Recently Oxford University Press published a book, which looks of great interest. Though I have not yet read it and cannot vouch for it, the author presents a thesis that alerts us all (scholars and lay both) to the proverbial elephant in the room: B. Barry Levy, Fixing God’s Torah: The Accuracy of the Hebrew Bible Text in Jewish Law (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). For text critics (those who work with the original manuscripts) and those who read them, knowledge of the biblical text’s fluidity comes as no surprise. From biblical versions found at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) and from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), from the second century BCE to the first century CE, we know that the biblical text varied from source to source. Yet, most of us still work and study “as if” the Masoretes got it absolutely right in the Middle Ages: we have the correct text. Now Barry Levy apparently shows that the rabbis of antiquity did not even agree on the notion of an immutable text and recognized the need to “correct” the text. He provides a plethora of evidence. Wow. That’s kind of an earthquake. Even the very traditional rabbinic tradition seemingly acknowledged that the text of the Torah was not permanently fixed. Should provide for lots of lively discussion.
This is in response to a group discussion in our congregation on organic foods.
Something positive and good has come out of this discussion of chickens. We have learned that people are deeply responsive to the issue of meat consumption. Unlike abortion, stem cells, capital punishment, even war, this topic strikes all of us at a gut, personal level. We may not all have the unfortunate experience of dealing with a murderer or an unwanted pregnancy, but obviously we all to have to eat on a regular basis. So this is a dilemma we cannot avoid facing. And nobody wants to feel like a bad person; we all want to think we’re good, decent, nice people.
Yet, the reality is that we are all–everyone of us–implicated in the cultural activities of the broader society in which we live. There is no getting around that. Torah has long explained that every Jew sins not just as an individual, but as part of the greater Jewish and human community. No matter what we do, we are engaged in activities that are harmful to other beings and to the earth itself. That’s simply the nature of humanness. What we should do, I think, is not try to be perfect (that’s plainly impossible), but to try to reduce the harm we do and to transform negative actions into positive ones.
Historically, laws of kashrut slaughtering were much more humane than slaughtering practices found in neighboring cultures. And part of the motivation (though not all) for these laws probably stemmed from concern for the well-being of animals. But times have changed, and we live in a different world since the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. Like others today, kosher butchers engage in the factory industry of chicken slaughtering (though kosher butchers are more humane than the large corporate industry giants). It is this assembly-line, industrial system that has caused new, inhumane practices to be adopted by most large slaughtering houses. Our dilemma is: Do we pay more for humane slaughtering practices, or do we pay the lowest possible price? Of course, we all have to make that decision for ourselves, and no one is wrong who decides to pay a lower price. Every day we make these kinds of decisions in countless, little ways, and I imagine that each one of us comes to different conclusions, depending on the issue.
For me eating free-range chickens means that we are inflicting less pain and suffering on other sentient beings. We are also forcing poultry producers to adopt more humane and healthy practices. This is tikkun olam. Do I always do this? Honestly, no. Do I try to? Yes. Why? Because it is the right thing to do. We all do the best we can, knowing that we can still cause harm. That’s the complexity of our human existence.
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