While working on an essay about Judaic ethics in a pandemic, Rabbi Jonathan Crane came across an ancient source that caught him off guard.
The small vignette in the Babylonian Talmud spoke of a great third-century sage who declared a fast after hearing of a pestilence spreading among pigs, maintaining that the disease could spread to humans because of similarities between the two species’ organs.
The vignette surprised Crane, a scholar in bioethics and Jewish thought at Emory University Center for Ethics, for several reasons.
“First, there is concern about the spillover effect of diseases crossing species long before germ theory took hold among naturalists and scientists in the late 19th century,” he said. “Second, this concern about zoonotic diseases is found in religious resources, and not in medical or public health instructions, or in secular essays on farming.”
Crane spoke about the ancient sage’s urgent response to a disease among animals as part of “Animals, Religion, and Public Health: An Interfaith Webinar.” The Jan. 13 virtual event explored how religious perspectives could be used to address the flaws the pandemic has revealed in the food industry and to prevent future outbreaks.
Rev. Aline Silva reminded viewers of the hazardous working conditions facing workers in meat processing plants, many of whom are poor, Black and brown or immigrants without other employment options. According to the Food and Environmental Reporting Network, more than 200 meatpacking workers have died of COVID-19 since March.
The panelists agreed that grave humanitarian and animal welfare concerns emerged because of the disconnect between humans and their food.
“We currently rely on a system that works based on distancing and concealment,” said Magfirah Dahlan-Taylor, an instructor of philosophy and world religions at Craven Community College.
Rev. Christopher Carter, assistant professor, assistant chair and department diversity officer of theology and religious studies at University of San Diego, said the hazardous conditions facing meat processing workers at Tyson food plants showed how even when food corporations take pride in their essential status during the pandemic, the essential labor and humanity of their employees is often rendered invisible by systemic racism.
So, what is to be done?
Dan McKanan, Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist senior lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, argued that while food is traditionally treated as an individual choice, meaningful change could only be achieved if it was considered a communal act with ramifications for others. His fellow panelists agreed, citing traditions from their own faith that illustrated this point.
Dahlan-Taylor said that the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha, which is often celebrated with an entire community participating in and sharing a sacrifice, offers an opportunity for people to reflect on their obligations to each other as humans and to non-human animals.
Carter said the pandemic made him reflect more critically about how his eating habits aligned with his Christian ethics. He acknowledged that changing eating habits, which often follow centuries-old traditions, could be challenging.
He advised leaders to start conversations by inviting people to tell stories about why they choose to eat the way they do. Once people started thinking critically about their habits, it would become easier to see how food choices can be changed to align more closely with religious values.
Crane said the vignette from the Talmud illustrated the interconnectedness of food systems in the ancient world. Even though Jews did not eat pigs, they were still impacted by others’ choices to do so and had to grapple with uncomfortable conversations that arose as a result.
“Who am I, to talk about your dietary patterns? Yet, this is precisely one of the points of these sources and our conversation today: your eating practices inexorably impact me, and everyone else, and vice versa,” he said.
He added that the laws of Kashrut primed Jews to think about righteous eating and communal values. Jewish and non-Jewish communities alike, he noted, could identify their core values and choose to eat in ways that uphold them.
The event was organized by CreatureKind, Jewish Initiative For Animals, Shamayim Jewish Animal Advocacy and Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry.