The Talmud, Shabbat 30b, reports how Rabban Gamliel taught how in Messianic times, our daily material needs will be met without effort, and some of the pain and drudgery that is a hallmark of life, will disappear:
|R. Gamaliel sat and expounded, the Land of Israel is destined to bring forth cakes and wool robes [from the trees and the fields–af], for it is said (Tehillim 72:16), There shall be an handful of grain in the land.||יתיב רבן גמליאל וקא דריש עתידה ארץ ישראל שתוציא גלוסקאות וכלי מילת שנאמר (תהילים עב) יהי פסת בר בארץ|
This statement didn’t earn Rabban Gamliel universal admiration. Indeed, the Talmud reports that one disciple reacted with derision and laughter, quoting from Kohelet: there will be nothing new under the sun. Not to be undercut, Rabban Gamliel replied by pointing out that these phenomena already exist and won’t represent any radical change in nature:
|But a certain disciple scoffed at him, saying, but it is written, ‘there is no new thing under the sun!’ Come, and I will show you their equal in this world, replied he. He went forth and showed him morels and truffles [which resemble cakes–Soncino]; and for silk robes [he showed him] the bark of a young palm-shoot [which has a downy, silk-like substance on the inside–Soncino].||ליגלג עליו אותו תלמיד ואמר אין כל חדש תחת השמש אמר ליה בא ואראך דוגמתן בעולם הזה נפק אחוי ליה כמיהין ופטריות ואכלי מילת נברא בר קורא|
Rabban Gamliel clearly envisages the material transformation of the world in the Messianic era not to be any major departure from the nature of nature today.
What if that day is slowly but surely arriving?
Aaron Saenz writes in the Singularity Hub:
From an economic and environmental perspective, meat has some problems. Animals consume a great deal of resources in their growth and they release a large amount of methane, a greenhouse gas. There’s also the whole ethical debate: is killing a cute snuggly animal permissible if it tastes really good? Researchers in the Netherlands may be able to sidestep ethics and solve some of the environmental issues with their latest creation – pork cells cultured in a petri dish.
Never mind the extreme vegan perspective seeing ethical issues in eating animals, this is nothing less than what Rabban Gamliel’s disciple thought impossible.
his artificial meat is grown from myoblasts (special muscle cells which repair damage) incubated in a solution derived from the blood products of animal fetuses. Sounds gruesome, but scientists hope to eventually switch to a synthetic medium for culturing the cells.
… Meat from the trees?
Of course, this latest study – being about the production of porc saussage – doesn’t sound most appetizing to the kosher consumer, nor does it seem free of halakhic issues. I will explore some of the halakhic issues below. Meanwhile, let me just point out that this recent research into growing meat in the lab started in 2002 at Touro Collge, a much derided Orthodox Jewish college mostly centered in New York City’s five boroughs. Obviously, they deserve some more credit than they are given. The Chicago Sun Times reported [Touro Collge’s newsletter]:
It seems like something out of a chilling sci-fi future, the very epitome of bloodless Matrix-style barbarism. But growing flesh in a petri dish is an old idea from the early 20th century that received a fresh infusion of, how you say, growth medium in 2002.
As part of a NASA-funded experiment to find a portable source of animal protein for astronauts, Touro College biology professors Morris Benjaminson and James Gilchriest sliced a bit of muscle from the abdomen of a goldfish and set it in a saline solution enriched with fetal calf serum. Over several weeks, the muscle grew about 15 percent. Another muscle growing in a maitake mushroom solution did almost as well.
To determine whether the product was remotely appetizing or would be too repulsive even for space station humanoids to eat, Benjaminson and Gilchriest convened a panel of female employees, chosen for their gender’s presumed pickiness
and demonstrably superior sense of smell. Gilchriest, who used to be a professional chef (“He makes great calamari,” said Benjaminson), breaded the tiny filet and sauteed it in extra virgin olive oil. He finished with a squeeze of lemon and a dash of pecorino cheese.
“And it smelled good to them,” Benjaminson says. Understandably, the ladies were not asked to eat the “fish.”
But is it kosher?
There are several issues of concern here, which, owing to the nature of blogs, I will only treat briefly.
- The source of the culture
- How the culture was harvested
- How the culture is fed
- Is it halakhically meat?
- A final note of genetic diversity
1. The Source of the Culture
In the Touro experiment, the fish flesh grew by 15% over the course of the experiment. However, by the time kind of synthetic meat and fish begin to be economically interesting, it will surely allow small starter cultures to generate endless amounts of steaks and fillets. If the amount of initial foodstuff is very small, may it be considered void in the larger quantity of final product? If so, will it be of no concern that the initial culture came from a nonkosher animal, such as a wild boar, a rabbit, clamshells, a frog or a pig?
The general rule is that while prohibited foodstuff that accidentally falls into a vastly larger amount of kosher foodstuff is usually considered inconsequential (as long as it can neither be tasted not did it change the look and feel of the mixture. This usually means that the nonkosher foodstuff measures less than 1.6% of the total), there are two major exceptions. First of all, it is prohibited to intentionally introduce even a minute amount of a prohibited substance into the mixture. Secondly, minute amounts of prohibited foodstuff, whose presence cannot be felt in the final product, but that are essential for the manufacture of the final product, are never void, and render the entire resulting foodstuff prohibited.
The first rule is called in Hebrew אין מבטלין איסור לכתחלה, we may not a priori void prohibited substances. The second rule is the one of מעמיד בדבר האסור, lit. setting foodstuff through agency of a prohibited substance, and it is the reason why practically only cheese produced under rabbinic supervision may be considered kosher, even though it is essentially made out of otherwise permissible milk. (NOTE: some exceptions apply, because there is disagreement among halakhic decisors as to what is considered “cheese.” A minority opinion, accepted in few communities, also rules leniently regarding cheeses set with synthetic rennet. Consult your local Orthodox rabbi.)
Thus, it would seem that synthetic meat cultures would need to be grown from cells of kosher animals in order to be considered kosher. No way to taste kosher pork here.
One exception may apply, though this is subject to controversy among halakhic authorities: if the initial cell culture is microscopic, cannot be seen by the naked eye, some may opine that it is not halakhically relevant, and the macroscopic culture that develops from it will then perhaps be considered a new creation, ex nihilo, or rather, having been generated wholly from the serum in which it is grown. [For those who want to investigate this angle a little further: this is essentially the opposite of the issue with some enzymes, that come from kosher sources, but are grown on a bed of prohibited substances.]
2. How the culture was harvested
It does not suffice to have a culture of flesh from a kosher species. If it is avian or mammal flesh, it will have to come from an animal that first underwent shechita (ritual slaughtering), otherwise, the same issues discussed above will apply here, too.
Furthermore, in this regard, kosher supervision is required not only for Jews, but for all mankind. Why? Because the Torah, while limiting the full force of obligation of the 613 commandments to Jews only, still commands all people to keep seven commandments: to abstain from idolatry and from blasphemy, from murder, theft and sexual immorality, a positive commandment to institute courts of justice and let justice reign in the land, and a prohibition to consume flesh that was ripped off while an animal was still alive.
That last prohibition applies only to fowl and terrestrial animals, but not to aquatic life nor to creeping terrestrial animals (Rema Yoreh De’a 13:1, Siftei Kohen ibid. 62:2). Thus, the Touro experiment, which was based on a sliver of flesh taken from a live fish, would still be permissible. However, similar experiments with fowl or mammalian meat would be prohibited for Jew and non-Jew alike. Furthermore, non-Jews, who are not commanded to perform shechita, must wait until the slaughtered animal has no more spasms, before considering it dead and being permitted to harvest its meat. This might be problematic (truly, I don’t know the details of the Dutch experiment with pork) if the flesh needs to be introduced in the culture with a short time of being cut off from its fresh blood and oxygen supply (akin to some organs harvested for transplants).
Frogs, by the way, being amphibians, are halakhically considered among the terrestrial animals. Although small creeping animals, like insects, are exempted from the prohibition on the flesh of living animals, frogs belong to a special category of larger “creeping things,” to which this prohibition applies nonetheless (Maimonides’ code, Maakhalot Assurot 2:8). So besides being possibly unsuitable for synthetic meat, frog legs, which are harvested from live frogs who are then left to die, are highly prohibited by the Torah, to Jew and non-Jew alike.
3. How the culture is fed
Both in the Touro experiment and in the Dutch pork experiment, the flesh was grown in a solution including bovine blood serum. Since the Torah prohibits blood in consumption, a substitute will have to be found before an edible kosher product comes about. However, I documented earlier Aaron Saenz’ remark that scientists hope to find a synthetic substitute soon enough.
4. Is it halakhically meat?
That is a non-obvious question. There are some meat products that, on account of having been modified extensively, are considered by some halakhic decisors to be parve. An example is gelatin made from slaughtered kosher animals [NOTE: not all “kosher” gelatin is made from slaughtered kosher animals. Some are produced through a process that is subject to much halakhic controversy. Consult your local Orthodox rabbi], out of which parve (=neither meaty nor dairy) marshmallows may possibly be produced.
However, in the cases under discussion in the halakhic literature, the final product is tasteless, while here, the final product will hopefully taste very much like meat, or fish, or whatever it is meant to be.
Furthermore, even if it is parve, it will be very much like parve soy “milk,” which may be subject to the laws of maarit ‘ayim, meaning, that since it will fool people into thinking that it is actually classical meat, it will have to be treated like the real thing. No beef stroganoff yet.
5. A final note of genetic diversity
Aaron Saenz concludes with some questions about the propriety of basing our entire food supply on a genetic monoculture:
But there’s even more to consider. Most genetically modified animals and plants have a greater susceptibility to devastation from a single disease or toxin. Many of the pigs grown in the west have to be kept in sterile environments to avoid loss of herds. The artificial pork from Eindhoven is not genetically modified, but it faces the same limitation: a narrow gene pool. In a traditional farm a thousand pigs would have a thousand genomes with a great deal of variation. In a GM farm, there is much less variation. In an artificial meat factory, thousands of pounds of product could come from the same DNA. That’s a liability.
That problem, as he rightly points out, exists already now. Our cattle and fowl supply is born from artificial insemination. The subspecies have been carefully bred and refined to yield as much edible mass as possible. However, that doesn’t make chickens with unnaturally large breasts (for the highly prized schnitzels) nay healthier. Many birds can barely stand on their feet, and many calves are weak, too. Rabbi Israel Meir Levinger has for some time been ringing the alarm bells, because this genetic monoculture is bad for the livestock and bad for kashrut. There is an ever rising number of animals that must be rejected from kosher consumption, because the animals have defects that render them unfit, tereifa.
There is no need to wait until we are all eating synthetic meat to ask this question. If animal welfare organizations would see beyond their noses and stop making shechita their public enemy number one, if they would actually agree that there is enough scientific evidence to support to position that shechita is a humane form of slaughtering, then, they could work hand in hand with rabbinic authorities, and they would discover that together, they can do a lot more on behalf of real animal welfare.