All summer I have been thinking about meat. No, it is not just the smell of BBQ, but it has been my research project to investigate the status of cultured meat for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. I have almost completed the first draft of this responsum, though it seems that each day I discover new facets which require investigation and reconsideration. Parashat Re’eh plays a significant part in this project since several of the key considerations are derived from several verses in our portion.
Cultured meat entered public awareness in 2013 when Dr. Mark Post of the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands announced that his lab had created and cooked a $325,000 burger (actually 250,000 British pounds—we have a better exchange rate now, so the price has already fallen!). They biopsied cells from a live cow, isolated the stem cells and used them to cultivate muscle cells, which were eventually reproduced and formed to develop tiny fibers of muscle tissue, which were finally gathered and layered into a product resembling ground beef. I have been emailing with Dr. Post to check the accuracy of my understanding, and he put me in touch with an Islamic scholar from Malaysia who is doing a parallel investigation of the Halal implications of cultured meat. So, lots of people are trying to make sense of this still theoretical product.
While the process of making cultured meat may sound unnatural, wasteful and even repulsive it has strong defendants. Some say that this product would be more ethical, since it would be meat without animal suffering; it would be more healthful and more environmentally sound to produce. But would it be kosher?
One question is whether it even matters what the source of the cells originally was. After all, we are prohibited to eat the meat of non-kosher animals, but the descendant cells found in cultured meat were never part of an animal. A verse found in the bird list of Deuteronomy 14 speaks of a bird called בת היענה, which we generally translate as “ostrich.” Are both words part of the name, or does בת (daughter) add something? In the Talmud (b. Hullin 64b) and Midrash (Pesikta Zutrata to Shmini) the sages claim that this word hints at the foods derived from the bird, namely their eggs. Kosher birds yield kosher eggs, while non-kosher birds yield non-kosher eggs. Same deal with mammals and milk. As Mishna Bekhorot 1:2 puts it, that which emerges from the pure is pure; that which emerges from the impure is impure.
So far this implies that cells taken from a kosher species may themselves be considered kosher. Cultured beef could be kosher, but not cultured pork. Still, Jewish law regulates the consumption of meat, again looking to our portion, now in chapter 12, 20-24 for inspiration. Back in Genesis there was a sense that the first humans were not permitted to eat meat, but God extended this permission to Noah’s family and their descendants. Here in Deuteronomy there again seems to be a loosening of standards. Initially it appears that meat may be eaten only when connected to a sacrifice in the Tabernacle or Temple. But 12:20 anticipates a time when the borders of Israel will be large enough that Israelites will not be able to run to Jerusalem for their steak. And yet, they will yearn for meat. The Torah stipulates that “secular steaks” (חולין) may be eaten, so long as the blood is not eaten, and also, that flesh is not eaten from a living animal.
Once again we hearken back to Noah, who already received this commandment. This raises the interesting question of whether the laws given to Noah were automatically inherited by the Israelites at Sinai, or needed to be repeated. Midrash Sifre Devarim 76 works through the issue in an interesting fashion. It first claims that there is no norm which is stricter for gentiles than for Jews, so obviously if Noahides may not eat blood or flesh from a living animal, then for Jews as well these things must be forbidden. The Midrash then undermines this assumption, finding at least one example where Jews have a permission denied to gentiles. Thus there must be new legislation for Jews to know that they too must not eat flesh from a living animal.
Christine Hayes examines the Noahide rules in her book, What is Divine about Divine Law? Since the middle ages there has been a tendency to view the Noahide laws as a Jewish version of “natural law,” which was a feature of Greco-Roman legal philosophy, and became normative for the monotheistic religions in the middle ages as well. Many scholars have assumed that Judaism too has the idea of a “natural law” which in inherent in the universe, while the positive law given at Sinai is specific to a time and people (Israel after Sinai). Hayes critiques this assumption, showing that the Talmudic sages were familiar with Greco-Roman notions of natural law and seem intentionally to have undermined them. For them, the source of law was always revelation—God commanded the Noahides, and the rabbis felt that God also revoked the Noahide mandate when it was neglected. God did not commit to universal and eternal rules, but rather reserved the right to adjust laws as needed. This vision of a dynamic and responsive religious system may not have resonated with the deepest convictions of Greece and Rome, but it remains the bedrock of Jewish spirituality to this day.
We are entering into Elul and then Tishrei, which is to say that we will spend many hours in the coming 7 weeks petitioning God. Over and over we will appeal to divine mercy, and ask for relief from judgment. That is to say, we will argue against the strict application of truth and justice, or a “natural law” and in favor of clemency and pardon, which is frankly too fickle to fit into an ideal legal structure. True, we will try to narrow the gap between our ideal selves and our real selves so that we can get credit for trying. Yet the deepest conviction is that if judged solely on the merits of the case, our trial will be a fiasco. And so we plead for mercy. Jonah is our anti-hero—the unforgiving, judgmental zealot who is incensed when God forgives the people of Nineveh, sparing them and their cattle. God reminds Jonah that the people are weak and ignorant; who could survive the strict application of justice?
Like the ancient Israelite who yearns for meat, we too have cravings that may overwhelm our better judgment. The Torah draws a line—you may satisfy some of your cravings, but you have to control yourself with the others. No blood. No cruelty. Do that which is upright in the eyes of God. If we can control ourselves, at least partially, then God can forgive us, at least partially. This is not the pure and logical ideal of Platonic law, but it is rather a human-scale blend of idealism and realism. Parashat Re’eh presents us with many challenges—starting with our diet and extending to our entire society. But it also grants us some concessions, giving us enough encouragement and hope to strive to live a worthy life, a life of goodness and godliness. Entering Shabbat Re’eh and Elul 5776, we seek the strength to look clearly at our lives, to give gratitude for our gifts, and to demonstrate that with our own expression of righteousness. Shabbat shalom.
Sources (this week you get some translations from my source sheet)
The Significance of Biological Sources
Deuteronomy 14:15 (cf. Levit. 11)
וְאֵת בַּת הַיַּעֲנָה וְאֶת הַתַּחְמָס וְאֶת הַשָּׁחַף וְאֶת הַנֵּץ לְמִינֵהוּ:
Bavli Hullin 64b.
אמר חזקיה: מנין לביצת טמאה שהיא אסורה מן התורה? שנאמר: ואת בת היענה, וכי בת יש לה ליענה? אלא איזו זו ביצה טמאה.
Hezekiah says: what is the source that teaches that the egg of an impure bird is biblically forbidden? For it says: “and the daughter of the ostrich.” Does the ostrich have a daughter? Rather what is this—an impure egg.
Midrash Pesikta Zutrata to Shmini (31a):
ואת בת היענה. בת זו ביצת היענה. יצאת זו ללמד על כל הביצים של עופות הטמאים.
“And the daughter of the ostrich….” This “daughter” is the ostrich’s egg. This scriptural variant comes to teach about the eggs of all impure birds [are not kosher].
Mishnah Bekhorot 1:2
ומה הם באכילה? בהמה טהורה שילדה כמין בהמה טמאה מותר באכילה, וטמאה שילדה כמין בהמה טהורה אסור באכילה, שהיוצא מהטמא טמא והיוצא מן הטהור טהור.
What about for the purposes of eating? If a pure animal gives birth to one resembling an impure species, [the offspring] is permitted for eating. If an impure animal gives birth to one resembling a pure species, [the offspring] is forbidden for eating. That which emerges from the impure is impure, and that which emerges from the pure is pure.
Rambam, Laws of Forbidden Foods 3:1.
כל מאכל היוצא ממין מן המינין האסורין שלוקין על אכילתן הרי אותו המאכל אסור באכילה מן התורה, כגון חלב בהמה וחיה הטמאים וביצי עוף ודג הטמאים שנאמר ואת בת היענה זו ביצתה. והוא הדין לכל האסור כיענה ולכל הדברים הדומין לביצה.
Any food which emerges from one of the forbidden species that one is to be whipped for eating—this food is biblically forbidden to eat. For example: milk from impure cattle and beasts, and eggs from impure birds and fish. For it says, “and the daughter of the ostrich”—this refers to its eggs. And this rule applies to any [animal] that is forbidden like the ostrich, and for all things similar to eggs.
The Ban on Limbs and Flesh Taken from Live Animals
אַךְ בָּשָׂר בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ:
You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.
רַק חֲזַק לְבִלְתִּי אֲכֹל הַדָּם כִּי הַדָּם הוּא הַנָּפֶשׁ וְלֹא תֹאכַל הַנֶּפֶשׁ עִם הַבָּשָׂר:
But make sure that you do not partake of the blood; for the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh.
וְאַנְשֵׁי קֹדֶשׁ תִּהְיוּן לִי וּבָשָׂר בַּשָּׂדֶה טְרֵפָה לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ לַכֶּלֶב תַּשְׁלִכוּן אֹתוֹ:
You shall be holy people to Me: you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.
Sifre Devarim, Re’eh (#76).
ולא תאכל הנפש עם הבשר, זה אבר מן החי, והלא דין הוא מה בשר בחלב שמותר לבני נח אסור לישראל אבר מן החי שאסור לבני נח אינו דין שאסור לישראל, יפת תואר וכל הדומים לה תוכיח שאסורה לבני נח ומותרת לישראל אף אתה אל תתמה על אבר מן החי שאף על פי שאסור לבני נח שיהא מותר לישראל תלמוד לומר ולא תאכל הנפש עם הבשר זה אבר מן החי, רבי חנניה בן גמליאל אומר זה הדם מן החי.
And thou shall not eat the life with the flesh (12:23): This refers to a limb cut from a living animal. But is it not obvious that if flesh seethed in milk, which was permitted to all descendants of Noah, was (later) forbidden to Israel, the limbs of a living animal, which was forbidden to all descendants of Noah, should certainly be forbidden also to Israel? (Not necessarily so,) as evidenced by the case of the (captive) woman of goodly form (Deut. 21:11), who was forbidden to all descendants of Noah but was (later) permitted to Israel, and by other similar cases. You should therefore not be surprised if the limb of a living animal, too, were (later) permitted to Israel although previously prohibited to all descendants of Noah. Hence, Thou shalt not eat the life with the flesh, referring to the limb of a living animal. R. Hanina ben Gamiliel, however says: This refers to the blood of a living animal.
Rabbi Yaakov b. Asher, Tur, Yoreh Deah 62.
לא תאכל הנפש עם הבשר אזהרה לאוכל אבר מן החי ונוהג בבהמה וחיה ועוף ואינו נוהג אלא בטהורים לפיכך אבר הפורש מן החי בין שיש בו בשר וגידין ועצמות בין שאין בו אלא בשר לבד כגון הלשון והטחול והכליות והביצים אסור לאוכלו ג]בין אם יש בו כזית בין אם אין בו כזית וכן בשר הפורש מן החי אסור אף על פי שאין בו משום אבר מן החי אסור משום ובשר בשדה טריפה לא תאכלו.
“You must not consume the life with the flesh” (Deut. 12:23). This warns not to eat a limb from a living animal. It applies to cattle, beasts and birds, but only to pure species. If a limb is removed from a living animal, whether it has flesh, sinews and bones, or whether it is only flesh, such as the tongue, spleen, kidneys and testicles, it is prohibited to eat it whether there is an olive’s bulk or not. And likewise flesh removed from a living animal is prohibited even if it is not considered to be a limb from a living creature; it is prohibited because of the verse, “you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field” (Ex. 22:30
 Translation taken from Sifre: A Tannaitic Commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy, Translated from the Hebrew by Reuven Hammer (New Haven: Yale UP, 1983), pp.130-131. In note 5, Rabbi Hammer refers to b. San. 56a and t. AZ 8:4ff for sources on the captive woman being permitted only to the initial Israelite conquerors of Canaan.