On the way to the airport in Guayaquil, Ecuador, I met an observant Jewish man who looked out of place with his yarmulke and long coat in this Latin American, equatorial country. I asked why he had come to Guayaquil and he told me that he is hired to certify kosher food in countries around the world. Waiting in line to check in, I asked him whether in addition to certifying slaughter as kosher he also observed the conditions under which animals were raised, he said he did not. He had, in fact, never visited a modern confinement agriculture system. I talked about how inhumane they were, and he was skeptical.
He asked how I knew they were inhumane. And so I described to him what I have seen myself: hundreds of thousands of chickens crammed into cages in typical egg factories and calves chained at the neck in tiny crates in modern veal factories. I talked about my studies with an observant rabbi who is a vegetarian because he insists not only in following the letter of the law (kosher slaughter was, at its inception, far more humane than typical slaughter of the time), but also the spirit of the law (which clearly rejected cruelty to animals). Only slowly did I seem to pique his interest. I gave him my card and encouraged him to learn more for himself.
Later, I reflected upon this man’s work. He is trying to do what he considers God’s work. He is attempting to deeply live according to his values. Yet, it is harder and harder to do this without an equally strong commitment to learning more, to bringing our inquiry to our choices and actions, to insisting upon greater understanding than what we are likely to obtain from our culture, whether observant Jewish culture or popular culture.
I hope that our brief interaction will spur him to learn more and consider how he can more genuinely live according to his religious beliefs. He mentioned that at his age, he might not pursue more knowledge in this area, but he hesitated as he said this. I like to think he will reconsider and open himself to new knowledge so that he might more fully live his values.