Schrodinger’s Goat, scapegoats, and the goats of Yom Kippur

Erev Yom Kippur / 20 / September 2007

Dear All,

goat.jpgI had one of the most astonishing and fascinating conversations of my life over Rosh Hashanah. It was about killing two goats, and I wanted briefly to share it with you ahead of Yom Kippur and Succot.

I spent Rosh Hashanah at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, and – after visiting the goats there – I sat down with Aitan Mizrahi, Freedman’s very own goatherd and the founder of the Adva Goat Dairy and Rachel Gaul, another goatherd friend of Aitan’s.  This Yom Kippur will be exactly a month since I posted a piece on The Jew & The Carrot, titled Schechting a goat at the Hazon Food Conference? The conference will be at Freedman, and the key part of the conversation went roughly as follows:

-You know, of course, that if you want to schecht two goats at the Food Conference [in early December], you’ll have to pay to feed them from October till December.
-Well, because otherwise they’ll be killed in October – that’s when bucks [male goats] get slaughtered.
-Why’s that?
-Well, goats give birth in the spring. The kids in due course give milk, so they live for a good number of years; but the bucks have no use, so they’re fed during the summer, when food is abundant, and then typically they’re killed in October, ahead of the winter.
-That’s unbelievable! That’s just incredible! You’re telling me that if we schecht two goats at the food conference, we’ll actually be extending their lives by two months – because otherwise they’d be killed in October?
-Yeah, Nige. You know – “no dairy without death.”

It was a pretty amazing conversation.  What’s true of goats seems to be true, on a far larger scale, with cows. The dairy cows are bred for their milk; but the bulls are mostly of no use, and get killed for meat. Many things about large-scale dairy and meat “production” in this country seem extremely problematical – from many different perspectives – but this one little conversation was a real eye-opener for me.

And did you ever think, by the way, about the fact that Pesach and Succot are exactly six months apart – they’re both on the full moon – they’re both seven days long – but on Pesach, biblically, they killed a single paschal lamb; and on Succot there’s this enormous series of sacrifices of bulls – ie male cows?

So… the conversation we’ve begun about these goats is a serious one. Just as Hazon has done a lot of work in the last three years to get Jewish people thinking about where their vegetables come from – via Tuv Ha’Aretz, our CSA program – so too the intention of my post about the goats was to get us thinking about where our meat comes from. Richard Dale has pointed out that our goats are, in a sense, Schrodinger’s Goats, an image that of course I think most apposite. Like Schrodinger’s famous Cat, the Goats of our Food Conference live existentially in a liminal space, ahead of the decision as to whether or when they will be schechted.

So as you sit in shul over Yom Kippur, and read about the high priest, and the holy of holies, and the scapegoat, spare a thought for the goats – and lambs, and cows, and chickens – that surround us, invisibly, today.  Teshuvah at heart is about returning to our best selves. I know very few people – and I am certainly not one – who feel able to say that they always eat ethically or appropriately. Our food choices are rich and complex, and we have been so disconnected to the sources of our food, for so long, that it takes a little while to start to think clearly and freshly about where our food really does come from. As you sit in shul, fasting, reading about the goat of Azazel,  think too about Schrodinger’s Goats – and Eitan’s, and Rachel’s – and feel free to discuss them with your friends and family…

I wish you a good and easy fast.

And if you want to come see Aitan’s goats for yourselves – and have an amazing time – you’re warmly invited to Succahfest at Isabella Freedman. It’s from Wednesday to Sunday next week, and there are still some places available.

I’ve put this email up on the Jew & the Carrot, so if you want to comment, on this, or forward it to your friends, feel free to do so. I want to make clear that I do not feel that I’m an expert on any of these topics, by any means. I am not, and I’m steadily learning about these issues. Hazon is working to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community, and a healthier and more sustainable world for all, and we see this evolving conversation as a small but significant part of that.

Gmar chatima tova,  Enormous thanks to the huge number of you who have supported Hazon this year – we really appreciate it. I don’t think one can really apologise to people via mass email, but especially if you emailed me in the last year and I didn’t reply, I really apologize. I mean to do better in 5768.

With all best wishes, shana tova, shabbat shalom,

PS For two other interesting pieces on goats, here’s Steve Lipman’s piece in last week’s Jewish Week, and an earlier piece by Rabbi Jill Hammer:

Print This Post Print This Post

11 Responses to “Schrodinger’s Goat, scapegoats, and the goats of Yom Kippur”

  1. Kelly Says:

    This is why I’m a vegetarian

  2. Melanie Says:

    Speaking of vegetarians and Yom Kippur readings…

    I’ve been a vegetarian for a few years. For a while I’ve had some trouble with the Yom Kippur readings about sins/slaughter. I have a hard time feeling spiritual when I read about animal after animal being sacraficed, blood being sprinkled about, etc etc. I know that ritual slaughter was a part of life in biblical times, but I’ve never been able to connect with that. On Yom Kippur, which is supposed to be one of the most spiritual times, I always stand there and read these passages, and they always bother me. I would like to be able to connect with the holiday and feel spiritual while in temple. But at the same time I can’t ignore that these readings seem to go against a lot of what I believe in. And now that its comming up, I figure this is the place to see if any other jewish vegetarians have a prolem with this or have any advice.


  3. Richard Schwartz Says:

    Yes, Melanie,I feel the same way. And I think the stress in the daily, Shabbat and festival prayers and in many Torah portions re sacrifices has a negative effect. I think it desensitizes people to the many abuses today. Perhap it is no accident that, while tsa’ar ba’alei chayim is a Torah-based mandate to avoid causing pain to animals, most Jewish animal rights activists are secular.

    I think it would be valuable if there was far more stress on Jewish teachings on treating animals with compassion, pointing out that, according to a medrash, both Moses and King David were deemed suitable for leadership because of the compassion they showed to sheep when they were young shepherds; that there are many Torah laws related to compassion to animals and it is even part of the Ten Commandments; that maimonides stated that the biblical sacrifices were a concession to the conditions at a time when sacrifices were the common mode of worship; that the prophets often spoke out against sacrifices when carried out along with acts of injutice, indicated that they could be an abomination to G-d, and indicated that G-d prefers mercy more than sacrifice.

    Perhaps Hazon will take the lead, as it has done on so many issues to increase awareness of these and related factors.

  4. Richard Schwartz Says:

    Below is an excerpt from my book “Judaism and Global Survival.” I think it addresses issues that the Jewish community has been ignoring. I would welcome any responses (

    This chapter addresses a widely accepted aspect of modern life that contradicts many Jewish teachings and harms people, communities, and the planet — the mass production and widespread consumption of meat. It will illustrate how high meat consumption and the ways in which meat is produced today conflict with Judaism in at least six important areas:
    1. While Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives, numerous scientific studies have linked animal-based diets directly to heart disease, stroke, many forms of cancer, and other chronic degenerative diseases.
    2. While Judaism forbids tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, most farm animals — including those raised for kosher consumers — are raised on “factory farms” where they live in cramped, confined spaces, and are often drugged, mutilated, and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and any enjoyment of life, before they are slaughtered and eaten.
    3. While Judaism teaches that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1) and that we are to be God’s partners and co-workers in preserving the world, modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes substantially to soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, global warming, and other environmental damage.
    4 While Judaism mandates bal tashchit, that we are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value, and that we are not to use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, animal agriculture requires the wasteful use of grain, land, water, energy, and other resources.
    5. While Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people, over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while an estimated 20 million people worldwide die because of hunger and its effects each year.
    6. While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence results from unjust conditions, animal-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, help to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that eventually lead to instability and war.
    In view of these important Jewish mandates to preserve human health, attend to the welfare of animals, protect the environment, conserve resources, help feed hungry people, and pursue peace, and since animal-centered diets violate and contradict each of these responsibilities, committed Jews (and others) should sharply reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products.
    One could say “dayenu” (it would be enough) after any of the arguments above, because each one constitutes by itself a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice that should impel Jews to seriously consider a plant-based diet. Combined, they make an urgently compelling case for the Jewish community to address these issues.

    More information at Thanks.

  5. BD Says:

    “…but the bucks have no use, so they’re fed during the summer, when food is abundant, and then typically they’re killed in October…”  Here is the core problem with the philosophy that deems it unquestionably acceptable to kill animals for food–or even to kill two goats at a Hazon conference.  The idea that animals are created only for our use, that a goat, cow or any other farm animal only has a purpose when we can “use” the animal, simply does not make sense.  How have we as a society created the concept of “purpose” for these animals?  Is it by their physical nature, ie. the amount of flesh they can provide for us, or the number of eggs or gallons of milk they can produce? Or is more of an arbitrary connection that we have decided to have (or not have with the animals) that forces us to make decisions based on how close these animals are to our daily lives? 

    Would we have an argument about whether we should kill a cat or dog at the Hazon conference?  (assuming they were kosher!) This would of course be unacceptable, since cats and dogs, because of their proxity to our lives are seen as too intelligent and unique to kill and eat.  Yet anyone who has spent time with a goat, (as I am sure Aitan Mizrahi, who would provide the goats could tell us) knows that they are unique individuals with personalities, and more importantly, interests and needs of their own which are not determined in any way by our desire to eat them.  Those goats enjoy eating their own food, they would most likely rather spend a day outside then trapped inside the metal bars of a factory farm.  They would much rather rub up against a tree, and spend an afternoon wandering in the field, then be surrounded by hundreds of people ready to watch them as a knife is brought to their throat.  Even the Torah accepts that non-human animals have interests of their own–while we are commanded to rest on Shabbat, so too are the animals (see Ex. 20:10).  While I know we can not tell for sure what the goats are feeling, the obvious fact any non-human animal has his or her own intersts and desire to survive cannot be denied. If the goats could walk away from their impending death, and back into the grass, I think there is a good chance that they would.

    Here is where kashrut and animal eating in general has “missed the mark.”  When we decide that it is simple acceptable to kill an animal because that is the animal’s purpose, then we are denying ourselves the authentic connections that we strive to have in all other aspects of our lives as Jews.  Those goats do not NEED to be killed, anymore than than we need to be the ones to kill them.  If we take the power of life seriously, then we will understand that killing does not teach respect for life instead it teaches a disconnect from life.  True connection will only come when we put down the knife, and instead focus adding more life to world instead of taking it away. Organizations such as Hazon teach respect for life, and compassion for the poor and hungry. Yet the values that would be taught by schechting these animals would go against what seems to be part the organization’s core philosophy: to make the world a better and more peaceful place. This should be our role as human beings, and as caretakers of the earth who try to bring more justice into the world. I am not sure how killing goats is part of this goal.  

    As Issac Bashevis Singer wrote “There will be no justice as long as man will stand with a knife or with a gun and destroy those who are weaker than he is.”

  6. Stephen Mendelsohn Says:


    NO DAIRY WITHOUT DEATH — it should read under today’s conditions “NO DAIRY WITHOUT VEAL.” About one out of three male calves born to dairy cows gets tethered and crated by the white veal industry. By and large, veal is a by-product of the dairy industry, and the cruelty of veal is well known even to many who know little about the cruelty of battery-cage factory egg farms. If you want to help end the suffering of veal calves, switch to soymilk, soy yogurt, and So Delicious / Purely Decadent “ice cream.” (I’ve yet to find a decent-tasting kosher certified vegan cheese product and will admit to occasionally having something like Sugar River, which is at least family-farmed and rBGH-free.)

    Those who naively think we are doing a good think consuming lots of dairy because “cows need us to milk them to relieve their discomfort” (but only because we humans took away their calves for veal or the next dairy herd) need to take an honest look at the modern dairy industry, including feedlots, bovine growth hormones, downers, environmental destruction, global warming, and the relation to veal.

  7. Dan Brook Says:


    I encourage everyone to visit

    The Vegetarian Mitzvah at


    Yom Kippur and Vegetarianism

  8. Stephen Mendelsohn Says:



    You seem to think that Judaism has gotten too much of a korban footprint (pun intended). There may be a different way we can look at this issue.

    I remember shortly after the AgriProcessors shechita scandal broke, I heard an Orthodox rabbi complain about a Jewish vegetarian he knew who refused to daven musaf because it mentioned the korbanot. Actually, each of the daily services, shacharit, mincha, and ma’ariv, commemorate the korbanot offered in the Beit ha-Mikdash. I daven the traditional words, shnei k’vasim b’nei shana t’mimim … olat shabbat b’shabbato …, but when I do so, I imagine myself as the korban, that I should be giving up of myself to come near to G-d, which is what the root of korban (from karev, to come near) means.

    Rather than focus on the animals here, we should focus on the wholehearted devotion of our ancestors who would sacrifice something of value to them to achieve Divine closeness. The key word in the musaf davening is not k’vasim (lambs), but t’mimim (whole). Just as the lambs had to be whole and without blemish, so our devotion today must be wholehearted. One way we can be whole and come near to G-d is by sacrificing foods from our diets which contain caged-hen eggs or other inhumanely or otherwise unethically produced ingredients. When we say no to appetite by refusing to eat such food even when it is technically kosher as the OU would define it, it is as if we had offered a korban tamid (the wholly burnt offering that was not eaten) to G-d.

  9. Michael Croland Says:

    While I’m disappointed to hear the decision that an animal will indeed be killed at the conference, I respectfully wish Hazon success with its intended purpose of showing people the ugliness of animal slaughter and making them think about what their dinner looked like when it still had a face and a breath in its body.

  10. Richard Schwartz Says:

    I want to join Michael Croland in commending Nigel and all at Hazon for trying to show the realities of animal slaughter and in general for all of your efforts to increase awareness of Jewish teachings on dietary issues.
    I also want to commend Stephen Mihaelson for his thoughtful comments. I wish many more were as sensitive as him.
    I am sorry to be commenting so much here, but I guess I have been frustrated at the apparent apaathy among many in the Jewish community to the facts about the massive mistreatment of animals on factory farms, the epidemic of diseases related to animal-based diets, and the major impact of animal-based agriculture to global warming and other environmental problems that threaten all of humanity.
    I wish Nigel and Hazon much success in your important efforts to increase awareness on Jewish teachings on food-related issues.

  11. Jackie Topol Says:

    Hello friends- I did a great deal of thinking about this over Yom Kippur, and as much as I support Hazon and the idea behind the Food Conference, I do not think I can attend. As an Adamah fellow this past summer, I loved and cared for these goats and I think it will be too painful for me to be in the same environment as the shechita demo. I hope that those of you who attend will understand shechita on a new level so that these goats lives will not be taken in vain.

Leave a Reply