Nigel Savage was a layleader in the English Jewish community who founded Hazon after a successful private-sector career. Hazon is now the largest environmental non-profit in the American Jewish community. Its annual food conference takes place this year near San Francisco, December 25th – 28th. For more info go to www.hazon.org . If you’re interested in getting involved in Hazon’s food work or outdoor programs, contact Nigel at email@example.com
This is the week of the talking donkey. What do we make of it?
First, I think it’s important to be honest about what we are doing when we read text and make comments about it. Teachers often use a text as an excuse to make a point they want to make for their own reasons. This is not illegitimate; on the contrary, it’s a process that is solidly rabbinic in its antecedents. But I think we should distinguish between “here’s something I’ve seen in this text that I think is fascinating” and “here’s a point that I’d like to make that I can hang on this text in the following way.”
Jewish tradition arises through the evolution of, and indeed the continuum between, both sorts of exegesis. I mean to do both now – and to make clear which is which.
Let’s begin with a recap of the story: Balak is the king of Moab. He sends messengers to Bil’am, a prophet among the nations, and asks Bil’am to curse the Jewish people. Bil’am sets out to do so but is thwarted by his talking donkey, who sees angels that Bil’am is originally blind to. Bil’am in due course blesses the children of Israel because the God of Israel requires that he do so. Some of his words (“ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov…”) are subsequently immortalized in Jewish morning prayers.
Some of the things that I see in this text I think are plainly there. There is the biblical p’shat: the God of Israel cannot be thwarted, and even a pagan prophet must heed God’s word.
And there is something that the text seems to take for granted, but which is worth reflecting on more carefully: Jewish prophets are not the only channels for divine wisdom. In this instance Bil’am is not a Jewish prophet, but the words he speaks are those of the God of Israel. There’s a circuitous but nevertheless traceable line from here to one of the most controversial sentences in the first edition of Sir Jonathan Sacks’ book, The Dignity of Difference: “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims . . . God is God of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity.” (Italics in original.) This was strong stuff from an English orthodox chief rabbi, and it caused such a fuss when it came out that the first part of this sentence was omitted in the second edition, and the second half was toned down.
The rabbis of the Talmud were uncomfortable with this notion, that a foreign prophet could somehow be a channel for the God of Israel, which is one of the reasons I believe that many of the rabbinic extrapolations of Bil’am’s character are negative. (The Talmud in Sanhedrin 105a says that Bil’am had sex with his donkey – I think we might allow that this is an early example of reading into a text what one wants to argue, rather than something that is inherently there. Equally interesting, though more subtle, is the current Conservative Etz Hayim, which uses the rather Harry Potter-esque term “wizard” to describe Bil’am.)
All of what I’ve said thus far are some of the things that I see, or am provoked to think, when I look at the primary text and some of its traditional commentaries.
But I also want to use this text as a stepping-off point for some words on our relationships to animals today. Hazon’s work focuses on Jews, food, and contemporary life. From Michael Pollan’s writing to the Rubashkins controversy, in pretty much every Jewish community, the conversation about “what should I eat?” has become increasingly central. When we start from this contemporary reality, here are some of the points I’d like to make:
This is a parasha in which curses repeatedly turn into blessings, and blessings into curses. The rise of industrialized food production is a blessing that has enabled our planet to have the capacity to feed six billion people. But it is a blessing that seems to come with one too many curses, and we’re now beginning to try to disentangle them from each other.
And this is a parasha in which the stubbornness of men comes into conflict with what we might think of as a warning from the natural world. Bil’am is determined to keep going on a path that will lead to destruction, and only the donkey has the ability to see what in fact Bil’am needs to do. It takes quite some while before Bil’am is able to hear his donkey and to see what she sees.
The question of how we hear the voice of a donkey leads me finally to a non-talking goat: three of them, actually. 18 months ago, at Hazon’s first food conference, I asked “who here eats meat – but if you had to kill it yourselves, you wouldn’t?” About two dozen people put up their hands. Then I said, “who here doesn’t eat meat it – but if you did kill it yourselves, you would?” And about another – different – two dozen or so people put up their hands. (This out of a total group of 158 people.) As people started to laugh, I said, “I think we’re going to have to shecht a goat here next year…”
A year later, we shechted three goats. On Thursday night we heard from four people in a riveting panel: the two (Jewish) goatherds who had raised the goats, the French haredi shochet who would slaughter the goats the next morning, and the Harvard-educated mashgiach (supervisor) who would supervise it and who was responsible for all kosher meat slaughter for the OU in North America. Then on Friday morning the shochet shechted the goats – and then hung them, and many of us watched for more than two hours as he skinned the animals, checked them for illness, removed organs, and ultimately butchered them.
On Friday night we served the goats for dinner – clearly marked as such, and served on their own table.
After dinner, a year after the previous conversation, I asked “who here normally eats meat, but for whatever reasons chose not to eat the goat tonight?” Roughly three dozen hands went up (out of a conference of now 248 people). Then I said, “who here is vegetarian, but for whatever reasons you did eat the goat tonight?” Another large group of hands went into the air; one of them a rabbi who came up to me afterwards and said “that was the first time I’ve eaten animal flesh in 29 years.”
It’s interesting to understand what underpins the perspective of these two groups. The first group is essentially saying: look, I do eat dead animals. But I prefer to use the term “meat” and if I’m confronted with the reality that this really is a dead animal – one that I saw alive this morning – then I just can’t bring myself to eat it.
The second group are saying: I don’t eat meat because I reject contemporary industrialized meat production – animals kept in awful conditions, pumped full of drugs, eating unnatural diets, transported over large distances, and then killed in questionable circumstances. But in this one instance I know that these were goats that lived goat-like lives; I know the people who looked after them; know where they lived and what they ate; and I have a sense of the kavanah of the person who shechted them. So in this one instance I am willing to eat this dead animal.
Nowadays, most donkeys don’t speak up to tell us we’re headed in the wrong direction. And there are many prophets of other faith traditions who bless the Jewish people – though, sadly, still too many who prefer to curse. I learned from the late Reb Shlomo Carlebach a line that we’ve adopted as Hazon’s themequote: “the Torah is a commentary on the world, and the world is a commentary on the Torah.” Bil’am and his donkey do indeed shed light on the world we live in today; and our current concerns help us read into this ancient story new wisdom for our postmodern age.