A reflection on this week's Torah portion.
Last week I was eating a hamburger, and a relative asked me, “Why does meat taste so good?” Meat is fatty, filling, and has lots of tasty nutrients with Greco-Latin names. But I imagine all of meat’s nutritional properties could be replicated in vegan foodstuffs. And we’d still think meat was far better—there’s just something about flesh. (I predict that even as chemistry enables us to eat meat-like substances grown from animal cells, some people will pay extra to eat slaughtered beings.) There’s a juicier and more profound explanation for meat’s appeal. I want to propose a sketchy prolegomenon to a theology for homo carnivorous.
First, some theory of consumption. Eating is dominative communion. A man makes a steak a part of himself after manipulating (or paying someone to manipulate) the world according to his wishes. Lording over things excites us. Everyone knows that the degree of pleasure taken in victory equals your standing relative to your victim’s standing multiplied by the extent of the win. Landing one punch against a large bully gives about the same satisfaction as really bloodying an enemy peer. The animals we eat are weaker and dumber than we are. Moreover, they are a different kind of being. An extreme victory is required for a greater sense of fulfillment.
Still, there is a resemblance between us and them. Animals have faces, bodies, families, and even feelings that look like human ones. When we harm or care for animals, we feel some of the concern we usually reserve for humans. But not in the same way: Almost no one has an urge to stop strange lions from eating strange cows (if the cow is your very own Bessie, that’s different). Animals and their institutions lack the essentially human qualities, but the similarities between us and them still impress us strongly. Which is why humans can take extreme and even demonic pleasure in controlling animals, but cannot take such pleasure in controlling corn.
It is this distant resemblance that I think accounts for our special relationship with meat. Animal flesh looks arrestingly like human flesh; but this produces no revulsion in man. In eating meat, we satisfy a deep desire to hoist ourselves higher on the great chain of being. It is our proximity to animals that makes our eating them so delicious a dominative act. But the delectability comes at an obvious cost to virtue. It accustoms us to revel in domination—not noble stewardship, but the basest kind of conquest: the elimination of another for our own satisfaction.
This is how things stand psychologically. And what the Bible has to say about eating meat reads like a response to this account of man’s relationship to animals.
In this week’s Torah portion (Deuteronomy 11:26–16:22), God tells the Israelites that they must bring animal sacrifices only in the appointed locations, not anywhere they like, as they’ve done in the desert. And then: “When the Lord enlarges your borders, as He has told you, and you say ‘let me have meat,’ for you have an urge to eat meat, according to every desire of your heart shall you eat meat.” Three verses later, the Lord enjoins the Israelites: “But surely you shall not eat the blood, for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh.” It sounds like the Lord only reluctantly gives permission to eat meat. The purpose is to satisfy neither a biological necessity (like thirst) nor a religious end (like ritual slaughter, which is already required).
A life without meat is perfectly sufficient, and yet men sometimes just do want it, and the Lord allows it, while forcing them to confront the low motive impelling them to want it. Rashi, the medieval Ashkenazi exegete, explains that while the Israelites wandered in the desert, carnivorousness was prohibited unless the meat was slaughtered for ritual. Nachmanides quotes a Midrashic text teaching that the adjacent mentions of ritual slaughter and general meat-eating extend the methods—which require tools and severe precision—of ritual slaughter to all slaughter for eating.
This is not the first time that the Lord has broadened the range of permissible foods to include meat. In Genesis 2:16, the Lord permits Edenic man to eat any tree he likes. Animals are not mentioned. Postlapsarian man, by contrast, is permitted “all living things to eat, as the green grass do I give these to you.” But again with a restriction: “Meat with life-blood you shall not eat.”
The Bible permits meat to man, with a peculiar hesitation. Jews may eat meat, but not blood; Gentiles may eat meat, but not from a living animal. These limited permissions have a unified axiological source. The Bible wants us as much as possible to dissociate the animal we eat from its living predecessor. If we are to indulge in our carnivorous urges, we ought to refine our tastes upward from living beasts—both the ones whose cadavers we now eat, and the ones who, but for these restrictions, we would imitate by eating them.
Cole S. Aronson studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Judean hills.