Monday, November 2, 2009

Land of Milk

"[Avraham] took cream and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed these before [the visitors]; he stood over them beneath the tree and they ate." Breishis, Parshas Vayeira (Genesis 18:8).

This is the first time milk is mentioned in the Torah. It is interesting to note that here we are in the fourth parsha since the beginning of the creation of the world, and out of all the things that G-d wished to convey to us, G-d chose to enumerate the foods that Avraham served to his guests, the first of them being cream and milk.

Needless to say, this was raw, unpasteurized cream and milk. There were no refrigerators back then (obviously) so if you wanted milk, you went out and milked your cow (or goat, etc.). Additionally, as Rashi notes (id.), "As he prepared each food, he brought it near and presented it to them." Presumably, it takes less time to milk a cow than to slaughter a calf and cook it. This post will be the first in a series dedicated to milk.

First of all, raw, unpasteurized milk seems to be a tradition in Judaism, if only by default. It's what Avraham served, after all. "But isn't unpasteurized milk poisonous?" you ask.

Pasteurization is a modern process, discovered by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century. Before that era, all milk was consumed raw. The idea behind pasteurizing milk is that you heat up the milk above a specific temperature for a specific period of time in order to kill most micro-organisms, especially the ones that cause disease and make milk go bad, which is good, right? We don't want any dangerous bacteria in our milk. Well, then how come in Avraham's time (or even in our great-grandparent's time) they could drink raw milk without getting sick? What changed?

Pasteurization proved itself in bolstering the burgeoning food industry of the 19th century. It allowed for a more consistent taste and standard production method in fermented food products like beer; a consistent product allows for better branding and marketing. It also allowed food to be preserved for longer periods of time and shipped farther distances, which allowed for a broader consumer base. These benefits to industry were often at the expense of nutrition and ultimate quality for the consumer.

As industry expanded, production of any particular thing was concentrated and put on a production line; the same was true of the dairy industry. What happens when you take the factory model and apply it to farming? The advent of the factory farm.

Today, in concentrated dairy operations, thousands of cows live in a confined square of barren land and dwell in their own drek day in and day out. They may spend their entire lives never tasting a blade of fresh grass, the food that is called their "bread" by King David (Psalm 147); additionally, G-d designed their stomachs with a rumen specifically to digest grass, and it is by that digestive process ("rumination") that they are designated as kosher animals in the Torah (Lev. 11:3; Deut. 14:6). Normally diseased conditions and lack of grass in their diet would eventually kill a cow, but they are kept alive with antibiotics and other methods. I got to see the workings of such an industrial dairy farm firsthand (a kosher one, in Israel), the cows marching to the milking machines with dung hanging from their overly swollen udders. With such cows and such milk, it's true, their unpasteurized milk is infested with harmful bacteria and would be poisonous to drink. (Never drink unpasteurized milk from cows raised in factory farming conditions!)

However, such was not the state of Avraham's herds. As was noted in last week's parsha, Parshas Lech L'cha, Avraham's herds were free-range and ate grass and were, presumably, superbly healthy. Indeed, there was not enough grass near Beth-el to support Avraham and Lot's herds, and so they had to part ways. (Gen. 13:6-7) These were healthy cows, living well as G-d intended them to live, producing healthy unpasteurized milk.

I personally drank raw goat milk that I milked myself almost every day during a three-month apprenticeship I did on a small, sustainably run farm on the East Coast, and enjoyed robust health during that time. Apparently, not only can raw milk be safe, but it can be abundantly more nutritious than pasteurized milk. According to the Campaign for Real Milk, "Pasteurization destroys enzymes, diminishes vitamin content, denatures fragile milk proteins, destroys vitamins C, B12 and B6, kills beneficial bacteria, promotes pathogens and is associated with allergies, increased tooth decay, colic in infants, growth problems in children, osteoporosis, arthritis, heart disease and cancer. Calves fed pasteurized milk do poorly and many die before maturity."

Before I end, I want to note that I have noticed a vociferous aversion to farming among a number of my teachers and peers over the years, based on the misguided argument that Jews are meant to be businessmen or professionals, and chassidim are meant to be on shlichus, and you can't do shlichus on a farm. I don't know what these opinions are based on. As a bit of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, the life of Zusik Rivkin, a Lubavitcher chassid and dairy farmer who lived in Kfar Chabad in Israel, is illustrative. The following is a patched-together accounting from a couple articles about his life:
[As a youth, his] family made it to Israel, where Zusik was sent to study in the Central Lubavitcher Yeshiva-Tomchei Temimim in Lod. Unlike the other students, the young Rivkin did not pursue rabbinical studies, instead following the personal directives of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory, who instructed the boy to take up agriculture. “He believed it was part of his mission as a Chasid to show the world that a religious Jew works hard on the field and at the books,” recalled one of Rivkin’s family members in an interview after his passing. Until his very last day, Zusik, as he was known to his friendly neighbors, saw dairy farming as his "mission in the world," lording over a herd of some 130 cows that collectively produced more than 1,500 liters of kosher milk each day.
(see the full articles here and here.)
Hopefully this will provide something for you to think about.

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