Like most Americans, we Jews are an animal protein-noshing lot. Nothing says Rosh Hashana like a nice brisket, Shabbat like roast chicken and that most sacred of Pittsburgh Jewish social occasions — the Super Bowl — like corned beef.
Most Americans have a bipolar relationship with meat; they know it is not the best choice for their health or the environment, but they can’t deny their craving for it either.
We American Jews have a tri-polar relationship with meat. We also know that it’s not so good for the cholesterol and that there are greener ways to feed ourselves, but meat is also an integrated part of the religious and cultural life that predates our American migration.
We weren’t such consistent fressers of meat until the last 200 years. Eating meat, according to Genesis, was technically forbidden to us from the Garden of Eden until after the great flood. The flood itself, according to rabbinic commentators, was provoked in part by our consistent violation of this prohibition through clandestine barbecuing. Only when Noah and his family left the ark to start the human race anew did G-d expressly permit meat, albeit with the caveat of not ingesting the animal’s blood.
Our biblical ancestors built their entire religious practice around meat, and the Torah gave specific instructions about which animals were to be sacrificed for which ritual purpose, which cuts of meat had to be eaten by the priests and which by the penitents.
At the same time, the Torah emphasizes that the land of Israel’s nourishing properties were not meat-based. Israel is the land of milk and honey (Exodus 3:8) and grain and wine and oil (Deuteronomy 11:14) and wheat and barley and figs and pomegranates and olives (Deuteronomy 8:8). The Talmud argues that eating meat was to be a divine sacrificial act by our biblical ancestors and was not acceptable as a daily source of nourishment at home. Only upon entering the Diaspora could regularly eating meat be accepted in the community at large since there was no longer a sacrificial purpose to it (B.T. Chullin 16b-17a). The Talmud actually dictates that there is no joy without meat and wine (B.T. Pesachim 109a), and mandated both for Sabbath and festival meals whenever possible, regardless of social or financial position, in memory of the sacrifices of old and in anticipation of the sacrifices to come upon the rebuilding of the Temple.
But meat was expensive — given both the limits of acceptable animals and their slaughter according to the laws of kashrut — so it was mandated only for those occasions unless one were wealthy enough to afford it daily (B.T. Chullin 84a). There was even a pecking order (pun intended) of preferable meats: poultry, with chicken being the best, was preferable over meat, with ox being considered the best, which in turn was preferable over fish (Numbers Rabbah 21:15; B.T. Baba Metziah 86b).
Throughout Jewish history, meat was viewed as a food of the intellectual elite as well as the “1 percent.” Rabbi Bahya b. Asher, a 13th century scholar, wrote, “It is forbidden for an ignoramus to eat meat as it is written, ‘This is the Torah of Beast and Fowl’ (Leviticus 11:46); for all who engage in Torah, it is permitted to eat the flesh of beast and fowl. But for all who do not engage in Torah, it is not permitted to eat beast and fowl.” Clearly, meat was a luxury available regularly to the wealthy and, by extension, to the scholars they supported.
But things changed in the 19th century as Europe lifted age-old restrictions on our commercial opportunities and America beckoned as a land of opportunity. With wealth came resources to purchase meat more regularly. Moreover, here in America, eating meat became a sign of social and cultural integration. Urban Americans dined in restaurants much more than their European counterparts. By 1903, the Jewish Daily Forward was using a new Yiddish term: oyessen, eating out.
At first, we frequented cafes populated by other Yiddish-speaking Jews, but by World War I we ate at many ethnic restaurants, especially Italian and Chinese. Culturally, we consider the delicatessen to be a Jewish restaurant when actually we borrowed the idea from Germans and Alsatians who preceded us here; we just made them the dining centers for Americans that they are today, and they centered by and large on meat.
Today, eating meat is integral to our dining in and our dining out. Kosher and nonkosher meat is more available than ever in our history. Even in Jewish families (like mine), where budgets are tight, cholesterol counts and vegetarians are becoming more influential on the household diet, meat is still the main course at many holiday gatherings and life-cycle celebrations. Many people still measure the means of the sponsor of a Kiddush lunch in many congregations by whether there is a meat dish served. We still place medicinal properties on it; my vegetarian rabbinic colleague once told me she never eats meat except for chicken soup when she is sick. We still seek out “Jewish” delis when we go to New York City even if we don’t eat in one at home, and we still think kosher hot dogs are the best quality, even if we put cheese and chili on them.
Reform, Reconstructionist and many Conservative Jews have abandoned the prayers for reinstituting the sacrifices of old in their liturgy while the Orthodox have retained them, but the great majority of American Jews cannot envision a literal return of meat as our conduit for prayer. That same great majority of American Jews is not ready to give up its place in our ethnic and cultural behaviors either.
Many Jews recognize vegetarianism as a valid Jewish dietary choice and the numbers of Jewish vegetarians are growing, but whether by commandment, preference or habit, American Jews will continue to embrace meat as their “rightful heritage” for the foreseeable future.
(Rabbi Scott Aaron is the community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning.)