In this week’s parashah, having camped at Mount Sinai for several months, the Israelites are now continuing their journey through the wilderness. They soon begin complaining again. This time, although they have plenty of manna to eat, they want meat too. God is angered by their moaning and answers that the people will eat meat for a whole month until it becomes loathsome. God brings them the promised supply of quails, which are greedily gathered by the people, but before they have swallowed a mouthful they are smitten with a great plague.
As a pescetarian, this led me to think about the differing views on eating meat and, given the gluttony of the Israelites, whether the Torah might have some bearing on our society’s current problems related to obesity.
Most commentators seem to agree that God’s initial intention was that people should be vegetarians. Adam and Eve are told that they may eat any plants (Gen. 1:29), but killing creatures for food is prohibited. However, after the flood, Noah is told “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you” (Gen. 9:3)—though some argue that this was only supposed to be a temporary concession. The Jewish Vegetarian Society suggests several reasons for not eating meat, including the Torah’s many references to caring for animals; the mitzvah to feed the hungry, which it is argued would more easily be fulfilled if meat-eating was reduced; our obligation to protect the environment, which arguably is adversely affected by animal agriculture; and preserving human health, on the basis that eating less meat promotes a healthier lifestyle.
Although eating meat was allowed after the flood, there are, of course, many restrictions on meat-eating within the laws of kashrut. According to the Torah, the dietary laws are there to make us holy (Lev. 9:45). But perhaps the care that these laws encourage in our food choices also promotes compassion towards animals, our environment and our own health.
There is much in the media about the problem of obesity, and perhaps the modern equivalent of the “great plague” in this week’s sedra is the rise in the developed world of obesity-related health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes. Certainly excessive over-eating seems in stark contrast with the mitzvah to take care of one’s health. Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, writing in the New York Jewish Week (25 April 2012), suggests, “By learning moderation, improving our diets, and taking care of our bodies, we not only fulfil the mitzvah of preserving our lives and caring for our loaned bodies created in the ‘image of God’, we also teach our children the importance of living a balanced, holy lifestyle.”
Whether it is through kashrut, vegetarianism, buying organic produce or something else, perhaps we can all find a way to be holy, follow the principles of tikkun olam (repairing the world), and care for our bodies in the choices that we make about our food.
As King Solomon says in Proverbs (13:25), “A righteous person eats to satisfy his soul.”
Debbie Harris is a member of St Albans Masorti Synagogue and a benefits adviser for Citizens Advice and Jewish Care.