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Ethical Boundaries: Land and Sea

A Drop of Torah

Like last week's double parsha of Tazria-Metzorah, this week we have another coupled parsha in Acharei Mote & Kedoshim. Acharei Mote contains the command to observe Yom Kippur and continues with more sacrifices, blood, and abominations. Kedoshim, while containing a bit more of the same gore, by contrast, also includes some of the most profound and ethical teachings of the entire Torah. Chapter 19 begins with the command which is to define the Jewish People: "And the Lord spoke to Moses saying: 'Speak unto to entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am Holy.'" (Lev. 19:1-2) It then lists ethical practices that should be part of our daily lives, all of which guide us to live lives that strive to be holy.

There's an old saying that Judaism does not command us to be good. It commands us to be better. To be better tomorrow than we are today. To paraphrase Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, if I am not better today than yesterday, what need is there for tomorrow?

To Be Better

Kedoshim gives us the Mitzvot that, if we observe them at every opportunity, we will indeed be better people and ultimately live lives of holiness. Just a few of them are:

  • "Revere your mother and father." 19:3

  • "Do not steal, and do not deal falsely, or lie one to another." 19:11

  • "Do not oppress your neighbor, or rob him." 18:13

  • "Do not withhold the wages of a laborer." 18:13

  • "Do not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind." 19:14

  • "Do not go forth as a talebearer" (don't gossip); do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds" (don't be a bystander). 19:16

  • "Do not hate your brother (another person) in your heart." 19:17

  • "Do not take vengeance, or bear a grudge." 19:18

  • It culminates with what Rabbi Akiva said is the most important Mitzvah in the entire Torah:

  • "Love your neighbor as yourself." 19:18

  • There are more, but for the sake of brevity, I'll leave it at these for now.

  • A few other Mitzvot in this parsha stand out for our examination of Water Torah, and they deal with agricultural Mitzvot. Verses 9 & 10 read: "When you reap the harvest of your land, do not wholly reap the corners of your field, and do not gather the gleaning of your harvest. Do not glean your vineyard, and do not gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; leave them for the poor and for the stranger." This Mitzvah is known as "The Peah" or the Corner of the Field

A traditional understanding of food in Judaism is that God provides all food. The blessings we say over food reflect this. When we say "Borei Pri HaGafen" (Creator of the fruit of the fine), "Borei Pri HaEtz" (Creator of the fruit of the tree), or even "HaMotzi Lechem Min HaAretz" (Who brings forth bread from the earth) we acknowledge God as the Creator of the food. Still, there is also a clear understanding that the farmer is the intermediary doing the holy work of tilling the field and cultivating the product. So, the laws pertaining to agriculture ensure that the people doing this holy work follow a moral code to ensure that the less fortunate, the hungry, and the stranger can all eat.

Land and Sea in Torah

Interestingly, while the Torah presents an ethical structure for terrestrial animals and agriculture, no such ethical system exists in the Torah pertaining to water. In fact, there seems to be a dichotomy regarding the Torah's ethics towards animals and produce that come from the land and that which comes from the water:

  • Land animals are considered meat, while aquatic animals are "parve." Therefore, they are neither meat nor dairy.

  • The Torah goes to great lengths to tell us how to treat land animals ethically. No specific laws exist for marine life.

  • If fruits or vegetables fall from the tree or the vine, they must be left for the poor and needy. But, in the Ocean, nothing needs to be left, and that can be and is a disaster in our world today.

Land and Sea Today

There is a fundamental difference between how we treat the land and how we treat the water. On land, a farmer has a specific piece of soil that he or she owns. The Farmer tills the land, plants the seeds, tends the crops throughout the long growing process, and ultimately harvests the crop and enjoys the fruits of his or her labor.

As for the water… nobody owns the Ocean. Yes, there are territorial waters that "belong" to countries, but fish don't recognize or respect borders. So, when an industrial fishing trawler comes upon a school of fish at sea, unlike a farmer, the industrial fishing ships don't know where those fish will be tomorrow and subsequently take them all in their massive nets. According to the United Nations, as of 2022, there are 4.6 million fishing vessels plying the Ocean, and all are taking as many fish as possible. In addition, unlike the Peah, which leaves the corner of the field and the gleanings on the ground for the poor, the industrial fishing ships are pillaging the Ocean to such an extent that there are no longer enough fish for the small, artisanal fishers in the global south. According to Anna Holl-Buhl, policy advisor for fisheries at the World Wildlife Fund, "Around 90% of the world's fisheries are overfished or fished to their biological limits, and this has particularly dire social and economic consequences for small-scale fishers, who are finding it more and more difficult to catch enough fish to support their families." If we are commanded to leave enough of our harvest to feed the hungry on land, then the same should apply to those who depend on the Sea for their food, but it isn't.

As for the mitzvah, "Do not withhold the wages of a laborer as is commanded in 19:13 well, that's an entirely different situation altogether. Since the Ocean covers 70% of the planet, it's impossible to police it, and slavery is rampant on the High Seas. A 2017 report by the Environmental Justice Foundation entitled Blood and Water detailed cases of slavery, debt bondage, insufficient food, and water, filthy living conditions, physical and sexual assault, and murder aboard fishing vessels from 13 countries. One could argue that since we are not the ones committing the offense, we are not violating the Mitzvah. However, when we support the industry violating the Mitzvah, do we not bear some of the responsibility by allowing them to continue? Are we not violating a fundamental, ethical law of the Torah through our complicity?

When I go to the grocery store, I always make it a point to walk past the seafood counter. Not because I enjoy it but because I want to strengthen my own personal convictions. I look at the lobsters that have been taken from the Sea, had their claws bound by rubber bands, put in insulated Styrofoam boxes, packed on an airplane, and flown to Florida, where a dozen or more are dropped on top of each other in a small tank waiting to be purchased and taken to someone's house where they will be boiled alive. I look at all the fish laid out on ice, the crab legs flown in from Alaska, and the piles of shrimp that have been trawled and flown in from God only knows where. I think about where all of this has come from and the ships that have taken it from the Sea. Then I see the sign which says this is "sustainable" and "ethically sourced," and I ask myself… Seriously? In an industry where IUU (Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated) fishing is rampant, where 90% of fisheries are overfished or fished to their biological limits, can there even be such a thing as "sustainable" seafood? In addition, if you have to ask if your fish is "ethically sourced," there's a good chance it may not be.

A Fence Around the Torah

There's another concept in Judaism called Sayag LaTorah, literally "a fence around the Torah." This means that if a question about something might lead an individual to violate a law of the Torah, then the fence around the Torah means you don't take the chance. So, for example, in the laws of Kashrut (keeping Kosher), it is forbidden to mix meat and milk. The law, however, says you can't eat poultry with dairy either, even though a chicken doesn't suckle. So the fence around the Torah says that since chicken looks like meat, cooks like meat, has the texture of meat, and tastes like meat, even though it technically isn't meat, it isn't mixed with dairy lest someone mistakenly think it's alright to mix meat and dairy.

Applying the same principle of Sayag LaTorah to seafood, with 90% of fisheries around the world overfished or at their biological limit, I question whether any fish is sustainable. Therefore, I don't buy it. Furthermore, since slavery and human trafficking are rampant in the fishing industry, I question what fish is really ethically sourced. Therefore, I don't buy it.

The Torah portion this week tells us to "Be Holy." If we take that command seriously and strive to be better today than yesterday, but we know something is wrong, then we should not support it. Yes, I know fish is delicious. Yes, I know they say fish is healthy. Yes, I know it's a good source of protein. But if everything around that delicious fish is wrong; the illegal fishing practices, the human trafficking, and slavery, the cruelty, the poison, etc., can we genuinely strive to be holy and still support it just because it tastes good?


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