Right after my wife and I married in Sydney, Australia, in 1988, we traveled as guests of Chabad of Hong Kong for a lecture series I was invited to deliver. As newlyweds, we took a day trip into China on an organized tour.
Traveling to a tiny and incredibly impoverished village, we were shocked to see a picture of the elderly woman, whose home we were visiting, with the singer Michael Jackson. The picture was shown prominently on her wall.
The tour guide, who told us he learned English by watching American TV, told us the story. He had brought Jackson to the village on a tour about a year earlier. In the house, the pop star saw an emaciated cat. He gave the woman a $100 bill and told her to feed the cat. After he departed, she did so. And then, when the cat was fattened up, she ate it.
It’s the kind of story you don’t forget, and years later, when I became friends with Jackson, I told him the story and he said he remembered the woman and the village. He wasn’t happy to hear that the woman had eaten the cat. I told him that given the level of poverty in the village, perhaps she had no choice.
Who am I to judge a poor woman and what she consumes to survive and feed her family?
I recognize that by the standards of modern PC etiquette, we’re not meant to pass judgment on another culture’s eating habits. I also recognize that my strict kosher diet probably makes me biased against foods like lobster, pork and shrimp.
When I see live lobster in tanks with its tentacles moving about, I wonder to myself, “Who on earth would want to eat that?” And yet, my non-kosher friends tell me that lobster is scrumptious (still, I’m happy to refrain).
I’m also aware that my vegan friends feel disgusted by the taking of any animal life for human food, and what I see as just a hamburger, they find repulsive.
If you have ever watched shows like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, you have seen many unusual “delicacies” eaten around the world. Far too many of these do not look appetizing. Yet people from different cultures get used to different foods, some out of necessity, some because they like the taste or need the nutrients. Some also believe that certain foods have properties to cure ailments or increase sexual potency.
THE CHINESE certainly have their own unique palate and, as we’ve learned during the discussion of the COVID-19 outbreak, there is a market for all sorts of wild animals such as snakes, porcupines, civets and peacocks. None, to be honest, are my cup of tea.
Much debate now revolves around how much responsibility China bears for the coronavirus pandemic after its failure to divulge the extent of the contagion so that other nations could be better prepared. The $64,000 question - or given recent spending bills, the trillion-dollar question - is, how did humans acquire the virus?
Scientists have not yet determined if the virus originated in one of the so-called wet markets that sell live animals. However, they do seem convinced it was first carried by a bat and then perhaps jumped to another animal, such as a pangolin, which was then consumed by someone who purchased it at the market. There is also speculation that someone may have eaten a diseased bat, though the species thought to carry the virus is not commonly eaten.
On March 27, The New Yorker published this: ”Scientists first discovered that coronaviruses originate among bats following the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003. Jonathan Epstein, an epidemiologist at the EcoHealth Alliance in New York who studies zoonotic viruses - those that can jump from animals to people - was part of a research team that went hunting for the source in China’s Guangdong Province, where simultaneous sars outbreaks had occurred, suggesting multiple spillovers from animals to people.
“At first, health officials believed palm civets, a mongoose-like species commonly eaten in parts of China, were responsible, as they were widely sold at markets connected to the SARS outbreak, and tested positive for the virus. But civets bred elsewhere in Guangdong had no antibodies for the virus, indicating that the market animals were only an intermediary, highly infectious host.
“Epstein and others suspected that bats, which are ubiquitous in the area’s rural, agricultural hills, and were, at the time, also sold from cages at Guangdong’s wet markets, might be the coronavirus’s natural reservoir.”
Did patient zero contract COVID-19 by eating a bat? Did someone eat a different species that was locked in a cage in a Chinese wet market with a bat? We don’t fully know.
What we do know, however, is that the Bible is adamant about not consuming bats.
IN THE Torah portion we read two weeks ago, Shemini, the Bible lists all the fowl and flying creatures that are expressly not kosher and should not be eaten. While the argument can be made that this is for the Jewish people and not the rest of the world, the common denominator between nearly all of them is that they are birds of prey.
The Torah weans us off eating animals that eat other animals. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that while God allows us to eat animals out of necessity, He seeks to wean us off animals that are omnivores in favor of herbivores. Animals that have split hooves are not geared - like predators with paws - to chase and devour other animals. Rather, their hooves are designed for the docile consumption of vegetation. The Torah’s prohibition of birds of prey follows the same thinking.
But when it comes to the prohibition of eating bats, it seems the Torah repeats the prohibition not just once but twice. Regarding the Hebrew word tinshames (Leviticus, 11:18), Rashi says “it resembles a mouse and flies about at night.” Clearly, a bat.
Then, just one verse later, the Bible prohibits the consumption of an atalef, which is also translated as bat.
Is this a biblical warning against the dangers of eating these creatures?
About a year ago, I was on a media tour in Australia for my new book with Pamela Anderson, Lust for Love: Rekindling Intimacy and Passion in Your Relationship. My wife, who is Australian, and I took a few days off to go to Hamilton Island, about a two-hour flight from Sydney.
On this gorgeous little island, you’re given a golf cart to travel around. Each evening, the island began to swarm with bats. I had never seen so many hundreds of bats so closely, and I posted the videos for my social media followers on Facebook and Instagram. Up close they are fascinating, if slightly foreboding creatures. Their movement through the air is as distinct as their unique chatter.
I wanted to see them. I wanted to photograph them. I wanted to behold them in all their splendor. But the last thing I wanted to do was eat them.
It is not for me to tell anyone what they should or should not eat, least of all someone from a different culture with diets that are alien to my Western palate.
The real issue seems to be regulating the markets where animals that can carry viruses are sold. Many species are apparently already illegal, but given that COVID-19 is not the first virus to originate in China, it seems reasonable to demand that the government take more drastic measures to monitor these markets and take preventive measures to minimize the risk of infected animals being sold to consumers.
The writer, whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the author of Judaism for Everyone and Renewal: The Seven Central Values of the Jewish Faith. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.