It takes a lot to make The Beet-Eating Heeb cry.
He can chop onions and watch Brian’s Song, simultaneously, with dry eyes.
But he shed a tear last week at the Hazon Food Conference.
What caused this stoic beet-eater to show some emotion – at a conference, of all places?
The killing of a goat.
On a cold, dreary morning, Hazon presented a demonstration of the schechting (kosher slaughter) of a young goat in front of about 30 conference attendees, including The Beet-Eating Heeb.
It is true that the goat was raised humanely and that he suffered for only a few seconds.
But BEH still found the slaughter of this beautiful, golden-furred animal to be troubling. Deeply troubling. On many levels.
It was particularly disconcerting to see Jews killing an innocent, gentle, affable animal – in a completely Jewish context, no less.
Judaism is about celebrating life, not about causing unnecessary death. At least as The Beet-Eating Heeb understands his religion.
But here were Jews, taking a goat in the prime of his life and slitting his throat. Panicked and anguished, the goat immediately lurched forward and dropped to his knees as blood gushed from his neck. The shochet’s assistants then threw a tarp over the goat – and a tear streaked down The Beet-Eating Heeb’s cheek.
The goat’s corpse was then strung up in a shed, skinned and disemboweled.
Savage. How else could you describe this entire scene?
And to think this was the gold standard of slaughter. As good as it gets. Try to imagine the scene in an industrial slaughterhouse, where the vast majority of farm animals are killed and dismembered, often by the thousands in a single day.
But, ironically, had BEH witnessed the slaughtering of an animal in that kind of slaughterhouse, it would not have bothered him as much.
To see Jews engaging in an act of unnecessary violence and chilling betrayal . . .
This goat had been raised by young Jewish farmers who had engendered the animal’s trust with their humane care. Then, in an instant, these same Jews turned on the unsuspecting goat and killed him.
If that isn’t an act of supreme betrayal, what is? Is this any way for members of a religious community to act in relationship with one of God’s fellow creatures?
And for what purpose was this animal killed? That’s an easy one: Because some people like the taste of goat meat. Never mind that we live in an era and in a country in which an incredible variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains are available – all you need for optimum health.
Don’t get The Beet-Eating Heeb wrong. He supports Hazon’s decision to conduct a slaughter at the conference, if only because meat-eaters should be confronted with the reality of their dietary choices.
The demonstration helped BEH realize that the whole kosher- meats business is a morally problematic enterprise, to put it mildly.
So what’s the solution?
Should Jews get out of the slaughtering business and eat non-kosher meat?
Of course not.
The only solution is for Jews to abstain from meat altogether, which just happens to be the Torah ideal, anyway.
During a Webinar put on by the group Farm Forward, The Beet-Eating Heeb this month finally got an opportunity to ask author Jonathan Safran Foer the question that he had been dying to put to him.
Well, maybe “dying” is a poor choice of words.
My fellow Jew, BEH asked, do you think it’s morally OK for humans to kill animals for food?
His answer was profoundly disappointing. Disillusioning in the extreme.
Safran Foer said, “The answer doesn’t really matter. Maybe it’s fun, intellectually, to consider the question. But let’s talk about what’s actually in front of us. The question is the least relevant to the choices we make on a daily basis.”
What? The matter of killing sentient beings for food “doesn’t really matter”? It’s “least relevant”?
This, from the sensitive soul and gifted writer who wrote “Eating Animals,” the book that has probably created more vegans than any other written work in history?
The veg advocacy movement can ill afford to engage in internecine warfare, outnumbered as we are by the forces that are promoting meat eating. So The Beet-Eating Heeb will try to engage in some self-restraint (wish him luck) as he critiques Safran Foer’s answer.
To state the obvious, the issue is of ultimate consequence and of grave concern to farm animals, who literally moan, bleat and otherwise beg for their lives. It’s one thing for their desperate but futile pleas to fall on deaf ears within the blood-soaked slaughterhouse. It’s quite another for these innocent animals to find a heart of stone inside the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer.
However, while his answer certainly seems surprising, even bizarre, it’s actually exactly what you would expect – when you consider the morally hypocritical corner that JSF has painted himself into.
Much to the chagrin of his legions of vegan fans, Safran Foer has firmly hitched himself to the “humane” farming movement. This movement, of which Farm Forward is a part, maintains that it’s OK to slaughter animals, as long as you raise them in a humane fashion. It’s a response to factory farming.
Safran Foer discussed this movement in “Eating Animals” with a glowing profile of Niman Ranch. Since the release of the book, he has become a spokesman for Farm Forward, even doing a YouTube video that endorses consuming poultry.
The problem with Safran Foer, Farm Forward and the rest of the “humane” farming movement is the contradiction inherent in their position.
Please explain to The Beet-Eating Heeb how you can care about an animal’s welfare for a few years, then turn around on a day of your choosing and stick a knife into the innocent creature’s throat.
The Beet-Eating Heeb, as all Jews should, finds this Jekyll-and-Hyde type of morality to be troubling, even scary. BEH favors a transcendent, consistent morality.
This whole “humane” farming movement reminds The Beet-Eating Heeb of the parable of the woman who rescued an injured rattlesnake and nursed it back to full health. For the next few months, the snake would curl up in the woman’s lap as she watched TV at night, just like a pet cat.
Then one night, out of the blue, the rattlesnake lifted its head and plunged its venomous fangs right into the woman’s neck.
“My God, how could you do that to me, after we spent all these nights together?,” the woman gasped as she died.
“Hey lady,” the rattler answered, “you knew I was a snake.”
Jonathan Safran Foer has aligned himself with the snake, metaphorically speaking.
Given all this, his answer to BEH’s question isn’t surprising, after all.
He has put himself in a position where he can’t say killing animals for food is wrong. But nor, given his obvious concern for animals, can he say it’s OK.
Characterizing the question as irrelevant was just a way of dodging it. Given the morally untenable position he has staked out, he didn’t have any good options when confronted with BEH’s query. Dismissing the question as frivolous, as he did, might very well have been the least bad option for him.
Of course, Safran Foer is entitled to believe and espouse whatever he wants. But BEH, as a big fan of his book “Eating Animals, would ask him to reconsider his ties to the “humane” farming movement and give animals the moral consideration they deserve – every day and always.
Is the vegan advocacy and animal rights movement on the cusp of transforming society?
Will it soon take its place alongside the feminist and civil-rights movements as a source of genuine, positive and lasting social change?
The Beet-Eating Heeb is not quite prepared to answer with an unqualified yes.
However, after attending last week’s annual conference of the Farm Animals Rights Movement, BEH is feeling decidedly more optimistic.
The Beet-Eating Heeb, in his previous career incarnations, attended more national conferences than he can possibly count, including some much larger than ARC, such as the massive AIPAC Policy Conference.
But never has he witnessed such energy, emotion and commitment at a conference as he did last week.
The exhibit hall bristled with activity as conference goers jammed the narrow aisles to buy vegan books and t-shirts, pick up brochures, and trade stories with fellow activists. Several speakers received rousing standing ovations as they discussed their work on behalf of animals. More than one speaker broke down in tears in describing the horrific cruelty inflicted on cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys. A high percentage of the attendees, perhaps half, were under 40 years of age.
To paraphrase legendary hockey announcer Mike Lange, “You would have had to be there to believe it.”
So, what is the source of this vibe, this passion at a conference devoted mainly to vegan advocacy?
There are two sources, the way The Beet-Eating Heeb sees it.
One, vegan advocates are feeling the momentum as our movement accumulates significant gains. Veganism, relegated to the margins of society for decades, is suddenly becoming mainstream as more and more thought leaders promote its benefits and as vegan options proliferate in grocery stores and restaurants.
Two, vegan advocates are drawing energy from the sense of moral outrage we justifiably feel, aware as we are that 9 billion farm animals are being brutally murdered in the U.S. alone this year, aware that about 8.5 billion of them are subjected to lives of abject misery before they are trucked to the slaughterhouse.
The pieces are indeed falling into place to create a social-change movement of historic proportions.
As was the case with the historic social-change movements of yesteryear, there exists a deeply rooted, pervasive, absolutely unacceptable condition in society. And there exists a growing awareness of the problem.
“History will look back at veganism as one of the most important, transformative movements in human history,” Melanie Joy, a vegan author and psychologist, said at the conference.
A couple of week ago, The Beet-Eating Heeb might have dismissed such a statement as wishful thinking.
But after spending a few days with his fellow advocates, BEH can see the seeds of something big, very big, starting to bloom.
Which leads to a final, and, in The Beet-Eating Heeb’s mind, a very important question:
As the movement matures and gains ever more adherents, will people of religious faith be at the vanguard or on the sidelines?
There were several Jews at ARC. May there be many more next year. Compassion for animals is not just a Jewish teaching, it’s a core concept of our religion. Our Torah narrative, Mishnah and Talmud express exquisite sensitivity to the suffering of animals. We should be overrepresented in this new social-change movement, just as were in the feminist and civil rights movements of prior generations.
Will we be?