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Teaching Our Children the Ethics of Eating Meat

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Recently, Ariel Kaminer in her New York Times column "The Ethicist" announced a contest calling on readers to state -- in 600 words or less -- why it is ethical to eat meat. Thousands of entries were submitted, and the works of six finalists were posted online last week. Together with my wife, Ariella Reback, I wrote an essay that was one of the thousands of entries. Sadly, we didn't make the cut to the final round. Nevertheless, I thought I would post our submission here.

We read the Ethicist's challenge to defend meat consumption as an ethical act as we began preparing in earnest for our observance of Passover. During dinner with our children (ages 10, 8 and 3), we asked them, all enthusiastic carnivores, why they thought it was OK to eat meat. Their varying responses inspired us to frame this discussion in terms of the Passover Haggadah's description of the Four Children. Each child comes to the table with a different perspective, and the parents as teachers and role models must educate them about Passover's message of human dignity according to their ability and demeanor. So here's an imagined dialogue between parents and children on the ethics of eating meat:

We know of four children who interact with the world in different ways:

One who is wise; one who is contrary; one who is simple; and one who does not know how to ask a question.

What does the wise child say? "What are ethical reasons to eat meat?" To this child, teach that human beings have co-evolved with animals and that animal protein derived from sustainable agriculture can nourish us physically and make us mindful and appreciative of the natural world around us.

What does the contrary child say? "Meat tastes good. Why shouldn't I eat it?" To this child, explain that meat tastes best when it is produced with love -- for the animal, for the people who process it and for the environment in which it is produced.

What does the simple child say? "Is it OK to eat meat?" To this child, teach that eating meat should be a special occasion, like the original observance of Passover when each family raised and harvested their own lamb. Meat is not inherently bad, but eating too much without sense or regard for where it came from causes us physical and spiritual damage.

As for the child who does not know how to ask, you should prompt the child by taking a family trip to a working farm that uses sustainable practices. See how food is produced when animals are not force-fed grain, when they are not over-medicated with hormones and antibiotics and when they fertilize the soil on the farm on which they are raised to create a healthy, natural inter-dependent cycle. Educate this child and siblings that their hot dogs don't magically appear vacuum sealed in plastic in the supermarket. They come from animals that share this planet with us. Use meat consumption in your family as a teaching opportunity to foster knowledge and appreciation for our world and all its inhabitants.

As a footnote to this Passover parable, we took a trip to our local kosher butcher to buy a turkey for our seder. We have always had turkey, and our best ones were, of course, the pasture-raised turkeys that Ariella's former company produced. We couldn't imagine seder without turkey. Unfortunately, the only turkey our butcher carried was from a large industrial kosher meat producer that has been in the news a lot in recent years for its poor record of treatment of animals and its human employees. We wanted to know if the butcher carried meat from other more reputable producers. They said yes, but only chicken. We had chicken for seder.

The authors are married and live in Boynton Beach, Fla. Rabbi Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Temple Torah of Boynton Beach and is a Fellow in Greenfaith, an inter-religious environmental advocacy organization. Ms. Reback is an attorney and "slow food" entrepreneur. Previously, she owned Green Pastures Poultry, a company based in Cleveland, Ohio, that marketed locally produced, pasture-raised chicken, turkey and duck to kosher and non-kosher clientele.