Turkey Talk

by Rabbi Marc Soloway

Cross-posted at Boulder Jewish News

I was not brought up with Thanksgiving. Guy Fawkes night on November 5th, with bonfires and fireworks, yes, but Thanksgiving, no. In fact my first exposure to this very American holiday was when I was in Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where a group of American students enjoyed the opportunity to invite a Hungarian, South African and an Englishman (that would be me) to their festive gathering. There was a politically correct and insightful reenactment of the story with puppets, rituals of gratitude and, of course, great food! As a vegetarian who occasionally indulged in chicken or turkey, but strictly no red meat, I really relished this almost religiously required ritual of ripping into a turkey. It was so delicious. In Hebrew, there is even a pun to increase the force of the obligation: hodu means both ‘give thanks’ and turkey! That joyful gathering in Jerusalem was not my last turkey dinner on Thanksgiving.

On Yom Kippur, I gave a sermon on the holiness of eating that focused on the horrors of factory farmed meat production. For years, I believed that occasional forays into the flesh of chicken or turkey was relatively harmless and certainly nothing like on the same scale as getting bloated on beef. Since reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book “Eating Animals,” however, I have come to realize that industrialized poultry is actually the worst, in its cruelty and the amount of disease and drugs carried in these poor birds. As delicious as that turkey dinner is on Thanksgiving, it is an increasingly ironic way to celebrate freedom and gratitude. As Jonathan Safran Foer puts it:

Food is not so much a symbol of freedom as the first requirement of freedom. We eat foods that are native to America on Thanksgiving to acknowledge that fact. In many ways, Thanksgiving initiates a distinctly American ideal of ethical consumerism. The Thanksgiving meal is America’s founding act of conscientious consumption.


But what about the food we feast upon? Does what we consume make sense?


All but a negligible number of the 45 million turkeys that find their way to our Thanksgiving tables were unhealthy, unhappy, and – this is a radical understatement – unloved… Today’s turkeys are natural insectivores fed a grossly unnatural diet… Given their vulnerability to disease, turkeys are perhaps the worst fit of any animal for the factory model. So they are given more antibiotics than any other farmed animals. Which encourages antibiotic resistance. Which makes these indispensable drugs less effective for humans. In a perfectly direct way, the turkeys on our tables are making it harder to cure human illness.

Rabbi Marc Soloway

Rabbi Marc Soloway

Bah humbug. How dare I, an Englishman, not brought up with this sacred turkey fest, spoil your appetites? Well, in some ways, this distance gives me a perspective to see the irony of a tradition that started with wild birds and that has now created a demand on a scale that can only be met by factory farms. Forty-five million turkeys! There are many countries in the world with smaller populations.

I really like the idea of a ritual meal focused around local food, freedom and gratitude and we have some wonderful traditions around eating in Judaism and every meal has a whole liturgy of thanksgiving attached to it. The early rabbis, in their ingenuity, taught that after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the festive table of Shabbat or a Holiday, is like the altar, and our meal is a sacrificial feast. This is one of the ways that Judaism survived; that it was able to take rituals that could no longer be performed and give them a new application, in the Jewish home. So, what are we sacrificing on that mizbeach, the altar? What are we complicit in when we consume factory-farmed meat? If the rabbis’ intention was to elevate a communal meal into a holy offering, can that offering be something that has suffered so much and is so full of drugs and disease?

There are producers who are supplying ethically produced, anti-biotic free, kosher turkey, allowing us to choose conscience over convenience; and there are also delicious local winter squash and yummy alternatives to birds. Since being a member of our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and enjoying the delicious fresh weekly offerings from Red Wagon Organic Farms, I have found it so special to express my Thanksgiving for the earth, the bounty and the wonderful farmers who have grown this food.

May we all be blessed with the appreciation of our abundant gifts and the wisdom of our choices as consumers! May every meal be a sacred act of Thanksgiving!

Postscript – Information on Organic, Ethical, Kosher Meat
Soon, there may well be a supply of locally raised organic chickens, ritually slaughtered here in Boulder by the group who recently learned this. This would be a small scale operation, but an important service for our community. There are three companies that I know of currently that provide good quality, ethical Kosher meat, one in Colorado and two on the East Coast.

EcoGlatt Inc., based here Colorado, so local and I have met some of the animals as well as the farmers!

Grow and Behold, OU certified, based on the east coast, but with buying clubs nationally. I know the owners of this company well through my work with Hazon.

Kol Foods, OU or Star K certified and also on the east coast, but available nationwide too. Worth noting that some of their less expensive meat comes from South America, which is grass fed and grass finished and well raised, but the local practices of slaughter are problematic.

Marc has served as the rabbi of Congregation Bonai Shalom in Boulder, Colorado since 2004. He has always loved food, perhaps a little too much, and in recent years has thought more deeply about where this food comes from, how it is produced, and how all of that fits with deep Jewish obligations and values. Marc has ridden twice in the Hazon-Arava Institute Israel ride in 2008 and 2010. Most recently, Marc was a co-chair of the 2010 and 2011 Hazon Food Conferences.

Photo: “The First Thanksgiving” by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris via Wikimedia Commons

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6 Responses to Turkey Talk

  1. Richard Schwartz November 17, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    As president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, I commend Rabbi Soloway for his thoughtful analysis, but I believe respectfully that he is ignoring that the production and consumption of meat and other animal products violate basic Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, and help hungry people and that animal-based diets and agriculture are causing an epidemic of diseases in the Jewish and other communities, and contributing significantly to climate change and other environmental problems that threaten all of humanity. I believe it is essential that the Jewish community address these issues and consider shifts to plant-based diets to help shift our imperiled planet to a sustainable path.

    For further information about Jewish teachings on vegetarianism, please see my 150 articles and 25 podcasts and complete text of my book “Judaism and Vegetarianism” at JewishVeg.com/schwartz and please see our acclaimed documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World” at ASacedDuty.com.

  2. Bobbie Landau November 17, 2011 at 7:34 pm #

    Well put Richard Schwartz regarding dangers of animals regarding ethics, health, environment, climate change and more for those who continue with animal and dairy based diet rather than plant-based diet.

  3. Lewis Regenstein November 17, 2011 at 8:15 pm #

    I would like respectfully to reiterate that a meatless diet is completely consistent with Jewish teachings, law, and tradition.

    numerous aspects of Judaism require us to refrain from abuse of other creatures, which regularly suffer during the raising and slaughter of animals for food.

    The code of laws forbidding cruelty to animals (“Tsa’ar ba’alei hayim”, the requirement “to prevent the suffering of living creatures”) is one of the most important aspects of Jewish law.

    Indeed, the Jews pioneered the concept of kindness to animals some 3,500 years ago, and it is mandated throughout the Bible and Jewish law. Even the holiest of our laws, the Ten Commandments, requires that farmed animals be allowed to enjoy a day of rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 23:12, Deuteronomy 5:14). So the Almighty must have felt that kindness to animals was not a trivial matter.

    Significantly, the first commandments given by the Lord (Genesis 1:22-28) concern the welfare and survival of animals, and human responsibilities toward them. God’s very first commandment (Genesis 1:22) was to the birds, whales, fish and other creatures to “be fruitful and multiply” and fill the seas and the skies. His first commandment to humans (Genesis 1:28) was to “replenish the earth…and have dominion” [stewardship] over other creatures.

    It is truly a “shanda,” a shameful thing, that we so heavily use meat products the production of which often involves the massive abuse and suffering of billions of factory farmed creatures, many of which spend their entire lives in misery, fear, and anguish, in addition to the often painful way they are killed.

    It is hard to imagine that abuse of animals would be pleasing to a merciful God. Can this truly be the will of the Lord, who called each animal He created “good” and the Creation itself “very good” (Genesis 1:29-31), who commanded us to leave some crops in the fields for the wildlife (Leviticus 25:4-7), and to allow oxen to eat while working (Deuteronomy 25:4), and who repeatedly prohibited cruelty to animals ?

    As Proverbs 12:10 tells us, “A righteous man has regard for the life of his beast.” Truly, as Psalm 145:9 states, “His compassion is over all His creatures.”

    Sincerely yours,

    Lewis Regenstein

    Atlanta, GA 404-814-1371

    The writer is the author of “Commandments of Compassion: Jewish Teachings on Protecting the Planet and its Creatures,” and president of The Interfaith Council for the Protection of Animals and Nature .

  4. Roberta Schiff November 17, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    This holiday, more than any other, is identified with the eating of an animal. It is called Turkey Day and images abound of turkeys; this is so pervasive that most people do not ever reflect on using the image of an animal to promote the eating of it.
    The turkeys raised for food are bred to have such large breasts that they can not reproduces naturally and so the males are masturbated and the females are inseminated, painful for them and degrading for the workers. This is true of so-called free-range turkeys.It is very sad, to me, that most Jews will not consider how they contribute to animal cruelty with their food choices. They very small amount of animals that are not factory farmed are also not allowed a normal life and are raised only to be killed. It is not only not a solution, but very elitist, most people can not afford the very high price for this free-range flesh. I have been doing outreach to Jewish Communities for several years and will keep it up. We Jews ought to be leaders in the movement to end animal cruelty, environmental damage and hart unhealthy way of eating. I appreciate the first part of this article.

  5. Janet Weinberg November 17, 2011 at 11:22 pm #

    Rabbi Soloway, with all due respect, a vegetarian doesn’t “occassionally indulge in turkey”. It is like being “a little bit pregnant.” You either are or you are not a vegetarian. .

  6. Karen Davis November 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm #

    As caring people we need to move away from dining on other animal species in favor of truly compassionate, healthy and environmentally sound diets. Terms like organic, free range and the like may please our fantasies but do not tell the real story of how animals raised for food are actually treated. For example surgical mutilations of animals’ bodies without anesthetic is routine regardless of the label. All turkeys endure the degrading and revolting atrocity of artificial insemination and masturbation. Animal farming is not a benign, kind enterprise. It never was. There are so many wonderful vegan foods on the market today. Purchasing and supporting these products is what we can and should do to bring more peace and justice to the world.

    Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns.
    Author of More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality

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