Parshat Bereishit (2012)
Are you mad that G-d isn’t a vegetarian? When moralizing turns ugly
I must admit that I’m only half-kidding with the title of this piece. I say only half, because as a young punk I was a vegan for many years. That’s right, in the early 90s at a time when it was almost unthinkable in the middle of the steak-and-potato suburbs I was one of the first people to take up the animal-free lifestyle, and boy was it difficult to do. Also quite costly. Luckily the food industry has been subjected to the better nutritional guidelines and forced to use dietary substitutions for the everyday products we enjoy today, and by virtue of that we have no problem finding meat-free food products on our plates everyday. This advance in the industry also has an added benefit for those of us keep kashrut, long gone are the days when you could find yourself falling off the derech because you ate an Oreo Cookie, with the realization that it was very likely that creamy center might actually be rendered beef fat; today they are certified kosher and use vegetable shortening instead. We all hold by a generally accepted truth that less animal fat is better for us, up against an over saturated existence.
What does this all have to do with the Torah? Many people who want to get back to a purer existence take a good look at what life was like here in Parshat Bereishit, in the Genesis story, in order to see what life was really like in paradise. To get a glimpse of a life without disease and cruelty we look back to the Garden of Eden. One of the points made by the moral-driven vegetarian is that in this paradise G-d caused the plants, trees and herbage to sprout up and be food for us. The ground did not need to be tilled by man. There was no farming of anything, neither plant nor animal. There was an abundance of fruit that man lived off of until the ground was cursed by G-d for man’s sin. (see Genesis 3:17-19)
Actually we don’t really seem to have to consider the concept of meat eating until the story of Noah; only after the earth is further decimated by the deluge, and coming forth from the ark on to this changed environment does our story even begin to concern itself with the issues of what is a clean and unclean animal for human consumption. It is safe to assume, as most midrash does, that before this time people were vegetarian. (see Genesis 9:3)
Can we assume that this was also so for that animal world as well? No, I doubt it. For the animal, if it was not already so, our tradition points out that their descent began with the first curse of the ground after the sin of Adam and Eve. Rashi tells us that the consequence of the ground being cursed on man’s account was also consequential for the snake that tricked them, when the ground was cursed it now also brought up insects, flees and ticks that harmed the animals of the field that the serpent would live upon. According to our rabbinic sources, this seems to be the point at which the sanguine circle of life gets complicated. All of nature turns on itself.
So why am I not a vegetarian any more? The real reason can almost be summed up because I became more religiously observant. How can this be when I present all these ideas supported by Torah? Mostly, because I found I really liked meat. And it all happened on Shabbat. I can even tell you what stripped the “Meat Is Murder” patch right off me, it was a Buffalo Chicken Wing. My friends would invite me for Shabbat meals week after week. In honor of the sabbath the meals are greatly involved and time-consuming, stretching on for many courses; salad, fish, soup, chicken and/or meats, some sides and kugels, a few drinks and then desert. Everyone brings out the best that they have and presents it honor of Shabbat; the crown of the week. Every week my meal would pretty much end at the first course and I would linger. I didn’t drink alcohol or eat animal products so almost nothing was left. After a while people started feeling sorry for me, and the Jewish mothers would start in, “But you’re still hungry, I think you would like one. In honor of Shabbat try just one…” That was it, all of a sudden I remembered that I really did like it. I’ve been eating tasty little kosher treats ever since.
It wasn’t an issue of people forcing their ways upon me or brow-beating me. Quiet to the contrary. To be honest I’m sure that I judged people more for their “indulgence” than they did me. Aside from the common ethical concerns that I had about meat, it just wasn’t something that I personally liked. And in my experience, traveling the world, I knew very well that meat was not something that was a daily staple for most cultures. It was something that I was less accustomed to having regularly, therefore it was only incidental that it was something I hadn’t acquired a taste for it. But in these ultra-orthodox friends I found that their old-world experience was very much the same as mine. They had all the same ethical concerns, and even more than I had considered. And they also weren’t accustomed to eating obnoxious amounts of meat, so it was reserved for special occasions. And there is no more special of an occasional than Shabbat and Yom Tov (holidays). In this spirit people would follow the common custom of Judaism to have wine, fish and meat as symbols of joy and celebration. They would save all the best of their provisions for the end of the week; for Shabbat. They would honor G-d with the best of the produce of their labor. They honor G-d with the best of their foods, these are what most of us feel are the best of our best.
Most certainly we can look in our Jewish tradition and see many examples that idealize vegetarianism though out our midrashic and mystical tradition. Aside from that, for many it seems to simplify kashrut issues to abstain from meat (this is also another reason cited by the less accustomed to Jewish observance, to believe kashrut is merely a meat issue, which is far from true). Most of us live in a culture which already overdose it when it comes to meat, and can agree that we no longer have the need in the modern world to consume meat the way we did in the past because of a wider variety of foods available to us. Being less meat dependent seems like a natural humanitarian progression for many, as they see the benefits it has upon the body and environment. It is sensible and is animal sensitive. Even in the most orthodox of homes I’ve seen many families only have mere symbolic amounts of meat and fish; even if only the meat is a mixed in ingredient for a main dish, or the fish only found in the paste made for the salad dressing. We honor our traditions, but think it wise sometimes to not go overboard.
The problem I most often had to deal with in my own character and now in other people, is that the people who go overboard tend to be the vegetarians. I understand their feelings, but I also very much recognize how inappropriately people judge others for not being as “progressive” about their eating as they are. Today I don’t mind saying that I like to eat meat. At one time I didn’t, because my ethical concerns were not appropriately met; now with that satisfied for me in my convictions, the choice of eating meat comes down to an issue of my own satisfaction. I take joy in it, so it is the right choice for me. Furthermore, for health reasons being a vegetarian is not appropriate for me. And some people do deeply judge me for that, making all the sideways statements and giving me all the glaring. No really, people are that way, no matter what the case is; that is because it is disgusting to them so it should also be so for you; they even get angry when you don’t comply to their mores.
What started out in the relationship as “I love animals so don’t eat them” for some immature people ends up leading to slurred statements like “Your a murder for eating that.” Sure, its rare that it goes that far, but more and more I see people acting that way. What started out as a kindness, turned to negativity; somehow that is a natural tendency in this universe so we need to beware of it. And that is what we are going to talk about today. Where that comes from and how to grow beyond letting our values turn sour.
Believe or not this davar Torah really has little to do with vegetarianism, that’s just a bonus in a way; okay so I merely jest. I only use this example because it is something that I can relate to in my own life, and because in a lot of ways the elements of this example are very similar to a tragic situation pointed out here in this parsha with the story of Cain and Abel.
One of the horrors of the story of Cain and Able is the emergence of anger, and in tern violence in the world. We all know the story very well, because it ends with murder.
Our parsha relates the story as such, that the two sons of Adam and Eve grow up to become men. We see their story begin with them both picking a trade for themselves. Cain raises animals (tzoan; sheep and goats), and Abel tills the ground; they are both partners in farming, just two different aspects of it. When it comes time for them to thank G-d and worship each gives according to their own produce. Cain of his produce of the ground, and Abel from his animal stock. One is accepted, the other offering is not. In then end this leads to such a feeling of being slighted that Cain murders his brother Abel over it.
Even before we can get to the issue of the sickening sin of homicide, many of us who are of a gentle nature first find ourselves stumbling over this part of the narrative first. What is it about this offering that is different that G-d would lift His eyes to recognize one, and the other he doesn’t take the time to count?
For the most part, people stumble over the issue of what the type of sacrifice it was. In a world that because of idolatry is so used to sacrifice, which typically holds animal sacrifice higher than any other because of its costliness and rarity, we tend to sometimes miss the point and think there was something better about the meat over the fruits. I have literally seen illustrations in picture books with Abel happy and his smoke rising high, and then a sad and skinny Cain whose fruits just smolder down. This odd and gross view is more prevalent in the mindset of those who follow blood atonement heresies. We know this is not true by the simple fact that the Torah demands both meat and grain offerings all through out it, and more often incense of herbage. There is nothing more sacred or more binding about a meat offering over a meal offering, they both found their place in our tradition. We cannot jump to the absurd conclusion that G-d can only take pleasure in bloody sacrifice.
Instead we are forced to find another reason. It is very apparent to us if we just take a simple look at the text, the only distinction between the offerings aside from their substance, was the maturity of the substance. It seems to be more an issue of timing for that substance. We see that Cain offered after many days, at the end of days he took from his fruits and offered. Instead we see that Abel instead took from the first-born of his flock, he didn’t wait for them to mature even, he gave immediately. It is not a matter of what type of offering, but when it was offered. This is pointed out when the mitzvah was spelled out to the children of Israel in the Torah later on, “v’lakach’ta may’reishit kol pri ha-adama/ you shall bring the first fruits of all the land…” (Deut. 26:2) Cain brought his leftovers, Abel enthusiastically gave the first of his produce. G-d regarded the one that had given with the spirit of eagerness.
We need to dismiss from our minds the idea that G-d is caught up on the issue of meat and blood. If anything our tradition suggests to us the only person caught up with this issue is Cain. Our sages widely suggest that one person hung-up on it was Cain. Our midrash tells us that Cain did not think it right that his brother should kill animals to offer in sacrifice. If we think about it, only animals killed and consumed each other, humans apparently did not. It would be natural for Cain to see something that was not natural or desirable to them as people to be barbarism, and therefore felt that Abel was acting impulsively like an animal. Some midrashim even suggested Cain thought it better for Abel to instead wait and buy grains from him by trading from his animal products with him when there was more hearty produce to sustain them with, suggesting that his way was matured as well as more humane.
The problem with Cain’s attitude is he cannot get beyond the fact that he finds someone’s practice disgusting and unbecoming. This was not their way, only animals and G-d had ever slaughtered in such a way (when G-d made garments for Adam and Eve out of animals skins; see Genesis 3:21). Sure this offering was for the worship of G-d, it was not for their consumption, but our rabbis say that even this became a stumbling block for Cain. If it was not allowed for them as humans ordinarily to slaughter, he reckoned that if it was forbidden for them then it should also be forbidden of G-d. He is not just irritated with his brother, Cain is also disgusted with G-d for this.
Our parsha describes Cain’s reaction to G-d dismissing his offering as follows:
“…and Cain became very angry,
|| Vayicharah le-Kayin me’od
| vayiplu panav
And herein lies the tragedy, his attitude of disdain for cruelty, which in itself is a chesed – a kindness – got turned around and lead to negativity and even extreme anger. For as progressive and idealistic Cain’s values for life is, his inability to see his own fault and instead become more concerned with the actions of others leads him to become annoyed – another meaning of the word charah. He becomes enraged over the killing of an animal and it’s acceptance by G-d as barbaric, do much that he doesn’t seem to notice the rising coldness that eventually drives him to murder his human brother. He respects the animals, but murders a man.
I want to sum it up this way, we need to keep in mind that people who are more concerned with other’s actions than their own; people who moralize heavily upon narrow pet causes tend to cause harm to others through their negativity. More often than not descending into judgmental speech and treatment of people. And as we know, to cause to bring shame or embarrassment upon a person is also counted as a form of bloodshed in our tradition; its not just causing blushing, its spiritually more harmful than most recognize.
And so it is for many people, for some reason it is natural in the universe that what starts out as concept of warm chesed (kindness), often finds a way of turning into cold gevurah (judgment) over time. And that is really the topic really at hand today. How is it that such a thing happens to people over time?
Kabbalistically, it is quite easy to understand. In fact before we can begin to understand anything else about Kabbalah it is essential that people learn this principle. It is presented to us in the Sefer Yitzerah that there are three “mother letters.” They are three archetypal letters and corresponding energies. Shin (ש), Mem (מ) and Alef (א); the Shin we are told represents fire, Mem represents water, Alef represents air. They are three positions in time we are told, meaning lengths in a journey; when we apply them to a year calendar (like in the Israel, which has only three distinguishable seasons) they correspond to Shin being the heat of summer, Mem being the coldness of winter, and Alef as Spring that is the temperate and airy balance between those two extremes.
In Kabbala, and indeed strongly stressed in Chassidut, learning is held up on the foundation of these three pillars. For those who study the ChaBaD school of thought it is important for one to work out their path of maturing the higher intellect (as presented in the upper three sefirot), they correspond like our letters above in a descending pattern; Chochmah is wisdom, Binah is discernment, but the balance of them both is the understanding called Daat. It’s more simply explained through the human emotions by the Breslov Chassidim and the GR”A (Gaon of Vilna) by placing the example par-excellence in the center of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. We begin with sefirot of Chesed (Kindness), Gevurah (Judgment) and work our way to the central balance of Tiferet (Harmony, understood as mercy); the ChaGaT school. In these mystical teachings of these great schools of thought the goal is to balance out our human flaws by coming to a harmony between extremities inside of us.
This pattern is something that we need to understand because it tends to play out in the minds and lives of people even if we aren’t aware of this; it is a natural principle in the universe. Sadly it is most often seen in the lives of religious people, and we as people of faith need to recognize this. People often start out in their religious or ethical journey out a creative spark of kindness. They are motived by love and kindness and warmth, but then as we tend to cool down as time goes on and often fizzle towards judgmental coldness. Now gevurah is not a bad thing, it actually means to become more mighty and strong; it is not mere negativity, the problem is that as some of us cool down as we “mature” in our understanding we tend to become as judgmental as we are knowledgeable. We often tend to start out less understanding but burning with passion like wild youth, but then as we become more mature and wise we tend to cool down and sadly manifest all the things we have come to know in judgementalism if we aren’t careful. Somehow we think we know better, so everyone else should as well. Our expansive kindness (chesed) can turn cold if we aren’t careful, and we can get stuck in the moralizing rut of being the frozen-chosen though our unchecked judgment (gevurah).
Our goal should be to find the balance between the two, the harmony of tiferet. It is the maturity beyond any one extreme, it is not the hot high road, nor the cold low road, it is the golden middle path between them both. It is neither overwhelmed with endless permissiveness seen in the example of chesed as being the essential drive of expansiveness present in the world and the personal character, nor is it trapped in the constrictiveness and desolate coldness of strong opinion and judgments as with gevurah, instead it is the beauty (another meaning of tiferet) that is found in the balance between the two that allows us to show mercy to others in self-control. In this Kabbalah and Torah challenge us to move beyond being thoughtless do-gooders or judgmental smart people, and become beautiful people of true mercy and harmony and understanding; in the balance of tiferet. We need to find that centered spirit of joy in our souls.