere Christian can say, “Those slaughterhouses are fine. Jesus would only worry about human needs and suffering.”
Jesus would not like what we’re eating today, based on the suffering of animals.
BEH: What about Islam?
Kemmerer: Though Judaism does, Christianity doesn’t have laws for the protection of animals, and Christians ignore the ones they’ve inherited from the Jewish tradition.
Islamic law is very strict with regard to animals. Muslims are supposed to satisfy the basic needs of domesticated animals, which goes right to the heart of factory farming. Animals are not supposed to be targeted in warfare; we have no right to cause animal suffering through human conflicts. These are wonderful teachings! Such direct laws are very important for the protection of animals.
Muslims tend to restrict their focus to laws governing the slaughter of animals, but this is not the only issue covered by Islamic law.
BEH: That’s a problem in Judaism, too. Sigh.
Now what about Hinduism? Many of the Hindus whom The Beet-Eating Heeb knows are vegetarian, although not vegan.
Kemmerer: Hinduism has the wonderful ideas of ahimsa (not to harm) and karma.
Hindus are ahead of most of the world’s people in terms of actually living up to some of their basic religious beliefs. But milk is a huge part of their diet, and in contemporary times milk is associated with tremendous suffering. That is something Hindus need to look in order to adhere to the central tenets of their religion.
BEH: One last question Lisa. Some people in the animal-rights and veg-advocacy movement blame religion for our society’s horrible treatment of animals. That’s the wrong place to put blame, if you ask The Beet-Eating Heeb. But if we’re ever going to have a more compassionate and merciful relationship with animals, can religion be part of the solution?
Kemmerer: Yes, religion is critical to bringing change for animals.
When I show people want’s happening on factory farms and point out how these methods are inconsistent with their most fundamental religious beliefs, they’re inclined to change — they feel compelled to change. But if you are talking to an atheist, you don’t know what their ethical code is, and they can simply say, “I don’t care.” Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus—they can’t say they don’t care. Religious teachings call us to care — require that we care.
If we’re going to talk about religion with others, we need to be informed so that we can be sensitive to the beliefs and practices of others. If we are educated, we will be more effective advocates for the animals. I would like to believe that “Animals and World Religions” can help us to be more effective in our advocacy, which is to say, I hope that this book will help bring change for animals.
The Beet-Eating Heeb might be inclined to say that bloggers are the most valuable members of the vegan-advocacy movement.
OK, so he is a little biased.
But he is willing to say that farm-animal sanctuaries rank right up there, especially after reading the “The Lucky Ones,” the poignantly titled 2012 autobiography of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary Co-Founder Jenny Brown.
Whether it’s out of ignorance or indifference, carnivores are blind to what – make that “who” – they are eating. But farm-animal sanctuaries yank the blinders right off.
At a typical such sanctuary, visitors see and feel for themselves that cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys have unique personalities, just like our dogs and cats. And these farm animals can be every bit as affectionate.
In addition, these sanctuaries vividly and intimately convey the same idea that the authors of the Jewish sacred texts sought to convey: That the gap between humans and animals is rather small.
The Beet-Eating Heeb would never say that humans and animals have equal standing, Jewishly speaking. And frankly, all but the most extreme animal-rights activists, when push comes to shove, value human life more than animal life, if ever so slightly. (If your house is on fire, you’re going to make sure your kids are safely outside before you go looking for your pets.)
But it’s also true that human beings have a unique and unfortunate tendency to exaggerate their superiority over other sentient beings. Indeed, meat-eating itself is based on the faulty premise that animals are vastly inferior and thus should be killed if we like the way they taste.
The wise authors of the Torah and other sacred texts recognized that egocentric human beings have a tendency to view themselves as the be-all and end-all. So these authors – who, if you’re Orthodox, would include God Himself – repeatedly told us that animals should be treated with compassion, and that animals have almost equal standing in the Divine hierarchy.
It’s a busy new year. Neither you nor The Beet-Eating Heeb has time right now to explore the entire theology of animals in the Jewish tradition.
So let’s just consider three of the many verses that define the proper human-animal relationship:
Genesis 9:8 – “And G-d said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you – birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well – all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth.’ “
Exodus 20:10 – “The seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: You shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.”
Shulchan Aruch, Book 4 — “It is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature. On the contrary, it is our duty to relieve the pain of any creature.”
Just to review, animals are included in God’s covenant with human beings, animals are entitled to a day of rest on Shabbat, and it is our duty to relieve the pain of any creature, not inflict it.
All of these teachings are followed to a T in a farm-animal sanctuary like Jenny Brown’s.
What The Beet-Eating Heeb finds to be particularly moving in her book are her accounts of her extraordinary efforts to relieve the pain of injured and sick animals – animals who were subjected to abuse and deprivation in factory farms and even in smaller farms.
Jenny is not Jewish, but she is fulfilling a Torah mandate, bigtime.
The only problem with farm-animal sanctuaries is that relatively few people ever visit one. Unlike reading a blog, which is available to anyone with an Internet connection, visiting such a sanctuary usually requires schlepping out to the countryside.
Jenny has found a way around that problem by writing a compelling book.
The book in itself is a pretty valuable addition to the veg-advocacy movement, The Beet-Eating Heeb would have to admit.