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Bugs in the System
There's a part of the Torah which, to most modern readers, seems extremely primitive, antiquated and obsolete - and yet which in fact could be vitally important to resurrect for the modern world.
In parashas Shemini (though, strangely, not parashas Re'eh) the Torah states that certain locusts (swarming species of grasshoppers) can be eaten. Eating bugs simply grosses out most people in modern Western society, and I suspect that many people see this as a relic from a primitive, barbaric era. But a recent article in the New Yorker noted that in a world with a burgeoning population of billions, insects provide a much more efficient and environmentally-friendly source of protein, amongst other benefits:
From an ecological perspective, insects have a lot to recommend them. They are renowned for their small ‘foodprint’; being cold-blooded, they are about four time as efficient at converting feed to meat as are cattle, which waste energy keeping themselves warm. Ounce for ounce, many have the same amount of protein as beef–friendly grasshoppers have three times as much–and are rich in micronutrients like iron and zinc. Genetically, they are so distant from humans that there is little likelihood of diseases jumping species, as swine flu did. They are natural recyclers, capable of eating old cardboard, manure, and by-products from food manufacturing. And insect husbandry is humane: bugs like teeming, and thrive in filthy, crowded conditions.
With regard to the laws of kosher locusts, the expert on identifying kosher species is my friend Dr. Zohar Amar, author of Ha-Arbeh b'Mesoret Yisrael. Basically, the species for which there is a widespread tradition amongst North African Jews is Schistocercia gregaria, the Egyptian desert locust. According to many halachic authorities, even Ashkenazi Jews can adopt the North African tradition, since there is no tradition in Ashkenaz against these types of locusts being kosher; we simply lack a tradition either way. As a result, I myself have eaten locusts on several occasions. Crunchy on the outside with a chewy center!
Can you imagine what an impact it would make if Jews were known not for exploiting animals in factory-farming and indulging in massive gastronomic excesses, but instead for adopting a more environmentally and animal friendly (and traditional) approach to fleishigs? I know, it's not likely to happen. It would be as radical as girls receiving intensive Jewish education.
There are actually various ways in which the debate over the kashrus of locusts relates to rationalism, which I hope to discuss in a future post. Meanwhile, I will point out the irony of how those Jews who would most strongly protest the rationalist approach that various parts of the Torah were oriented towards the ancient Israelites, and insist that the Torah is equally oriented towards all times and places, are usually those who claim that locusts are now forever forbidden (until Mashiach comes) and that this section of the Torah is now effectively obsolete!