Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Spock's Vegetarianism: A metaphor for keeping kosher?

The following is adapted from an article I wrote back in 2005 for Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA), about how Spock's vegetarianism influenced my own evolution toward giving up meat:

As I have frequently stated, I strongly identify with the Vulcan culture, and Spock most definitely had an influence on my becoming a vegetarian.  Exactly how much influence is hard to say, because I gradually evolved into a vegetarian over many years. I certainly did not grow up that way.  Like most Americans, mine was a family of carnivores, with plenty of chicken soup, pastrami, roast beef, and other meats.  When I graduated from high school in 1965, vegetarianism was the farthest thing from my mind.

A year later, Star Trek appeared on TV and, well, you all know that story by heart.  My initial reaction to Mr. Spock was "Wow!  Here's an intellectual genius who is actually respected by his peers!" You see, I went to public school (my working-class parents could never have afforded a private Jewish school) where I was very much the class nerd (called an "egghead" in those days). I was also a total klutz when it came to sports, and even worse than a wallflower at parties.  My high school yearbook designated me as "an interesting and challenging debater."  Knowing the attitudes of the "popular" people on the yearbook committee, I was pretty sure they meant it sarcastically.  But, like Spock, I took the put-down as a compliment.

Prior to Star Trek, every show or movie I had ever seen portrayed the "eggheads" as a bunch of bumbling buffoons who never did anything heroic.  At best, they were comic sidekicks.  At worst,
they were negative stereotypes.  Spock was different.  He was someone I could relate to.  And I did.

No, I didn't run right out and become a vegetarian.  My commitment to vegetarianism came years later, when my wife and I asked each other, "Do we really want a turkey this Thanksgiving?"  In between were over two decades of gradually giving up various animal foods, one by one.  But it was indeed Spock who first introduced me to the idea that meat-eating is something to be shunned.

From the very beginning, Spock's culture was conceived as being vegetarian. As Stephen Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry wrote in The Making of Star Trek (1968):

"A basic tenet of the Vulcan philosophy is nonviolence.  Vulcans do not believe in killing in any form. They may hunt for the skill involved in tracking but aeons ago ceased to kill the animal they are tracking.  As a vegetarian, the mere idea of eating animal carcasses, cooked or not, is revolting to Spock.  Even his vegetable diet is limited to the simplest of vegetable life forms."  (Whitfield and Roddenberry, p. 225)

The fact that Spock eats only vegetable foods makes him not only a vegetarian, but a vegan as well. For those who are not familiar with the difference, I'll briefly explain.  All vegetarians abstain from eating mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, sea creatures, insects, or any other species of the animal kingdom. Beyond that, there are several types of vegetarianism:

1. An ovo-lacto vegetarian eats eggs and dairy products.
2. An ovo-vegetarian eats eggs but not dairy products.
3. A lacto-vegetarian eats dairy but not eggs.
4. A vegan eats only vegetable products.

Elsewhere in Trekdom it is stated that Vulcans have a more highly-evolved society than Earth people, and their vegetarianism is a part of this cultural evolution.  In the mundane world of today, many vegetarians also believe that meat-eating is a form of primitivism that humanity will eventually evolve out of.  (Yes, I know, I just ended a sentence with a preposition -- something we should not up with put.)

Jewish vegetarians also point out that, in the biblical version of human history, our species started out as vegetarians in the Garden of Eden.  We only ate meat after descending into the depravity of the pre-Flood generations.  In the Messianic Age, these vegetarian Jews believe, humankind will return to the higher consciousness of Eden and give up meat.

I myself am an ovo-lacto vegetarian.  So far, I cannot be such a purist as Spock.  (Read more about that on my other blog...)  But I will say that giving up meat has greatly simplified my kitchen.  Most people are aware that Jews do not eat pork, but a kosher kitchen is far more complicated than that.  One of the basic rules is that meat and dairy products are never, ever served at the same meal.  They may not even be cooked or served in the same dishes.  If one eats both meat and dairy products, then one must have two complete sets of kitchen utensils.  (I won't go into why, but if you are really curious, check out this page  in the Jewish Virtual Library.)
Having a set-up like this is called "keeping kosher."  Removing the meat from the menu immediately simplifies things.  Without meat, there is only one set of dishes, and everything goes with everything else. Vegetables are neutral [called parve] and go with either meat or dairy. (Replicated foods, by the way, would be permitted, even if made from recycled meat left-overs, because the ingredients would first be broken down into their basic molecular components.  The replicator is basically a speeded-up, high-tech compost pile.)

In addition to having kosher dishes at home, a Jew who keeps kosher must also eat only kosher foods wherever he or she may be.  This is not always easy to do, because, if foods are cooked in non-kosher dishes, then the food itself is rendered non-kosher and forbidden.  This means that observant Jews cannot eat foods cooked in the homes of gentiles, which is often socially offensive.  The sharing of food is so basic to many cultures, that refusal to eat in someone's home is taken as a serious insult.

Spock's vegetarianism, too, is sometimes a social barrier, if not an actual threat to his very survival. We see this most clearly in the episode "All Our Yesterdays," where Spock is trapped in the distant past on a harsh arctic planet. Meat is the only thing available to eat. Spock recoils at the very idea, but has no choice unless he wants to starve to death, heaven forbid. So he eats the meat.  This is in line with Jewish law.  If one is literally in danger of starvation, then one may eat non-kosher foods during the emergency. When Spock returns to his own timeline, he resumes his vegetarian diet. The same would be true of a Jew who ate non-kosher foods under duress.

Most of the time, however, the problem isn't survival.  It's how to remain kosher without offending one's non-kosher hosts. In the novel Vulcan's Heart, there is a scene (pp. 17-18) where Spock is opening negotiations with an alien species called the Oriki.  Prior to this meeting, the Oriki had proved to be wary of strangers.  Previous attempts to contact them on behalf of the Federation had failed. For some reason, they are now willing to talk to Spock -- and only Spock.  Clearly this is a very touchy situation that calls for the utmost care in diplomacy.

Negotiations open with a ceremonial meal.  The food arrives, and includes a ritual plate of "thranaki" meat. But they know that Vulcans eat no meat, Spock thinks to himself. He recognizes this as a test of honor -- but which way?  Should he be a "flexitarian" and eat the meat to avoid offending?  Is it a test to see if he will violate his own traditions to respect those of the Oriki?  Or is it a test to see if he will hold to his principles at the risk of causing a diplomatic disaster?

Spock makes his decision. "Customs," he tells the Oriki delegation, "are important to all sentient beings. Indeed customs can be said to be one of the unifying facts that define a people."

The Oriki chitter among themselves in their own language, then fall silent. Spock continues, "We are in agreement. Excellent. Then you will understand that I honor your customs even more when I show respect for my people's own."

More chittering -- in approval. The offensive platter of meat is removed, and the Oriki ambassador steps forward. "Now we talk," he says.  Spock has passed the test.

I myself have been in so many similar situations as a Hasidic Jew,  It would take a whole book to recount them all. And it took a pair of Jewish Trekkers -- Josepha Sherman and Susan Schwartz -- to write this scene with such sensitivity.  If Spock's vegetarianism is a metaphor for keeping kosher (and I believe it is), then this scene typifies what it means to be both a Jew and a Vulcan: To remain true to the Path of one's own culture, while respecting the paths of others.

Live long and prosper!


  1. I used to keep kosher.

    In situation after situation of this type (being where I was expected to eat something un-kosher), Spock'/ approach was among the many (MANY!) that I earnestly tried.

    Unlike Spock, I did NOT get good or worthwhile results.

    1. SinceI am both vegetarian & kosher I find it easier I think. There's usually a vegan something I can eat at most events. But yes, it can be tricky.