From my late adolescence until recently, I was an ambivalent vegetarian. My gastronomic relationship with the succulent flesh of cows, sheep and chickens was mostly one of respectful abstinence, except for once every ten years, when like a monk gone wild, I would shed my righteous reputation for no-meat celibacy, and I would go underground to eat from the shadowy flesh pots. I returned to the kosher cold cuts, hot dogs, and chicken wings, glancing nervously over my shoulder for fear of “getting caught”, as if anyone would really care. I would eat with primitive, furtive satisfaction, yet ultimately with not a whole lot of pleasure, before returning to my life of no-meat discipline. Like a school of fish swimming in and out of coral reefs, I also moved back and forth between eating and not eating those dwellers of the deep. I finally settled several years ago on remaining a confirmed pescavore, using a friend’s argument about the inherent stupidity of fish as my excuse.
I made one more break with my vegetarianism, at least for now, this past winter, one Friday night at our family’s Sabbath dinner table. In the midst of an intellectual argument with my kids, I got so heated by the debate that I picked up an available chicken thigh and bit into it. The conversation stopped suddenly, and my middle daughter shouted, almost laughing “Wow, dad, to think that one argument could turn you back into a carnivore!” Actually, my newest move to the dark side where the dark meat can be found, was a long time in coming. After many decades of associating vegetarianism with my own childish need to be, and to be perceived as, more sensitive than other mere mortals, I decided to get off my self-righteous pedestal and enjoy the foods in front of me, as long as they continued to strictly conform to the Jewish laws of keeping kosher. My ethical qualms about killing animals for my nourishment would have to give way to my quest for the routine, legitimate pleasures of life.
My qualms came back to haunt me on a golden July morning in the Green mountains of southern Vermont. On the last day of my daughter’s stint as a volunteer on an organic farm, I asked her and her co-worker if I could help them with any chores before we left. Raised entirely in cities, with all their nature-deprived sterility, I hoped there was something I could do to satisfy my need for fifteen minutes of farmer fantasy. “Sure, dad, help us put these chickens for slaughter into those crates,” she answered, gesturing to the wire cages in the distance. She had already declared to us that animal farming, even ethically sourced animal farming, was moving her towards vegetarianism, and now I understood why. As I picked up and held each bird firmly, I felt like I was exercising a kind of gentle ruthlessness. I forced myself to temporarily suppress my instinctive pity for each one as it squawked plaintively and pathetically upon being grabbed, before quieting down and settling in the cage, a soon to be victim of human hunger, thankfully lacking developed consciousness and memory. This was the normal stuff of farms, and the farm she worked on treats its animals very well before killing them. Still, looking into each bird’s eyes, listening to its cry, and feeling its rapid, shallow breathing on my arms was enough to make me pause with minor anguish and consider not if, but when, I would renounce eating them again.
I understand the many legitimate arguments for the evolving interdependence between humans and domesticated animals which permits us to eat them, as long as they are treated and slaughtered humanely. Yet my brief farm encounter has me reconsidering the contradiction between consumption and humanity, a clash of values that nags once more at my palate and my soul.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY.
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