Wednesday, June 29, 2011

I love animals, but I'm not a vegan - and here's why

Recently I received a review copy of  Vegan Cooking For Dummies, a new book in that series.   As I have discussed in previous blog posts, I am an ovo-lacto vegetarian, which means that I eat vegetables, eggs and dairy,  but not meat, poultry, or fish. Over the years, various people have tried to convince me to go all the way and become a vegan -- which means not eating or using any animal products, period.    But the more I read about veganism, the more I have become convinced that it is an upper middle class urban phenomenon that just won't work for low income people like me who live in places like northern Minnesota.

This book is a case in point.  Written by a gourmet vegan chef, it assumes you can find all those exotic ingredients and afford to use them.  But that just isn't so if you are on a tight budget.  For example, a lot of these recipes call for pure maple syrup instead of sugar.  But  the only reason we have pure maple syrup in my house is because I make it myself from our own trees every spring (See my previous blog post on that at   At $10 or more per pint in the store, we could never afford to cook with it as often as this cookbook calls for.  As it is, most of the time we still use sugar.

As for a lot of the other ingredients in this book, you are simply not going to find them in rural America.  It's hard enough being an ovo-lacto vegetarian out here, let alone vegan. I am lucky enough to live near a small health food store, but even then, I have to special order certain vegetarian "meat" products because, the shopkeeper says, they do not sell well enough for her to carry them on the shelf. Special orders must go by the case and that can really kill a limited budget. Not to mention the cost of the necessary freezer space.

But beyond the question of ingredients, there is a much bigger question:  Do I really believe in vegan philosophy?  Do I believe that it is wrong under all circumstances to never, ever use animals or their products for any reason?   The answer is no.  Although I do not wear leather or fur, I have no problems with feathers that are naturally-shed,  nor do I have a problem with riding horses or training service dogs.  (My old sheep dog, Grett, enjoyed patrolling the yard and guarding the geese and chickens.  He got depressed when he didn't have some kind of work to do.  The same is true of a lot of other working dog breeds, as well as many horses who enjoy being with their riders.)

Over the years, I've had many debates about this with hardcore vegans who believe that ahimsa  (the Jain philosophy of total harmlessness) is the only way to go, or else you are a total hypocrite with no compassion for anything.  Maybe for people in a tropical climate like India, where Jainism originated, this philosophy would work, although even there the Jains are a small minority.  But not everyone lives in a warm climate where veggies and fruits are available year-round.  I believe this is why God permitted Jews to eat meat.  God knew that we would end up in harsh climates where a totally plant-based diet would have been impossible.  Meat was not the ideal (the Garden of Eden was vegetarian) but neither was it forbidden, as long as one stayed within the limits of permitted species.   For this reason, I consider my own vegetarianism to be a personal chumra (extra strictness) that I voluntarily take upon myself, but not a comandment per se.

My land in winter -- no veggies growing here!

I have often looked out the window at my Minnesota landscape in mid-winter and asked myself:  What would I be eating if there was no modern food storage or transportation?  To answer that question, all I have to do is look at the traditional diet of the Native tribes who lived around here before  my ancestors arrived.  Yes, they grew corn and squash, harvested berries and wild rice.  But meat and fish were also a big part of their diet, especially in late winter.  As much as the animal rights people idealize the spiritual relationship between Indians and animals, I have never yet met a vegetarian Indian, let alone a vegan.  The only vegetarianism reference I've seen is a T-shirt that read: "Vegetarian: Old Indian word for Lousy Hunter."

The American Indian philosophy about animals is not that different from the Jewish/biblical one, namely,  that the Creator permits us to use animals, but we must not abuse them in the process.  We must remember that animals are living beings, and be respectful of their feelings and well-being.  If we find it necessary to kill them, it must be done humanly and with respect.  (The word "sacrifice" comes from the same root as "sacred.")   If we do not treat them with respect, the Indians say, the souls of the animals will not reincarnate, and the people will starve.  This is not unlike Deuteronomy 11:13-17:

If, then, you truly heed My (God's) commandments which I enjoin on you today, loving and serving the Lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul,  I will give the seasonal rain to your land, the early rain and the late rain, that you may have your grain, wine and oil to gather in; and I will bring forth grass in your fields for your animals. Thus you may eat your fill. But be careful lest your heart be so lured away that you serve other gods and worship them.  For then the wrath of the Lord will flare up against you and he will close up the heavens, so that no rain will fall, and the soil will not yield its crops, and you will soon perish from the good land he is giving you.

Part of those commandments includes the proper treatment of animals, and the prohibition against cruelty to animals (tsaar baalei chaim.)  This respect issue was the main reason that I gave up eating meat, because, in the modern meat industry, there is no longer any respect for the animals.  Kosher meat comes from the same cruel factory farms as non-kosher meat, the only difference is in the processing.  So I choose not to eat it.  I believe that, in this modern age, vegetarianism is the best diet for Jews (and others should they so choose.)  

But as for "using" animals, I do not believe it is "animal slavery" to ride a horse, shear a sheep (who, in hot weather, really appreciates it!), or collect honey from bees.   I sometimes wonder if the purist vegans ever really have personal relationships with animals.  If you do not keep dogs, cats, horses, birds or chickens in your home or your immediate environment, can you really connect with them?  Or do they just become subjects of politcal theory?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Rucus in the woods -- and a chicken thief

Last week something got Star, one of my roosters -- the trail of feathers led off into the woods for about 200 yards, indicating that the bird fought hard.  In the process, he saved his flock, because all the other chickens got back inside the coop safely.  I suspected the predator might have been a neighbor's dog - -but I was wrong.

Red Fox
(Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
 The next day, there was a flock of crows making a HUGE ruckus back there in the woods, accompanied by a chorus of blue jays.  I went to investigate, and got a glimpse of a red fox running up the hill.  No doubt in my mind, he (or she) is the chicken thief.  And maybe a goose thief, too -- a female goose named Sarah has been missing for 2 weeks, although I did not find any of her feathers scattered like I did those of the rooster.  Usually when there is a predator attack, it's really obvious, with tracks and feathers all over the place.  I found none of this when she disappeared, so it is possible she is off somewhere sitting on a nest -- it has happened before.  With all the tall grass around here, finding the nest would be next to impossible -- I'll just have to wait and see if she returns with goslings.

Anyway, my chickens and geese now have to stay inside the coop or be penned up until this fox moves on or somebody shoots it.  I myself do not hunt or trap, I prefer to live in harmony with nature, but it's times like these that remind me why I'm not a vegan.  In fact, I have come to believe that veganism is an upper-middle-class urban phenomenon that does not work out when you actually try to live off the land.  

Don't get me wrong:  I love animals, and as I have written before on this blog, I am an ovo-lacto vegetarian.  But when things like this fox raid happen, I have to make decisions that are not always 100% pure ideologically.  Do I let the chickens run free and take their chances?  That seems irresponsible, now that I know the fox is hunting here.  Do I keep the birds shut up safe inside the coop or in cages?  That's not politically correct according to the animal rights people.  Do I shoot or trap the fox?  Wait until somebody else does it?  That's not vegan, either.   The fact is, there is no solution that does not, in some way, "oppress" either the chickens or the fox.  So I have opted for confining the chickens.  I figure they would rather be alive in the chicken pen than dead in a fox den.

Of course, most vegans would say I should not even have chickens in the first place.  But as a vegetarian who eats eggs, I feel it is my responsibility to get them from birds who are well-treated.  Certainly my chickens are happier than those on factory farms.  And even if I did give up raising chickens, what about all the slugs, cabbage worms, beetle grubs, and other pests that eat my garden?   Do vegans realize that the fruits and vegetables they buy in the store -- even the organic ones -- are produced by killing the insects that feed on them?  Believe me, I've seen cabbages that weren't sprayed with BT (an organic caterpillar killer) and they would never be deemed acceptable in the urban market.  So, I must admit, I have no qualms about throwing the pests over the fence into the chicken yard.  They are, after all, the natural food of chickens -- who, because of the fox, cannot forage the bugs for themselves right now.   That's not vegan for the  bugs, but it's good protein for the chickens.

I try to live in harmony with animals as much as possible, but there are times when, as I said, I must make these decisions.  I do not fault my urban friends who choose to be vegan.  For them, it works.  But  when you actually live with raw nature on a daily basis, you soon realize that the forest is not as idyllic as we would like it to be.  On the one hand, it was thrilling to be able to add "red fox" to my list of animals seen on my land.  But on the other hand, the critter is a darned nuisance who took one of my favorite birds.  The bottom line is, this world is not the Garden of Eden.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Unplugging for God and nature

The past two days were the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which is both the Feast of First Fruits and the commemoration of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  (For our first fruits, we ate our first leaf lettuce of the year from our garden.  In addition to liturgy, we like to tie our holidays in with what is happening in nature.)  On the major holy days, as on the Sabbath, religious Jews do not use the phone, computer, TV,  CD player, radio, or other electronic communications devices.  No texting, blogging, surfing, chatting, gaming, etc.  No, we don't turn off the electricity -- the lights and fans were still on -- but we do unplug from the endless chatter of the outside world.

My non-Jewish friends cannot conceive of doing this.  "What if there is an emergency?  How will people contact you?" Well, if it is really an emergency, then I will hear the sirens, see the tornado, or the police will come to my door.  Anything less than that can wait.   And you know what?  We survive being unplugged just fine.  In fact, we more than survive -- we actually enjoy it.  Turning off all the human chatter gives us the quiet space to enjoy the natural sounds in the woods around us.   Birds, frogs, toads, insects, the rustle of the wind in the leaves -- how can you hear these things if you are always plugged into your ipod? 
In 1987, as part of a series of lessons on kabbalah (49 Gates of Light), I wrote the following about Moses and the Burning Bush: 

What is genius? Perhaps it is the ability to see familiar things in a new and different way. For example, how long did it take Moses to realize that the burning bush was not being consumed? After all, this was something he had never encountered before. Most of us would probably have glanced at it and said, “Oh look, there's a bush on fire.” Then, shrugging our shoulders, we would have continued on our way. But Moses took a little more time. Turning aside to investigate, he became personally involved. Only then, the Midrash tells us, did God call out, “Moses, Moses.”

The question is, how many other potential prophets have missed their opportunity to receive, simply because they were distracted and did not recognize the vision? In this fast-paced world of ours, it’s so easy to say, “I don't have the time.” Yet in order to receive inspiration, we must be willing to make time for the Creator to speak to us.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was fond of saying that a person who does not have an hour of solitude with God each day was not truly human. By this he meant that we were created to be channels of God's blessing. If we do not make time in our lives for this, we are not fulfilling our purpose. To be truly human is to bridge heaven and earth, to join together the spiritual and material worlds. To do this, we must listen to the "still, small voice" speaking to us from the Silence.
  (From  49 Gates of Light: A course in Kabbalah, 2010 revised edition.  Also available as a download on on my Lulu Storefront page.)  )

This is even more true today.  I recently read about a survey where college students were asked about their use of electronic devices, and a large percentage said they cannot go for more than ten minutes without checking their email or Twitter or whatever.  And here I am, turning off the whole Internet for 26 hours every Sabbath, and two days for the Festival of Shavuot.   Not only that, but I do not carry a phone everywhere I go, because I don't want to talk to you or anyone else when I am out communing with God and nature.

In his now-classic book, The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described it as "a palace in time."  He was the first Jewish theologian to spell out for the Western world how traditional Jews live more in time than space.   While gentiles tend to travel to sacred places to feel holy, Jews have sacred times that we carry with us.  The Sabbath is a portable sanctuary, a retreat that you can have anywhere.   This is not to disparage the importance of sacred space, but if you clutter that space up with emails and text messages, then where is the holiness?  When we prepare for the Sabbath, we speak of creating the "Sabbath space."  By this we mean more than just setting the table.  We are creating an atmosphere where we can interact with God, nature, and each other in a personal, "be here now" kind of way. 

The Sabbath is based on the Seventh Day of Creation, when God rested.  It is not that God got tired.  Rather, God ceased creating, thereby making it possible for us to do the same.  On the Sabbath, we are not doing our busy-ness.  We are free to just be.   Try it sometime:  Turn off your phone, don't log on, don't play video games or watch TV, etc. for a whole day.    Instead, watch and listen to the real world around you.  Who knows?  You might even discover your own equivalent of a burning bush.