10 Jan 2020

by Cantorr Tamara Wolfson

We are now a little over one week into the new year, and in my household the talk has turned to one of my partner’s favorite things about 2020 so far: Veganuary. From fast food chains to boutique eateries, vegan options are popping up on menus everywhere. What I didn’t know until recently is that Veganuary is not just an unofficial month-long holiday from eating animal products. It is actually a registered charitable organization that has encouraged more than half a million people in 178 countries to go vegan for the month of January — and since the event began 6 years ago, it has more than doubled in participation each year. Part of its success lies in the philosophy that Veganuary is an opportunity to give veganism a try, rather than committing for the long-term.

When I made a lifelong commitment to a vegan partner, the first question on people’s lips was: “so does this mean you’re going vegan, now?” And I’d answer with a loving but resounding “no”. I grew up in a Kosher home where we ate meat, dairy and fish. Some of our fondest family memories and traditions centered in and around our kitchen — Friday night Shabbat dinners, New Year’s morning breakfasts, and even the occasional Indian take-out brought us together as a family. Food was a love language for us: whether it was the smell of my mom’s favorite cookies in the oven on the morning of my birthday, or the painstaking care my sister put into her Thanksgiving pecan pie each year. And food was, above all, meaningful. As a special treat, my father would sometimes order Stilton cheese all the way from Paxton and Whitfield here in England because, as he put it, “there are few things in this world better than a good cheese”. And so, when I first moved in with Anna, we agreed to keep a mostly vegan household — but I will always have a little corner of the fridge reserved for cheese.

 Our relationships with food go deeper than their nutritional value. Veganuary reminds us that we often have a moral and ethical relationship to food, too. Some people eat vegan for dietary and health reasons, while others choose veganism as a way to fight the climate crisis, reduce their carbon footprints, and protest the violence of our food system. Our relationship with food is a reflection of our relationship to creation, and provides a lens through which we understand the world. So with all this in mind, what do the Torah and its commentators say — beyond its discussions of the laws surrounding Kashrut — about how we eat?

Unsurprisingly, there are extensive arguments in Torah and Talmud both for eating meat and refraining from it, so I’ll share a very brief glimpse into these discussions for us all to consider — with no judgment or preference involved, but simply to kick start our thinking on this Shabbat in Veganuary.

In Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 250 we learn that “[on Shabbat], a person should have more meat, wine and treats, to the best of his ability”. And on Yamim Tovim, the Mishnah Torah says in Hilchot Yom Tov 6:18 that “people should eat meat and drink wine, for there is no real rejoicing without the use of meat and wine”. But the conversation develops to clarify in Pesachim 109a:5 that “…when the Temple is standing, rejoicing is only through the eating of sacrificial meat, as it is stated: ‘And you shall sacrifice peace-offerings and you shall eat there and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 27:7).” Rav Chaim Hezekiah Medini, a 19th century Rabbinic scholar also known as Sdei Chemed, supports this claim and explains that “the ‘joy’ of meat is specific to sacrificial offerings, because offerings themselves are a clear sign that God is okay with us killing and eating animals”.

On the other hand: Rashi comments on Genesis 1:29 that “Torah places cattle and beasts on a level with [human beings] with regard to food, and did not permit Adam to kill any creature and eat its flesh, but all alike were to eat herbs…” And in Mishneh Torah Hilchot Da’ot 5:10 we learn, “The sages instructed us that the proper path is that one should not eat meat even when craving it, even as it is said, ‘thy soul desires to eat flesh’ (Deuteronomy 12:20)”. Eating meat is sometimes associated in Jewish law with gluttony, as in the case of the rebellious son in Sanhedrin 70a who eats meat and drinks wine as evidence of his shameful character.

So we know now that we can find arguments in Torah to support and also to denounce our Sunday roasts and Thanksgiving turkeys. And at the end of the day, our food choices are informed by traditions, preferences, privileges, and all sorts of other factors that we weigh up as we stock our refrigerators. One thing we can undoubtedly take away from Torah, however, is the awareness that we truly are what we eat, that our food, our identities, our families are strongly connected, and that these connections can ebb and flow as we move through life. We might be vegan one year, vegetarian the next, macrobiotic the next and carnivore the next: and all this a reflection of our need not only to survive, but also to thrive; not only to eat but also to nourish; not only to cook but also to create. May we enter into this new year, whether vegan or carnivore or somewhere in between, with a deeper appreciation for the resources that enable us and sustain us.

Shabbat Shalom.