Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Eco-Kosher and the URJ

[Editor's Note: I originally wrote this post almost a month ago, and just realized it never actually got published.]

I focus on issues of sustainability and eco-awareness so much at work that it's easy to forget other industries also consider environmental issues, so it was very interesting to see this post at Reform Judaism Magazine. The topic under discussion: should we adopt dietary restrictions to Save the Environment?

In general, I agree more with Rabbi Barry Schwartz, representing the "Yes" position. That is to say, I agree with his line of reasoning and priorities; not sure if we should make it religious law.

Rabbi Cliff Librach argues "No", and I was a little disappointed by his arguments. It starts strongly, citing the Talmudic principle that “One should not impose a restriction on the community unless the majority can abide by it” (Baba Kamma 79b and parallels). A good teaching, one I feel the religious community often forgets, or does not correctly apply (True, it wasn't impossible for me to walk to temple when I lived in Michigan, but 3 miles through knee-deep snow does not tend to put me in a "religious" frame of mind). Although I'm not sure it applies here. I don't know the original proposal they're debating, but the article seems to focus mainly on eliminating/reducing beef consumption more than strict vegetarianism. It's a long road to walk to show it's "impossible" for people to cut back on beef. Unplesant, maybe, but that's a different question.

From there his arguments get worse. In short, it feels like a lot of the political commentary I see; a well-reasoned argument and a bloviating, overemotional, logic-lite response. He cries "Political Correctness" on Rabbi Schwartz and the UN ("Like much of the work of the United Nations...is a case of misplaced (and hysterical) political correctness.") He uses "facts", such as:
"As more than half of all American agricultural land is unsuitable for growing crops, the grazing of cattle and other animals doubles the production of food products from the available land."
Problem with that is it assumes grain and cattle use land in a 1:1 ratio. That is not the case, especially when you consider that raising cattle still means growing grain to feed to the cattle. If we all ate only grass-fed beef that grazed only marginal land it might be different, but that still suggests a new "guideline" telling Reform Jews to look for that product.

More on the impact of beef, from the 2006 LEAD report:
- Livestock production accounts for 70% of all agriculture land and 30% of the land surface on the planet.
- 70% of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures
-Livestock is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions (higher than transportation)
- Livestock accounts for over 8% of global human water use
- In the US alone, livestock is responsible for an estimated 55% of erosion and sediment, 33% of pesticide use, and 50% of antibiotic use
So what's my feeling? I'm always hesitant to implement new laws, or add additional strictures and requirements to existing ones. The fact that I agree with the principles at stake (or "at steak") don't change that. Still, I think this is a good dietary restriction to adopt, one much more reasonable and palatable than many previous restrictions. It fits with the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam, healing the world. Furthermore, it is less "Because God Said So" and more reason-based than things like shatnez or  the modern reinterpretations of forbidding electricity on Shabbat.

Creating new law based on existing principles to address current needs is the way this is supposed to work. Many times that process is used to create policies that fly in the face of current knowledge or societal development (contraception, evolution, etc.); restricting beef consumption, by contrast, fits with the best scientific research and modern social trends.

Would it be difficult? Yes. I started keeping Kosher about....I guess 7 years ago now. Avoiding pork was a major difficulty for the first few years - it's amazing how many places bacon gets added - and it's still a reoccurring frustration. Giving up beef would take out another entire section of the menu, including several popular, traditional Jewish foods. But we don't do the right thing because it's easy; we do it because it's right. Religion doesn't need to tell us to do the things we already want to do; religion exists to help us learn why, and how, we do the difficult things. Giving money to charity is not easy, emotionally, or natural; it's a learned behavior, which means someone had to teach it. Helping strangers is not easy, nor is visiting the sick or loving your neighbor. Judaism teaches us to do those things.

(To my atheist/agnostic friends: Yes, there are other ways to learn these things, some of which teach them better than religion does. But religion also teaches these things, and should not stand idly by on matters such as this just because it's a lesson that can be learned elsewhere; that's ethically irresponsible.)

I'll put my money where my mouth is on this, somewhat literally. I'll start by giving up beef for a month; I'll let you know how it goes, and we'll see how I feel about it then.

What's your position on this?

[Update: Having made it almost through the entire month-long project, I can tell you this: it's rough. I slipped up a couple of times when I was tired and hungry and at restaurants that had limited menus, but stuck to it fairly consistently in general. I can see this getting easier with time, as my cravings decrease for the Orange Beef at the Chinese place near my apartment and I find acceptable hamburger substitutes, but it definitely will be a burden for anyone trying to make the change as an adult. Especially if they have preexisting dietary restrictions.

I still think it's a good and worthy idea. After my trial, I would come down on the side of "reduced consumption of" rather than "complete elimination of". Only problem is, that's a little difficult to regulate because it requires definition of terms like "reduced". Not impossible, but difficult. Some of the best suggestions I've seen involve weekly meat-free days, whether it's a static "No Meat On Fridays", or a floating "Pick One (or more) Day Each Week". It could also go the other way, where only 1 or 2 days a week are designated for meat-consumption. I don't know of any places offhand where this kind of floating "pick one" exists in Judaism, but I'm sure there are Talmudic regulations saying "No more than 5 days out of 7" or such. If you can point to a specific example, please let me know.]

1 comment:

  1. When I found a dietary intolerance to beef and I gave up beef, nearly all my migraines went away (in addition to general stomach problems). That's some powerful motivation: Eat this food, feel massive pain. Avoid this food, feel fine. Okay, so maybe I had it easier.

    When I went kosher, at first it was just "what would life be like with no pork, no shrimp, no shellfish, no dairy with the meat" as an experiment. Then I started to consider finding *only* kosher-chicken, etc. And if I didn't cook at home, I found I was only eating vegetarian or fish... and even then, I wasn't getting much variety.

    I eased up a bit on the notion of chicken (still eaten without dairy, but not necessarily stamped with a kosher seal). And I still call it a "poor man's kosher" (since I don't have two sets of dishes), but it works. I sometimes shop specifically at the kosher butcher.

    Most notably though, making food choices makes me think more than once a day about what it means to me to be Jewish. And *that* (I think) is what it really is all about.