Plant-Based Torah: Parashat Ki Tetse – From Darkness to Light

September 12th, 2019


“They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant…He is a drunkard and a glutton.” -Deuteronomy 12:20

In this week’s Parsha, Parashat Ki Tetse, we find a passage regarding what parents should do with a morally reprehensible son – who ultimately shall be stoned to death by his community if found guilty. Baruch HaShem Judaism is not a religion of biblical literalism; rather, we rely on the interpretation of the Written Torah by the Talmudic sages, who seldom carried out a capital punishment.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the Torah holds unsavory attitudes towards meat consumption, as it is written in the book of Proverbs: “Do not be…among gluttonous eaters of meat” (Proverbs 23:30). What exactly do these verses mean? Certainly not every meateater should be seen as a glutton – Heaven forbid executed for it! 

The Sages clearly shared the same sentiment. In classic Talmudic fashion, they sought to precisely define the parameters at which one is rendered a glutton via meat consumption. Such parameters take up several pages of tractate Sanhedrin, however two of their key findings are useful in our time: the amount of meat consumed in one sitting, and the price that the meat was purchased for.

In Sanhedrin 70a, Rabbi Zeira rules that the amount of meat consumed in one sitting that renders one a glutton is merely half a pound – a common size of today’s hamburgers! This is immediately followed by a ruling in the name of Rav Huna that states that one must have purchased inexpensive meat to be rendered a glutton. Both of these principles are shared by Maimonides, and are therefore the practical halakha to this day.

The factory livestock industry is poised to send Planet Earth hurtling off the carbon cliff this century. What is fueling its success? The appeal of inexpensive meat, dairy, and eggs to the average consumer. Its cheap price, thanks to unethical and abusive practices towards the animals, exploitation of their workers, and government subsidies, create the cycle of profit and greed that will not be able to sustain the 10 billion mouths that will need to be fed by 2050. 

Though consumers pay very inexpensive prices for these goods, the price does not reflect its environmental impact in the slightest. According to the Economist, 40% of Earth’s landmass is used for human agriculture – 80% of which is used for animal production, despite only producing 15% of the calories of the global food supply. This is an area of wastefulness that we simply cannot afford as a species.

What is the lesson of this verse and its subsequent interpretations in our time? One is not a glutton for the occasional burger or steak – rather, we must reject the societal norms surrounding the dominating role of animal products within the food supply. Smaller portions, less often is a wonderful starting point. Only consuming animal products on special occasions, the only relationship that humanity had with animal foodstuffs until the last century, is an even better step – and ultimately the one we will be forced to make, at a minimum, if we are to overcome the greatest threat to the Jewish people, and the world, in human history.

Our planet is at stake – climate change threatens us all, and factory farming plays too big of a role to brush aside. There is a spiritual and theological imperative for us all to act! We cannot resort to only taking single approaches. We all must reduce our intake of animal products dramatically. We all must reduce the plastic, carbon, and water waste that we emit. We must combat the corrupt industries and politicians who created and intensified this crisis for their own profit margins, defeating their wicked greed with our righteous love for this planet and all who call it home! 

For, in truth, it is not the average meat-eating, car-driving, non-recycling person who is a glutton – it is our society and the few heretical industries who threaten us all. Nevertheless, it is their actions we must defeat by rejecting the illusion that we cannot survive and thrive without their products – for not even the most corrupt executives and politicians will survive the impacts of the Climate crisis if we do not succeed.

The story of the Jewish people is that when times appear darkest, seemingly regular people can come together and bring forth miracles. Few things bring people together like adversity. Just imagine – how beautifully all of humanity will have to come together, set aside differences, and come to recognize the good in one another if we are to overcome this existential threat! Truly all of creation will have to unite in righteousness, love, and justice. 

Thank God, we know what we must do. Our approach will have to be multifaceted, and might require giving up certain pleasures for the sake of our lives, our children’s lives, and all of Creation – a reasonable trade-off, I have no doubt. The Sages teach that we have no obligation to complete the work, but that does not dismiss us from starting. Therefore, we must begin and keep advancing, one step at a time.

Not only do we have the opportunity to save us all – we have the opportunity to bring forth Redemption in our lifetime.

Shabbat Shalom.

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