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The Jewish Omnivore’s Dilemma

Nigel SavageFilmed at Limmud Conference 2012

The Jewish omnivore’s dilemma is simply this: how should I eat? That’s a contemporary question, an ancient question, a Jewish question – and a very complicated question. In this talk I’ll share some of what I’ve learned; and I’ll tell a story about three goats…

Nigel Savage, originally from Manchester, England, studied at Georgetown, Pardes and Hebrew U, and worked originally for NM Rothschild and John Govett in the City of London. After discovering planet earth – somewhat by accident – in Israel in the mid-1990s, Nigel founded Hazon in the USA in 2000.

Hazon (Hebrew for “vision”) works to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community – and a healthier and more sustainable world for all.
Hazon has developed a wide range of programs that connect Jewish tradition with contemporary issues, especially in relation to land and food. The organization is animated by the intuition that Jewish tradition is wise, that the issues facing us today are immensely complex, and that relating Jewish tradition to contemporary challenges, with real intellectual integrity, enables us both to renew Jewish life, and to enable the Jewish people to play a distinct role in creating a better world for all.
Hazon now has 45 staff, offices in NY, CO and CA, and a retreat center and organic farm in Falls Village, CT. Hazon is one of only a handful of organizations to have been in the Slingshot 50 every year since inception; it was recognized by the Sierra Club as one of the top 50 faith-based environmental organizations in the USA; and in 2008 Nigel was listed in the Forward 50, the Forward’s annual listing of the 50 most influential people in the American Jewish community.

So I begin with an old story that many of you will know, God says to Moses “lo t’vashel g’di be halav imo”, ‘Do not seethe a kid goat in its mother milk.’ And Moses, says “Does that mean we’ve got to separate meat and milk?” and God says “lo t’vashel g’di halav imo!” and Moses says, “Oh, separate pots and pans and crockery and cutlery” and God says (shouts) “lo t’vashel g’di be halav imo!” and Moses says, “You want separate dishwashers, a separate kitchen?” and God says “Fine, Moses, have it your own way”.

I start with this story for 3 reasons; firstly it’s a reminder that Jews have been thinking about what it is to keep kosher, literally what is fit to eat, for a long time. Secondly, it’s a reminder that it’s about questions. The reason for the joke is that 3 times in the Torah it says “lo t’vashel” but not once does it explain why. And thirdly, it’s a reminder that somehow eating kosher is wrapped up with ethics. Although no reason is given elsewhere in D’varim, we know also separately you should not take the mother bird and its chick. Somehow the Torah thinks that the notion of cooking an animal in its mother’s milk is somehow so abhorrent that we shouldn’t do it. And though we forget it, wrapped up therefore in the beginning of kashrut, is the notion of eating ethically, of thinking about what is right for us to do. And that leads to the Jewish omnivore’s dilemma, which is straightforwardly, what does it mean to eat as a Jew in the 21st Century, how should we eat? For me thinking about this story in a particular way starts with the ride that Shoshana mentioned. We were riding across America to raise environmental awareness in the Jewish community and at one point we found ourselves 40 miles from Postville, Iowa, the largest kosher slaughter house in North America. This was the summer of 2000 and there were 3 years of my life when I was vegetarian, there were five years when I didn’t keep kosher, every other year of my life I’d eaten kosher meat and never once had I seen where it came from. We’d phoned them up and we said, “Could we have a look around?” they were very generous to us, I don’t think they really understood who we were. Various people on the group didn’t want to do it but five of us went in. Some of you will remember the story of the four who go into the Pardes and one goes crazy and one dies. We saw a cow being shechted, being slaughtered and we saw some turkeys being shechted and of the five people who went in two became vegan and are still vegetarian twelve and a half years later. That was the beginning for me of thinking about this.

Skip forward to December 2006, the first Hazon food conference, and after dinner we were asking some people some questions to see who we were as a group and two of the questions that I asked I’m going to ask you now. Put your hands up, first of all, those of you who eat meat but if you had to kill it yourself you wouldn’t? Thank you all you honest people. And anybody here who is vegetarian and if you killed it yourself you would eat meat? Thank you, good. So the same thing happened at that food conference and into the seeing what a strange self-selected group of people we were, I said, “I think we have to shecht a goat here next year.” Skip forward twelve months and the Thursday night of our food conference, we did a panel called “Lifting the Cellophane Veil,” right, “Lifting the Cellophane Veil’. And we had on that panel the Jewish goat herders who had raised the goats we were going to Shecht the next morning, we had the Shochet, the French ultra-Orthodox slaughterer who was going to slaughter the goats and we had the Mashgiach, the supervisor as it happened, the senior supervisor from the Orthodox Union in North America. And it was a pretty amazing panel. Hazon as an organisation like Limmud, plays across a wide range of the Jewish Community, but I think it’s fair to say that a majority of our participants that evening were not predisposed to be sympathetic to the Shochet and the Mashgiach. And both of these guys were amazing, they were incredibly pious, they had an incredible sense of kavanah. Each of them separately they’d never met each other before, each of them separately said, “I and my family only eat meat on Shabbat and the Chagim” Rav Mandle, the Mashgiach said, “As a generation we have too much lust for everything, it is not what the Torah envisaged, we eat too much meat.” And I sat there and I thought, when was the last time you heard an employee of Guinness tell you to drink less beer? The next morning those who wanted went out to see the shechita. Friday morning in Connecticut in December, a cold hard frost on the ground a cold sun burning. So here it is, the shechita itself is a millisecond, happens very, very, very quickly. But after that you have cut the animal’s head off, you have to hang it up, you have to run a knife down the centre of it and open it up. You have to check each of the internal organs to see that it is healthy and therefore kosher. You have to disassemble it. It took more than two hours with the Shochet doing all of this and Rav Mandel giving a running commentary. That evening we had Friday night services as we had the year before and then we went into dinner and we served the goat. We served it on a separate table, it was very clearly marked, you could not eat it by mistake, it didn’t quite say ‘this morning’s goat’ but it might as well have done. And then there we were a year after the beginnings of all this and now I asked the same questions again but much more precisely, “who here normally eats meat but for whatever reason you didn’t eat the goat tonight?” a slew of hands went up. “Who here is normally vegetarian but for whatever reason you did eat the goat tonight?” 20 hands went up. One of them, a Rabbi who came up to me and said, “That was the first time I’ve eaten animal flesh in 29 years.” Now, it’s very interesting to think about who these two groups are and what they represent and as I suggest that, you might think about which of the two you might be in. The first is a group of people who say, “yes I do eat dead animals and the way that I make it ok to myself is by using a distancing euphemism, the word meat. And in this case I couldn’t use that euphemism. I couldn’t kid myself that this wasn’t a dead animal because it was a live animal 10 hours ago and I saw it, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.” That’s the first group. The second group are a group of people who are saying, “Look, I reject everything about industrialised meat production, animals that are kept in squalid conditions, fed food which is not native to them, pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, schlepped huge distances, killed who knows how by people who may well themselves not be treated so well, frozen, shrink wrapped, shipped back. In this one instance I know that these were happy goats, I know that they lived a happy goat-life like, I know where they lived, the land they lived on, the food they ate, the kavanah of the people who shechted them. In this one instance I felt that it was ok for me to eat it.” Now this is, in a sense the paradigmatic story about the Jewish food movement and I share it with you this afternoon for two reasons; first of all because at its heart it’s actually about asking questions. I think that both Jews and Environmentalists give ourselves a bad name by banging people over the head and saying, “I know better than you how you should live your life.” I want to say very clearly I don’t stand here from that place today. I struggle to figure out how I should live my life, it would be both intellectually arrogant and pedagogically ineffective for me to try and tell anybody else how they should live or how they should eat. And secondly it’s a particular example of a general proposition, something that I heard from Rab Shlomo Carlebach of Blessed Memory, in 1994. He said, “the Torah is a commentary on the world and the world is a commentary on the Torah” The Torah meaning, in this case, everything to do with Jewish food; kashrut, brachot and peiah and the agricultural laws, Blooms and Evelyn Rose and cholent and chamin and bagels and the whole schebang, right, the Torah meaning everything to do with Jews and food has a commentary on the world what it is to eat in the 21st Century; vegetarianism and veganism, genetically modified foods, food sovereignty, and poverty and hunger, teenage obesity a whole series of questions about how to eat today. And what the Jewish food movement is doing at its heart, the beginnings of answering the Jewish omnivore’s dilemma is to bring these two questions into relationship with each other and since our food conference over the last 5 or 6 years there has been an explosion of new programs, Magen Tzedek, Uri L’Tzedek, Adamah, Urban Adamah farms and gardens and sprouting across the American Jewish community, people really thinking about this.

I want to end with two particular examples of this. The first one is going back to something that Rav Mandel said; “in a previous life I worked in the City and I was fairly well entertained and there were weeks when seven days out of seven I ate incredibly lavishly”. There may have been nothing that was wrong with any of those meals individually but in aggregate, until a century ago only Kings and Princes ate like that. It may well be that a deeper Jewish rhythm, as our ancestors did, is to eat simply six days a week and on Shabbat and on chagim and on simchas to eat much better and more lavishly and with friends and family. That may not be just a good way for Jews to eat in the 21st Century; it may be a good way for us to encourage people in the affluent West to eat in the 21st Century. And the second and last is Shmita. Our food conference when we shechted the goats happened in December 2007, 3 months before it was the start of the Shmita year and there were a slew of stories in the Jewish papers about chaos in Israel, about what it was possible to eat and not. And I read it and I thought, didn’t we know it was going to be Shmita? Which person who is observant gets ready for Shabbat at five to six on a Friday afternoon? And at our food conference we said, we’re going to launch a thing called ‘Shmita Project’. We’re going to start a conversation across the Jewish community about what Shmita, about what the Sabbatical year means or could mean, and how together we’re really going to prepare for it. Well that now is really, really happening. A growing number of organisations and leaders are starting to think about it. The next Shmita year starts in September of 2014. Let’s have a real conversation across our communities, our synagogues, our day schools. What’s the food that we serve? Why do we serve it? Do we grown any of our own food? Do we compost it? Where does it come from? Where does it go to? What about the interfaith piece? What about hunger locally and in Israel and around the world? How do we integrate it into education?

If together we do this I think we will take steps forward in answering the Jewish omnivore’s dilemma and as Reb Shlomo might have said, I hope and pray that in doing so we all in our communities and the wider Jewish community get to create a healthier and more sustainable world for everybody. Thank you

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