Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast, takes questions from its listeners about all aspects of Jewish life, from the religiously profound to the utterly inconsequential. Every week, we discuss one of these questions in “Ask Unorthodox.” If you have a question, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Writing on our Facebook group, listener Laura came to us with this intriguing question: “Is it possible/kosher to write a vegan Torah? That is, write the scroll on non–animal-derived parchment?” What a fabulous question! Given the attention in Judaism over the past couple of decades to animal rights and ecology, we were surprised that we had never thought of this. All the discussion of ethical farming practices and more humane shechita, and nary a discussion of making a Torah that isn’t soaked in the blood of a suffering sheep.
We turned to Rabbi Gil Student—mainly because we like his last name so much, but also because of his fab blog Torah Musings—and he replied promptly and authoritatively. “For sure not,” he instructed, in what we imagine over email to be a resonant baritone, kindly, firm, and not unsexy. “A Torah scroll must be written specifically on the skin of kosher animals.” He directed us to Yosef Karo’s definitive 16th century compendium of Jewish law, Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 271:1). “If we could,” he added, “we would use paper, which is much cheaper.” And easier on the sheep.
But the discussion didn’t end there (does it ever?). Our Tablet colleague Menachem Butler, intrigued by the question, sent along a 2003 scholarly article that discussed the possibility that Torah scrolls could be silk-screened, which would honor the requirement that every letter be written by a qualified sofer, or scribe, while greatly reducing the cost of a full scroll. If the sofer created the stencils and forced the ink through the screen, he would be writing the scroll. The halakhic condemnation around this proposal was harsh but interesting, and the sources cited included Maimonides’ discussion of whether illiterate witnesses may sign their names with spittle.
The point is, the rules around the manufacture of a Torah scroll are being contested in all sorts of ways, so why not invoke the conversation about the treatment of animals? For example, what if we can use the technology that’s giving us test-tube-grown meat to give us test-tube hides? Some Orthodox rabbis would object, but that’s what modern Orthodoxy is for. Or Conservative Judaism. Or Renewal. You’d get buy-in somewhere.
Meanwhile, the Facebook conversation was not over. Our listener Lindsay responded to Laura with a pro-animal concern of her own. “I’ve been considering getting a mezuza,” Lindsay wrote, “but I’ve read that it’s supposed to be parchment of animal hide, and I’d rather not.” Indeed, the parchment is supposed to be animal hide. But take it from us: The animals who sacrifice a mere couple square inches of hide so that you can proudly mark your home as a Jew, Lindsay, are glad to help.