Nigel Savage, founder of Hazon, asked us two questions during his keynote speech last night at the Hazon Food Conference. It felt like the beginning of one of those Jewish parables, the ones where the wise rabbi asks or tells us something that means more than it seems on the surface, where you ponder on the teaching and the world opens up in a new way.
“Stand up if you eat meat, but you wouldn’t if you had to kill it yourself,” Nigel called out. A number of people in the packed hall rose from their seats. I applauded them for their self-awareness and honesty, while of course maintaining a certain degree of vegetarian smugness.
Then he asked us another question. “Stand up if you are vegetarian, but would eat meat if you killed it yourself.” This time fewer people stood up, but it was still a significant number.
Then Nigel told us the story of the goat.
Two years ago, while putting together the second annual Hazon Food Conference, the planners decided that one of the activities offered would be the opportunity to see a goat killed in a kosher manner. A shochet, or ritual slaughterer, and a rabbi explained the whole process as they performed it. The death by slitting of the throat was almost instantaneous, as kosher law requires. Then there were several more hours of cutting off the goat’s head, hanging its body to drain the blood, opening it up to inspect its organs.
That night the same goat was served for dinner, on a separate table from the rest of the meal, which was vegetarian, and everyone was invited to partake. Nigel asked those same two questions afterwards, but this time he asked who among the diners who normally ate meat had abstained. More than 40 people out of a few hundred stood up. Then he asked if any people who were normally vegetarians had eaten the goat. Around 20 people had, for their own numerous and varied reasons, made this choice.
When word got out before the conference that the ritual slaughter of a goat was to be part of the programming, this provoked some intense reactions. A Jewish vegetarian organization disavowed Hazon and called on others to do the same. For a more detailed look at the sentiments behind the reactions, check out this post and its comments section to read a dialogue which took place this year regarding Hazon’s intention to ritually slaughter chickens and serve them for Shabbat dinner.
I’m a vegetarian, so this doesn’t have much to do with me, right? I can pick a side based on my own principles, but those goats and chickens aren’t being killed and served up in my name.
Except for one thing.
That goat was my goat.
No, I don’t mean he was my own pet goat. I mean that goat was my responsibility. I brought him into this world. His fate was directly linked to me.
That year the Hazon conference was held at the Isabella Freeman Jewish Retreat Center, and the goat in question was from their farm, Adamah, part of Adamah’s “boy’s town.” “Boy’s town” is the separate pasture for all the male goats who are born to the herd of dairy goats Adamah raises to produce milk and cheese. In order to make milk, goats need to be lactating, and to lactate they must be pregnant and then give birth. According to the wonderful Abbe Turner of the Lucky Penny Farm, who answered my questions (during today’s panel of Jewish Female Farmers) with deep compassion and groundedness, around 56% of the kids born in her herd are male. None of these little guys will be producing milk any time soon. So what happens to them?
I imagine this answer is different for different goats. And then there also the even more numerous males born to dairy cows, and all the males born to laying hens. Some end up as featured delicacies in local gourmet retaurants, like Abbe Turner’s. Others are killed quickly and cleanly by a shochet and eaten by those who raised them, like the goats at Adamah. Most others will likely go to central processing plants to become stew meat or pet food or veal calves or are even ground into livestock feed, like male laying chickens.
When I eat eggs and dairy, even from the most humane, sustainable, small-farmer-owned, organic, local farms, I am not only drinking this milk and noshing on this cheese. I am calling forth this male goat, this living animal who is brought into a world that has very few options for him. Farmers could keep these male animals and raise them – and Abbe Turner does send some off to live lengthy lives as 4H projects or grass shearers. But to keep all of these animals would be to make pets of them, and the strain this doubling of the herd would put on the resources of land and water and farmer would be enormous beyond justification.
In saying that, I’m not saying that the strain on resources of keeping these “extraneous” male animals alive is not justified by the saving of their lives; I’m saying that it’s not justified by the resources (i.e., money) that I’m willing to contribute to get myself a delicious chevre or some tasty yogurt. I’m not paying so much for my cheese that there’s money in there to fund a goat sanctuary as well. So, the goat goes off to the knife. Someone kills him, someone cooks him, someone eats him. It’s not me, though.
No, I’m a vegetarian.
This post is cross-posted to Hazon’s food blog, The Jew and the Carrot. It is not intended to endorse any particular diet or agenda, e.g. to say that being vegan (abstaining from all animal products) is the only way to live, or that vegetarians are hypocrites. It merely hopes to be an exploration of one of the least considered aspects of our food chain.