For Thanksgiving this year, my friend Zac Johnson and I decided to shecht our own turkey, videotape the process and publish the results on our long-neglected kosher food blog. Since Zac became a certified shochet in Israel last year, we decided to put his training to good use.
In some respects, this was an absurdly simple task. We called a meat guy in Petaluma, drove up to the farm, bought the turkey and brought it home. While I cannot get the kind of kosher meat I was used to when I lived in Jerusalem, with one phone call and an hour on 101, I had no problem finding a live, organic, free-range turkey to put in my back seat and drive back to Berkeley.
The impetus to shecht our own turkey was, on one hand, need. It simply was cheaper to kill our own than to buy it from one of the kosher organic meat companies that sell online. However, the ethos of Northern California food culture is not far from our hearts. We are surrounded here by farm-to-table locavores who speak of the provenance of their food the way museums speak of the art on their walls. The Bay Area obsession with local, organic, free-range, artisanal, heritage fare is infectious, but it also borders on idolatry of the self. There is a tenuous and often contradictory relationship between supporting environmentally friendly foods and searching for the most bourgeois gourmet delicacy.
Shechting my own turkey expanded my spiritual vocabulary. As I see it, the boundaries of spiritual life are clear: the synagogue for praying, the beit midrash for learning, giving tzedakah for a specific cause. There is an element of compartmentalization. Yet, there is also an element of the Jewish tradition that strives to be holistic. We bless our daily activities, and in so doing we are trying to connect our daily lives with divinity.
When I shechted my own turkey, I increased my knowledge of the moments of holiness and the reach of a spiritual life. After that act, I could not only think about blessing my food but had intimate knowledge of where it came from. The experience made me think that I should go from egg to hatchling to poultry at the table and be part of that whole process, not because I want the best food, but because it makes me conscious of bringing holiness into the world.
To drive the turkey from Petaluma to Berkeley, quieting it as it became scared in the car, to shy away from giving it a name, knowing that this day would be its last, to hold it in my arms, feeling its warmth, as Zac slit its neck — this brought a new sense of awe and gratitude for the Divine.
This is not simply to say that everyone should know where their food comes from. When the shochet begins the process, he recites, according to the Talmud, the words that R’ Nechunya ben Hakaneh would say before entering the house of study, asking God to make sure that “no mishap should occur because of [him] and [that he] should not err in a halakhic matter.”
In the context of R’ Nechunya’s life, his words were a request to tread gently in the war of Torah that enveloped the house of study. This was a place where one’s words could quickly turn sour, and the back-and-forth of learning could dissolve into ugly and dangerous encounters. They also were words that reminded him of his holy duty, to ensure that his legal decisions were made with caution and care. It is a request for grounding for those who live in the world of the theoretical.
The house of study is my residence, I am a teacher, it is my domain. The words of R’ Nechunya speak to me as I regularly engage with students’ ideas and fear that I may harm or offend with my response. To hear these words appropriated by a shochet reinforced the holistic and creative nature of our tradition. The shochet deals with the most physical and grounded aspects of our world — sustenance through meat and bones, the taking of a life.
While I often give more weight to the intellectual world of the beit midrash, in slaughtering my own meat, I quickly was reminded that Torah should be understood through the world as much as the world through Torah. The act of procuring and slaughtering my own meat became an act of radical spiritual engagement in which I learned to break down the false boundaries that compartmentalize prayer, learning, tzedakah and eating.
Rabbi Joshua Ladon teaches Talmud and Jewish thought at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay. You can see video footage of the shechting process on his blog, http://jewishbacon.wordpress.com.