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16 July 2011

Meat and Meaning

I was reading this blog post by Shmuel Herzfeld, rabbi at the National Synagogue in D.C., and he makes a good point that got me thinking. Kosherite law, in many ways, is a throwback to a time when humanity was much more connected to the earth and to nature. Today, we are radically disconnected from the food that ends up on our plates.

I think, in part, we have the Apostle Paul to blame for this. It goes back to his bargaining for the spread of the Gospel to non-Jews. Many among the early Christians in Jerusalem were arguing that would-be converts to Christianity would first need to convert to Judaism which meant, among other things, following kosherite dietary laws. Paul's argument won out, though, and Gentiles, it was decided, could skip the Jewish stuff and simply become Christian. This didn't mean suddenly going from an anything-goes food culture to a restricting practice. The religions and customs of the Greco-Romans in antiquity and late antiquity dealt heavily in the ritual slaughter of the animals that ended up being food. But, the new Pauline Christians were in an interesting situation, now. They were forced to give up their "pagan" practices but not required to adopt the Jewish practices, leaving them essentially in a cultural vacuum regarding their food practices, a legacy that has followed Christianity through the ages and that has remained with us through the development of modern Western culture. Food--and particularly the killing of animals that become our food--has lost the powerful meaning and symbolism that had previously been an important part of social action.

What is more respectful to a living being, respecting the taking of its life with ritual practice or the concealing of the process wholly so as that we are completely ignorant to where our food comes from and how it gets on our plate? Ironically, I am arguing, the new slaughtering laws in Netherlands do the exact opposite of what they intend, protecting animals from abusive treatment.

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