I've always loved animals. Even when I was a child, every single animal struck me as intelligent. They all had distinct personalities. I started feeling from an early age that it was my duty to take care of all the animals, and indeed, I did just that! As a child, I had two guinea pigs, one rabbit, one dog, three cats, and many fish. They were my responsibility, and I took that seriously. As I became an adult, those feelings impacted my religious beliefs. I read the Bible and it was clear to me that God wants us to care for and protect animals. I vowed that I would never do anything to cause an animal harm; I became a vegan.
This prompts some interesting conversations since I am a clergy member. Many theologians feel that eating meat is sanctioned, if not encouraged, by God. Yes, there are many parts of the Torah that support eating meat, but I believe that one's diet is a personal choice. Veganism works for me. Eating meat works for other people.
When I see laws and statements that encourage eating meat, I view them the way I view any law that modern Jews reinterpret, reimagine, or simply disregard. The holy challenge of being a modern Jew is to look at the more challenging Torah portions and try to get a sense of God's big picture. I do not want to get trapped in literalism.
In this case, literalism dictates that we ritually sacrifice animals to honor God, otherwise known as Korban. God has explicit instructions on how to sacrifice an animal. Does that mean that God has given me the green light to ritually sacrifice an animal?
Sacrifices were made in the ancient Temple. After the second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., the Sanhedrin, led by Rabbi Gamaliel II, had to decide how to go to forward: How would they observe God's laws on Korbanot without the appropriate venue? At first, they decided that animal sacrifices could now be done in every family's home. Later, the rabbis decided that without a priest or a legitimate Temple, Korbanot would no longer be permissible anywhere. As sad as I am that the Temple was destroyed, I can't say I'm terribly sad that we no longer make Korbanot. However, the concept of making an animal sacrifice is intellectually intriguing to me.
While a ritual animal sacrifice is surely different than killing an animal for sustenance, it still begs the question: Is it okay to kill an animal?
The Torah suggests that if we prepare the animal in just the right way, Isheh reiach nichoach L'adonai, "it is a pleasing odor to God" (Leviticus 1:9). Is the Torah suggesting that God loves the smell of cooked meat? Does that mean that we are supposed to love the smell of cooked meat?
How many times have you walked past a cookout and enjoyed that smell? I catch a whiff of that smell walking down the street and it sends me right back to my family cookouts in Baltimore City. Don't tell the other vegans, but it makes me smile. But wait - am I allowed to be happy about the smell, even though enjoying it is antithetical to my values?
Even if you eat meat, chances are you avoid thinking about how that steak got onto your plate. Nevertheless, the smell of cooked meat can be a pleasing odor. Is it okay to enjoy something that derives from suffering and death? How can we wrestle with that as Jewish people?
Living on North American land presents us with this moral dilemma every day. Unless you are an Indigenous American, you are living on stolen land. I reside on the land of the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi. Most of them died, yet here I am, enjoying the land. We can apply this thinking to everything. Under what conditions did someone work so that I could drink my morning coffee to go? Who made the laptop I'm typing on? It all presents a moral dilemma. I may not have participated in their suffering, but I benefit from their oppression. Vayikra can be about honoring those whose suffering benefits us.
We might consider that we accept Korbanot through eating meat, walking on North American land, or even eating vegetables. How can we accept Korbanot and still be moral Jews?
The answer lies in our prayers. If you look at a Jewish Publication Society translation of the Torah, you'll see "Korban" is never translated as "sacrifice"; it is translated as "offering." Before you enjoy something problematic, perhaps you can "offer" a prayer.
Before eating bread, you could say:
God, I honor the people who worked so that I may eat this bread. I honor their labor and their exhaustion. Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha'olam hamotzi lechem min haaretz.
Before you eat meat, you could say:
God, I honor the life of the animal who suffered and died so that I may enjoy this meal. I honor the people who worked so that I did not need to slaughter this animal. I am now able to enjoy this meal because of their labor. Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha'olam shehakol nihiyah bed'varo.
Before you walk through a park, you could say:
God, I honor the lives of the [Native American tribe] who lived on and are still connected to this land. I honor their hard work and their lives as I enjoy this land. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha'olam, oseh maasei v'reishit.
Nothing excuses oppression. Sacrificing animals is not the same as stealing Indigenous lands or the (attempted) genocides of Indigenous people. However, both force us to struggle with knowing of and benefiting from others' suffering. We can remember and honor the lives of those who have created our comfort.
If you can develop a prayer practice of offering kavod (honor) to the source of things you enjoy, not only do you honor that source, you honor the Source of all being.