Many people experience an epiphany at least once. For me, it was a sermon by Hendon Reform’s Rabbi Steven Katz, on shechita. I thought I was about to endure yet another justification for religious slaughter, but then realised he was not going down that road at all. Being neither a chicken nor a cow, he couldn’t know which method of killing hurt more, but in his calm, oratorical way, he proceeded to offer graphic descriptions of both.
Worse was to come. Apparently some biblical kid (goat, not child) had once scuttled to a great rabbi seeking protection from the knife, only to be pushed away by him so that it could fulfil its ritual destiny.
Rabbi Katz’s eulogy to the animals was a clear hope that one day all Jews would be vegetarian.
The exhortation stung me to the quick but — chicken soup with kneidlach? roast chicken and roast potatoes? The definitive taste of Friday night follows the generations as naturally as challah follows Palwin’s No 10, and that pungent aroma when my father carved the chicken. Later in life, my husband would carve. And further down the carnivorous line it was my son — except he was the first to complain that my knives weren’t sharp enough.
How can I deprive my son of his Friday night chicken, I whimpered to Rabbi Steven, wondering why it’s the males who are blamed for our ethical choices. Most men do love their meat, he conceded. By which I deduced that work was required to reverse the Jewish habits and tastes of centuries. Something akin to the spiritual journey of a yogi initiate – even a sadhu holding up his hand in the wilderness till it atrophies?
That day I ate the vegetarian moussaka I’d made for my daughter, a committed vegetarian after a Malaysian trip yielded the truth of animal cruelty. Neither fish nor fowl will she touch today. Her elder sister had first become veggie in her teens — until the day she smelled the barbecued meat her father was cheerfully blitzing in the garden. Now, with her veggie boyfriend, she is considering a herbivorous renewal.
My son-in-law has vowed not to eat any mammal again — something to do with having a new baby? But that still leaves non-mammals…like chicken. My son may salivate over the cooking smells, but, as he reminds me, he no longer lives at home and I am my own woman.
Why is Jewish guilt — maternal sentimentality or sheer greed — so powerful? It’s simple. Turn off your carnivorous tastebuds, and go zen, vegan if necessary, saving the planet from pollutants, and maybe earning a ticket to heaven, if it exists, once the old mortal coil has been well shuffled off.
I am consistently inconsistent: veggie lasagna one day, sea-bass the next. To paraphrase Shakespeare — doth not a fish feel? Even those species not banned to us are sometimes battered to death, refusing, like Scarpia in Tosca, to die quickly. Or will I still be roasting chicken and making kneidlach, when all the world has gone veggie, out of some primeval Friday night mothering instinct, as the Shabbat candles flicker and the challah goes dry on the table?
Eating meat is deep in the psyche. Herman Wouk, in his novel, Youngblood Hawke, is welcomed home by his mother with a bowl of soup, saying: “You’ve got to be willing to use meat in soup.”
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch believed “there are probably no creatures that require the protective Divine word against the presumption of man more than the animals”. Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook felt that God wanted people to be vegetarian and that meat was permitted as a concession to people’s weakness. Well, the weakness bit certainly makes sense....