Parshat Shemini — Cultured Meat
In Parshat Shemini, the Torah establishes which animals are kosher. Some species are kosher based on certain physical attributes, whereas others are enumerated on a kosher or non-kosher list in the parasha.
Throughout the ages, some commentaries have explained that the prohibition against eating many of the non-kosher species is because they damage the body or mind. Others have argued that kosher classification is simply hok, an unexplainable law.
Irrespective of why foods are Kosher, practically, it is clear that the laws of Kashrut have significant cultural and economic impact. If alcohol is a social lubricant, then food is a social glue. Food is an essential factor that determines with whom we interact. Breaking bread together creates trust and strengthens relationships. By eating only certain foods, we create a community that distinguishes those who follow such laws from those who don’t. In this way, the Torah — through the laws of Kashrut — builds brotherhood. It also creates what I call the “fraternity economy” (כלכלת אחווה) — as shared meals often facilitate business transactions, not to mention the unique market segment called the Kosher food industry, itself a unique supply chain and business opportunity. The Kashruth industry even lays the foundation of a wider global Jewish network, whereby those who eat Kosher food host travelers and guests looking for such options in local communities around the world.
Recently, both the Kashrut Authorities in US and Israel published Halakhic (Jewish Law) rulings on the Kosher status of meat grown from plant substrate or derived from animal cells. Since, as mentioned, Kashrut has broad ramifications on Jewish culture and the economy, such new technologies are judged not only by what I would call the scientific minutiae of Halakha, but also perception and identity. For instance, Kashrut authorities in the US recently refused to confer kosher status on synthetic pork — even though it was derived from plants — due to its misleading name, “pork.” The Chief Rabbinate in Israel went one step further, rescinding the Kashrut status from a Jerusalem restaurant that sells a product called “bacon” (a curing process that recalls pork), although the meat was lamb.
Such cultural, branding, and defininitional considerations are part and parcel of debates over the Kashrut status of new innovation in food. In a broad sense, Halakha always confronts changing circumstances. Sometimes, authoritative decisions are made or settled by halachic arbiters or community practice only years (if not decades) after the technological breakthroughs. So it was with the advent of the Shabbat clock, the question of whether books printed via a printing press carry sanctity, and recently about induction-based cooktops, an issue that is still evolving.
In other words, it is not only technology but also economic exigencies and general circumstances that influence Halakha’s evolution. Jewish focus on money lending in the Middle Ages, for instance, gave rise to the widespread use of Heter Iska, a workaround for collecting interest payments. Similarly, Jewish involvement in the wine and beer (whiskey) trade led to halachic innovations including the ability to sell chametz.
Economic reality and technological innovation have always required that Halakhah respond, but this is just the tip of the iceberg of what I would call “what Judaism and the Torah has to say about technology and the economy.” What are the Jewish values and principles with which we should infuse our technological developments? How will such technologies impact our communities, and how should they? How can technology be channeled to improve humanity and purvey timeless values? There are many questions beyond the strictly Halakhic considerations of whether an innovation should or should not be adopted.
In my book “The Tree of Life and Prosperity — in the chapter on Parashat Noach called “The Frustrated Inventor” — I expand on the significant increase in humanity’s birth rate during Noah’s generation. In just one generation, birth rates rise appreciably. What caused this step change? Noah invents the plow. With a suddenly abundant food supply, fear and the sense of scarcity recede, paving the way for a new era of economic prosperity, optimism and childbirth. The prophets of doom calling for curtailing the birth rate were proven wrong. The world was not ending.
At first, such prosperity leads to a better quality of life. Consumption rises and society becomes more comfortable. However, as abundance rises, the need for one another also diminishes. As the social fabric weakens, trust declines (hamas) and civic-mindedness plummets. This can lead to a breakdown of society. Advancement can also exacerbate class divides, as some people adapt to the changing times and others are left behind.
Of course, with material advancement comes economic flourishing. More people have been pulled out of poverty in the last several decades with market-oriented reforms than any other period of history. We wouldn’t want to return to a pre-capitalist world. That said, such innovation must be infused with key timeless principles in order to preserve solidarity and enable socioeconomic advancement for all members of society.
Similar to the pessimist mindset of generations that preceded Noah, Thomas Malthus “predicted” in 1798 that the food supply would not keep pace with the exploding population. So too today, some journalists, scientists and economists warn against childbirth from fear that increasing population density will decrease our standard of living, damage the climate and exacerbate hunger. Mistakenly, many of them view progress as linear, when in fact disruption from innovation is a recurring, albeit unpredictable, event. Contrary to the doomsayers, I believe that the answer to each of these issues lies not in decreasing childbirth but in continued technological development infused with timeless principles. And who innovates if not for our young people.
Plus, technology disrupts predictions. Cultured meat, for instance,reduces the climate impact of animal slaughter through innovation, while still providing taste and protein.
All of this is to say that new technologies raise not only Halakhic questions but those related to values and identity. We must ask how our values influence not only our reaction to new technologies, but our active creation of these innovations.
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