Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thanksgiving Turkeys--imbued with spirituality?

Presidential pardon, 2009
I was just sitting down with a freshly-brewed espresso and the newspaper, reminding myself to pick up the 15-lb. kosher turkey I'd ordered, when an article about slaughtering your own Thanksgiving bird nearly made me gag.

Not because it included a blood-tinged description, or the headline, "The Main Course Had an Unhappy Face."  Not because it described a chic trend to "know your food," which seems at times like a ploy aimed at bolstering niche farms whose products are pitched to the elite.  Not because it proclaimed that the $7/lb. Bourbon Red produced succulent results with only salt and pepper as condiments.

What grabbed me was that the writer, the New York Times' "city critic" Ariel Kaminer, chose to patronize Madani Halal in Queens, held up for "the slaughterhouse's commitment to minimizing animals' discomfort."  He noted that it "follows Islamic dietary strictures," and was not at all perturbed that, at the moment he and owner Imran Uddin jointly slit Red's throat, the butcher declared, "'Bismillah Allahu Akbar,' Arabic for 'In the name of Allah the great.'"

Ariel Kaminer enjoyed his Allah-blessed, $7/lb. free-range, self-slaughtered turkey with salt and pepper satisfied that the animal experienced a humane death.  Meanwhile, he neglected to mention that the Muslim ritual came about 1300 years after Jewish law required similar swift single-cut slaughter--first establishing reverence in the taking of life, minimizing pain, and draining of blood (out of a respect for the life-force that once coursed the animal's veins), among many, many other restrictions, tough enough that many practicing Muslims will eat kosher meat.

Contrary to popular belief, kosher doesn't mean "blessed by a rabbi," nor must a slaughterer be a rabbi, though he must receive rigorous instruction and be an observant Jew.  At the beginning of a butcher's shift, he says a blessing acknowledging God's commandments on how to do it. This contrasts with a halal slaughterer's declaring on each individual animal that its killing is in the name of Allah.

Kaminer's reaction to causing his bird's demise?  "I found it upsetting and, on some very basic level, gross."  For a description of a young woman's very different experience watching the kosher slaughter of a calf (caution: graphic photos!), check out this blog post.  Our home is vegetarian; Thanksgiving is the only time during the year I cook meat in the house.  Sometimes in the summer my hubby's male bar-b-que gene gets the better of him and he insists on grilling hamburgers on an outdoor hibachi, though he wouldn't eat them. 

The question remains: is there a spiritual impact to eating meat?

Jewish tradition teaches that before Noah and the flood, humans didn't consume any; it was only afterward, in a transition to a world where God was more removed, that we dominated other species in this way.  But lest we take this superiority for granted, God instituted rules about what to eat, and how to kill to remind Jews to respect other creatures and realize that taking, and consuming life changes us.

Meat is considered a delicacy, not only because it's expensive but because of its very life force.  In Temple times, there were lots of different types of sacrifices, including wheat and barley and turtle doves as well as oxen and sheep and goats.  That these were elevated and butchered in a strict, sanctified way (before they then fed people) served to infuse spirituality not only into one's dinner, but in the daily tasks of raising the animals or otherwise earning the money to purchase them.

Celebrations, including Shabbat, become festive because meat is served.  Yes, I said "because," as eating flesh killed under God's rules emphasizes humans' abilities to make choices and control our environments.  Another article I was reading today asserted, and I agree, that freedom is what creates happiness.  Humans, as omnivores, have choices about what we consume in a way animals, driven by instinct, do not.  We gain a recognition of that every time we ingest meat. Or choose not to.

And in these sanitary times when few have any connection to the squawking fowl they stuff with bread cubes and roast at 325 degrees for 20 minutes per pound, it's easy to lose the awareness that the creature taken for our celebration was granted life just as we were, from the same ultimate source we came from.  In that sense, I understand the desire to watch an animal change from standing, independent entity to drumstick, breast and wings.

But I'd rather not think about it.  Historically, our American forefathers probably did consume some turkey with other fowl.  The connection of feasting with closeness to God was evident from the start, when "less than twenty-four hours after Congress approved the First Amendment, they clearly indicated the way they understood its language by passing the following resolution: [calling for] '...a day of public thansgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God...'" This is from Michael Medved's The 10 Big Lies About America (p. 83), which blasts the misnomer that "The founders intended a secular, not Christian nation."

Which brings us back to the Thanksgiving turkey.  Just as the colonists and founders did, we partake of God's bounty because it's a way of making that creation part of us, a way of internalizing the wonders of the world to appreciate it.  It may seem ironic that we savor the glories of life by killing and eating it, but at the same time, we see that humans are outside the food chain, above the green beans and the giblets, but can only strive to understand how close we are and can be, to God.

And that's why when I read about Ariel Kaminer's nonchalant acceptance of the dedication of his act to Allah, I cringed.  There is a definite relationship between the physical and the spiritual, between what you consume via your mouth and what goes with it into your soul.  I think that's what popularized the phrase "you are what you eat" for hippies, and why, in Massachusetts in 1621, the means of thanking God naturally centered around a meal.  Perhaps if he were Muslim, I'd better understand Kaminer's choosing to eat a halal turkey dinner, but in any case, we should all remember--even those chowing down on Tofurky--that gratitude to our Creator is the focus Thursday with every bite we eat.

By the way, apparently the first official Presidential pardon of a turkey was by George H.W. Bush in 1989.  (Makes you wonder the bird's crime.) And, while recalling fowl moments, few can forget Sarah Palin's 2008 gubernatorial turkey pardon and blithe TV interview while in the background a flannel-clad poultry worker waited for her, but finally gave up and stuffed a writhing turkey into the cut-its-head-off funnel, as Sarah cheerfully chirped, "I'm always in charge of preparing the turkey, so I'm where I need to be today, to take care of that!"

Happy Thanksgiving; may your family be together to enjoy--and appreciate--all the blessings of the season.

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