Millions of Americans are embracing the dietary laws.
Okay, maybe not the same dietary laws found in the Bible, but the eating habits of the whole country have changed almost overnight. Forget Pepsi, we’re the No-Carb Generation. Stick to the meat part of meat-and-potatoes, and you’re golden. Have steak every day, even for breakfast if you’re so inclined, and America’s most popular diet promises you’ll live close to the proverbial 120. Dr. Atkins spread the gospel: Thou shalt not eat carbs.
Beef prices have skyrocketed, so that non-Jewish consumers are starting to pay the kind of money for meat that used to distinguish kosher food. This is the Wimpy Age-Popeye’s friend Wimpy, that is-the meat-crazed mooch who famously offered to “pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”
Vegetarians, obviously, aren’t very happy with this trend. (A clever ad for one prominent chain of steakhouses used to boast, “Horrifying Vegetarians Since 19__.”) Many vegetarians believe that it is a sin to take an animal’s life in order to lengthen our own. All of G-d’s creatures, they contend, have the same right to live out their years. A noble thought, ethically motivated, and yet-supremely un-Jewish!
Jews do eat meat. In fact, the Talmud teaches, that’s what transforms an ordinary meal into a Sabbath or holiday feast. Simchah, true joy, can be attained only with bassar v’yayin, meat and wine. Animals, says the Midrash, were created before Adam so that they would be available for his table, just as a king prepares food in advance for his most favored guest.
But before you tear into that rib-eye, there’s something else you should know. Judaism agrees with the meat of the vegetarian argument: Life, whether human or animal, shouldn’t be taken lightly; we don’t have the right to kill other life forms simply because we have the power to do so.
Perhaps the most profound dietary law is one that’s relatively unknown. In fact, if it were put into practice it’s quite conceivable that a lot of us would no longer know the delight of devouring a steak or polishing off a couple of burgers. You see, Judaism doesn’t really give us carte blanche to kill animals for food. It allows us to eat meat only on one condition: that the animal whose life is taken serves to feed someone whose life has more meaning than simple bestial existence.
“Am ha’aretz assur le’echol bassar.” A boor, whose life is devoid of Torah, is forbidden to eat meat! That’s the Talmud’s conclusion based on a simple equation: For any life ended to support another, there must be a qualitative difference between the life that is taken and the life that will be sustained. Animals live, as Sigmund Freud put it, to get and to beget. They eat and they procreate. They simply exist. Human beings are meant to strive for more. Our years are supposed to be imbued with a spiritual quest for holiness. Life is not merely getting and begetting, but being and becoming. Created in the image of G-d, we have an obligation to imitate our Divine Maker. It is only our efforts in pursuit of this goal that permit us to turn animal flesh into the food that fuels us.
This adds a whole new dimension to the Atkins Diet. Piling on meat may keep you thin-but it might be a sin. It all depends on whether you deserve the meat.
So here’s the new diet plan that gives equal weight (no pun intended) to both your body’s need to be slim and your soul’s longing for spiritual fulfillment: Live your life with the constant awareness that you are meant to be much more than an animal, and in that way you’ll earn the right to enjoy as many prime cuts of meat as your heart desires.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech is an internationally recognized educator and religious leader, and is the author of If Life Is Good, Why Is The World So Bad?, as well as eight other best-sellers. He was recently ranked #16 in a listing of the 50 Most Influential Jews in America.