For the sake of our health, and the Earth’s, let’s make a Jewish decision about what we put on
our plates—curtailing red meat by
20% or more.
Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent. Only three days before, at age 99, he has been circum-
cised. What is his very first act as a Jew? He invites wayfarers to a meal.
Remember: Abraham is an old man, sick, in pain. But he does not give in to illness, the desert heat, or limitations of age. Instead, he offers his guests the finest foods, and presides himself over the serving.
There is a message here. Jewish history begins with a Jew—a new Jew, the first Jew—saying to others: “Come, eat with me.” And ever since this first Jewish meal, Jews have believed that eating matters.
We know, of course, that eating is a biological necessity; but, beginning with Abraham, Jews have seen eating as more than a mechanical act. We are heirs of a tradition that makes a distinction between food and nourishment, between refueling the body and replenishing body and soul. We understand the physicality of eating, but, at the same time, we work very hard to transcend and transform it.
Rabbenu Bahya b. Asher reminds us that people who eat indiscriminately are no better than animals. My mother, when I was a child—and later as well—put it this way: “Don’t eat like a pig.” She was trying to civilize me, but—more importantly—to make me a Jew.
One might think that, 3,500 years after Abraham, we would be making progress in this area, yet the opposite seems to be true. The North American way of eating has become “gobble, gulp, and go.” We shovel food in. We consume a fifth of our meals in cars. One-third of our children eat in a fast-food outlet every day, and the average McDonald’s meal is 11 minutes long.
We Jews have a response to this animal-like eating: Our sources tell us to linger over our meals (Berachot 55a). And this above all: Jews invite God in.
The emergence of food and drink from the earth is a wonder and a mystery; therefore, we stand in awe before the work of God’s hands. Knowing that the Divine Presence lives in the texture of our everyday acts, and that even the most mundane task can be sanctified, we elevate the act of eating by reciting blessings prior to and after every meal.
Beyond this, two practices strike me as essential.
First, we Jews know that meals are profoundly important in creating and sustaining purposeful community. When we eat alone, we are sorely tempted to focus on ourselves, away from the needs of others and the presence of God. Eating in loneliness, we drift away from the Jewish people.
Conversely, when we join together for a se’udah—a Jewish communal meal—we open our minds and our hearts to other human beings, and we draw God in, as a partner, to our sacred community. For 3,000 years, the message of Jewish tradition has been: Invite others to join you in festive meals and celebrations. Indeed, for most of us, the seder, the Yom Kippur break fast, and the Shabbat meal are among our most significant Jewish memories.
The lessons for the synagogue are clear. In these difficult times, countless members are overwhelmed by work, economic distress, and deepening isolation. Many would welcome the beauty and peace of sharing an erev Shabbat meal in community, so let’s help them to get there.
Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California serves as a wonderful model, offering dinner for the entire congregation on the first Shabbat of every month. The food is simple, but no one cares. RSVPs are encouraged, but if you forget you come anyway. Members do come: 300–500 every time, people of all ages, young families, singles, grandparents. And, the dinner is free. The funds are raised separately. Rodef Sholom wants no barriers to community.
When I asked Rabbi Stacy Friedman how she could afford this, she responded: “We can’t afford not to do this.” She and her leaders understand that for our synagogues, communal meals need to be a fundamental value—an occasion to unite our congregations, to rise above self-absorption, and to turn members in the direction of mitzvah-doing and God.
A wise person once wrote: “If I had my life to live over, I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained, or the sofa faded.” Our congregations, no matter their size or the state of their physical plant, need to do the same.
The second practice we need to think about is how the food we eat advances the values we hold as Reform Jews.
This is hardly a new concern for us. Years ago, when it became clear that most of the grapes served at our tables were produced by exploited workers, many Reform Jews stopped eating grapes. Our actions drew on the rabbinic teaching that one does not say a blessing over stolen food (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Berakhot 1:19).
Surely it follows that we do not bless or consume food produced by acts of social injustice, by mistreating animals, or by despoiling the environment.
One would think that it would be a simple matter to make such decisions, and thereby to increase holiness in our lives. Our society is more food-conscious than ever. A whole food vocabulary has come into being: there is organic food and hormone-free food; there is free-range food and grass-fed food; there is local food, imported food, and fair-trade food. Still, this dietary diversity is also confusing. We don’t always know what the labels mean, or whether they make any difference. Some experts promote organic food; others argue that the term has little meaning. We also know that eating exclusively local foods may be possible for some, but surely not for all. What, then, are we to do?
The key, as always, is to begin with small steps.
Let’s start by offering courses that educate both adults and children about the meaning of Jewish eating for Reform Jews. Let’s plant synagogue gardens and take our religious school children to visit local farms. And let’s engage with farmers by participating in community-supported agriculture (CSA) projects. The Union has established Just Table, Green Table, a website of resources to help make all this possible.
And once the education is underway, let’s create our own standards for what may or may not appear on synagogue menus and in synagogue kitchens.
I expect no consensus here. Some congregations may focus on healthy ingredients, some on sustainable agriculture, and some on economic fairness for farm workers. Individual Reform Jews may or may not be influenced by these standards. But let’s provide the leadership, formulating—carefully, thoughtfully, Jewishly—what we will or will not eat in our shared communal space.
Here, I have a recommendation to make, which stems from my concern that when it comes to rethinking our diets and caring for the earth, we will not be daring enough—that what we do will serve more to make us feel good than to make a real difference. By all means, let’s make use of eco-friendly cleaning supplies, avoid plastic and paper plates, and carry into the supermarket our own cloth bags. But, more importantly, we need to be mindful of what goes into those bags.
My proposal is this: Let’s make a Jewish decision to significantly reduce the amount of red meat we eat.
There are urgent and compelling reasons to do so. Today’s meat industry generates nearly one-fifth of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions, accelerating climate change throughout the world. According to a U.N. report, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas than all transportation sources combined. And the preparation of beef meals requires about 15 times the amount of fossil fuel energy than meat-free meals.
Mine is not a call for vegetarianism, or for asceticism. Judaism is not an ascetic tradition. The Torah says, “You shall rejoice in your Festival” (Deut. 16:14), meaning that we are to celebrate sacred occasions and take delight in eating.
But meat consumption in North America has doubled in the last 50 years, and we can easily make do with far less red meat than we currently eat. Contrary to what many think, Jews are not obligated to eat meat on Shabbat and holidays. The Talmud suggests serving fish and garlic to honor Shabbat (Shabbat 118b) and also instructs us to eat meat in modest quantities (Hullin 84a). Remember, too, that in biblical Israel, the common diet consisted of barley bread, vegetables, and fruit, along with milk products and honey. My point is this: For the first 2,500 years of our 3,000-year history, Jews consumed meat sparingly; we can surely do the same today.
Limiting our red meat consumption is also an area where we can make a significant difference in reducing our carbon footprints, determined largely by the energy used to produce our food, heat our homes, and transport us to work. Professor Gidon Eshel of the Bard Center has suggested that the effect of reducing our collective meat consumption by 20% would be comparable to every American driving a Prius instead of a standard sedan. This 20% reduction is something that every one of us—every Jew, every family, every synagogue—can do.
And finally this: The current rate of meat consumption will cause the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Americans in the next decade, mainly from cancer and heart disease. Culinary indulgence of this kind contravenes the Jewish teaching that, having been created in God’s image, we are obligated to maintain our physical vigor so that we may bring honor to the Divine presence.
Let’s study these issues and put them before temple members and boards. Let’s talk about what it means to eat Jewishly and ethically. Let’s consider doing more to eat together in communal celebration. Let’s engage in conversation about what we choose to eat and not eat within our synagogue walls. Let’s ask ourselves if we are prepared to replace red meat with pasta or fish in our temples and homes because to do so is healthy, economical, and good for God’s earth.
We might begin by creating healthy, tasty, meat-free menus for Shabbat dinners and Passover seders.
Let’s also make a special effort to engage young people in this endeavor. Would NFTY members consider giving up hamburgers one day a week? Would they be willing to accept the responsibility once a week or month of preparing a healthy family meal consistent with the highest Jewish and ethical values? Let’s challenge our kids, and many will rise to the challenge.
My proposals are not about kashrut. Some Reform Jews find meaning in its observance, wholly or in part; we respect their choice, but it is not one that the majority of us wish to make. I propose that we formulate a new Reform definition of what is proper and fit to eat. For now we understand—as we did not a century ago—that Jewish eating has a profoundly ethical dimension, and that eating even the humblest meal can be a gateway to holiness.
So let’s begin the discussion. Let’s find a way to eat that is right for the farm workers, right for the planet, right for our bodies, and right for our souls. Let’s find a way, as Reform Jews, to elevate every bite we place in our mouths and make of it a taste of the Divine.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism. This article has been adapted from his Shabbat morning sermon at the 2009 Toronto Biennial.