Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Chicken or the Ache?

By Eric Shumiller

Eric Schumiller is the cantor, shareholder, and on the planning committee at the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore (Plandome, NY).

In my hard-core college vegan days, when I toted around a copy of John Robbins' Diet for a New America like it was from Mt. Sinai, I often wondered how I would approach the subject of meat eating with any future children I might have. The idealized plan that I came up with (while still a bachelor, of course), was that we would have a strictly vegetarian household until my future children reached the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. At that point, I would give them a copy of Robbins' well-written argument against consumption of animal products, take them on a tour of the closest factory farm and/or meat processing facility, and then let them make their own informed adult decision about whether they wanted to consume meat from that point forward. If they choose to eat meat at that point, more power to them.

Of course, nearly twenty years later as the (flexitarian? vegearian?) parent of two toddlers, things are not so cut and dry. Nowadays, Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma has replaced John Robbins on my shelf, and we are indeed an omnivorous household. Things seemed to be going smoothly - we support our Tuv Ha'aretz CSA, shop at Whole Foods (or at least the organic aisle at Stop & Shop), and try to follow Reb Pollan's core dictum: "Eat Food, Not to Much, Mostly Plants." We try to limit any meat we consume in the home to that produced in a sustainable, ethical manner. Emergency road trip Burger King stops aside, we've done a decent job of modeling the ideals of eco-kashrut to our kids. Until last week, when our four and half year old asked that dreaded question over a free-range rotisserie chicken at Shabbat dinner: "Where do chickens come from?" Up until then, he probably had a vague notion that the chicken on his plate and the chicken in his story book were somehow connected, but that the chicken meat he was eating was somehow freely donated by the animal, like a lamb gives us its wool. But now, as notions of life and death worked their way further and further into his developing consciousness, our son (who is no dummy) was suspecting foul play (sorry, I couldn't resist!).

The challenges in answering his question were many-fold. How do we justify our eating of meat, when we could be satisfying our protein intake (and yummy factor) with strictly vegetarian food? How do we ameliorate (or validate?) the death and suffering of even a well-raised, humanely slaughtered animal, which is now sitting on our plates?

If you want to see my answer, you'll have to surf on over to Hazon's wonderful blog, The Jew & The Carrot ( More importantly, I want to hear your answers! Whether you're a parent or not, a vegetarian or a carnivore, how have you/would you answer this most basic of questions?

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