|March 09, 2014||This Purim, Meet the New Esther, a Mystical Savior for Our Times||no comments|
|November 19, 2013||Hey American Rabbis: Wake Up and Smell the Cruelty||1 comments|
|October 03, 2013||God's Forgotten Covenant||no comments|
|May 24, 2013||When God Killed the Meat-Eaters||no comments|
|March 17, 2013||Religion and Animals: What Does One Have to Say About the Other?||1 comments|
|January 16, 2013||Farm-Animal Sanctuaries: Where the Torah Comes to Life||no comments|
|December 29, 2012||When Rabbis Attack!||no comments|
|December 10, 2012||Witness to a Goat Killing -- A Sad Encounter with Kosher Slaughter||no comments|
|October 22, 2012||Does Jonathan Safran Foer believe in killing animals, after all?||no comments|
|August 06, 2012||Will Jews Be at the Vanguard of the Next Big Social-Change Movement?||no comments|
The Jewish holiday of Purim is about to make its annual appearance, as it has for the last two millenia or so.
But this year, it will assume special significance.
For Jews who need a quick refresher, and for non-Jewish readers of this blog, here is the story of Purim, CliffsNotes style.
A Persian prime minister orders the extermination of all the Jews in the kingdom. Esther, one of the king's wives, uses her feminine charms to persuade the monarch to overturn the order. The Jews live happily ever after.
Jews have been re-reading and re-hearing this story, which is recorded in the Book of Esther, every year for more than 2,000 years.
So what's special about Purim this time around?
This year, a new Esther has arrived. Just like her ancient namesake, this modern Esther is quite a charmer. And like her predecessor, our contemporary Esther is desperately trying to prevent a slaughter.
Who is this 21st Century version of the Purim heroine?
None other than Esther the Wonder Pig.
Some readers of this blog are already familiar with this special sow, and are nodding their head in agreement at this very moment.
Those who have never heard of Esther the Wonder Pig may think The Beet-Eating Heeb has gone off the deep end.
But let BEH quickly explain how a hog became an international celebrity -- and a savior for her species.
In the summer of 2012, a Toronto-area couple purchased what they were told was a miniature pig to join their two dogs and two cats.
To their surprise, their new pet grew. And grew. And grew some more. She now weighs 400 pounds.
This Canadian couple, Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter, had been duped. This was no miniature pig. This was the same type of pig that, if not for a mysterious twist of fate, would have been someone's Canadian bacon, rather than a beloved pet.
Lifelong carnivores, Steve and Derek morphed into the king in the Purim story. Just like the ancient King Ahasuerus, they were charmed by Esther. And like the king, our Canadian friends have taken action to prevent the slaughter.
Not only have Steve and Derek adopted a vegan diet, they have turned Esther into a wildly popular media sensation, creating a platform for her to work her charms on literally hundreds of thousands of other people. Perhaps millions.
The Facebook feed of Esther the Wonder Pig might have you smiling and crying at the same time. Smiling at the photos of this friendly, affectionate pig cuddling with Steve and Derek, napping contentedly on their couch, and hanging out with the other pets. Crying at the thought that millions of pigs just like her are cruelly confined to small cages for most of their miserable lives, before they're trucked to a slaughterhouse to have their throats slit.
For years, we vegan advocates have been trying to show people that farm animals are every bit as intelligent, friendly, affectionate and personable as are dogs and cats. Steve and Derek have astutely recognized that, in Esther, they have an incredibly powerful and persuasive vehicle to drive this point home.
BEH cannot help but think that the Hand of Hashem is at work here.
Perhaps you can dismiss as a mere oddity that a pig who ordinarily would have been carved up into pork chops has instead landed in the home of two guys with big hearts and media savvy.
But here's where it gets downright mystical: Steve and Derek named her Esther for reasons they can't even fully understand. As they said in a recent interview, "For whatever reason, Esther seemed like a very traditional, human name and it just clicked. There wasn’t really any sort of inspiration in particular, it just worked."
In Jewish mysticism, it is believed that God can plant thoughts in your head. Is this what happened to Steve and Derek when they were deciding on a name for this pig?
They're not Jewish and were not familiar with the Purim story. Is it just a coincidence that it "just clicked" to give her the name Esther, the name of an ancient Jewish heroine whom they had never heard of?
A coincidence? Unlikely.
Steve told BEH that he is open to the idea of a metaphysical explanation.
"We can't help but feel there's something special happening here, she found us for a reason," he said. "It's a very strange and sometimes overwhelming feeling but all we can do is run with it, and see where the path takes us."
This much is beyond dispute: A new Esther has arrived on the scene this Purim. In her own way, she is every bit as charming as the Persian version.
May she be equally effective in stopping slaughter.
This is not about equating animal life with human life. But it is about putting an end to senseless bloodshed.
From their perch in America, many Diaspora Jews look at the Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel as a bunch of Neanderthals who use clubs to beat back any modern innovation or progressive idea.
No offense to any Neanderthals.
But The Beet-Eating Heeb, for one, might have to revise his assessment of Israel’s Rabbinical leadership. Or even make aliyah.
On one issue that is near and dear to BEH’s heart, and probably to yours as well, the newly elected Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel recently made a very enlightened statement. And BEH is all for giving credit where credit is due.
Chief Rabbi Lau, after viewing televised footage of horrific abuses of animals at (yet another) kosher slaughterhouse, issued an unusually strong statement of condemnation.
His statement came in response to seeing chickens packed in filthy cages without food or water, writhing turkeys tossed into metal boxes with their throats cut, and several other forms of cruelty at a Soglowek slaughterhouse in Northern Israel.
“As a human being and as a Jew, I was shocked by the footage, by the brutal behavior of those employees toward helpless animals,” said Lau, according to Israel’s Ynet website. “Such things shouldn’t happen. The Torah forbids us to act in this way and obliges us to be extra vigilant with regard to animal welfare. We cannot remain silent in the face of such things. We will act firmly and sternly against this factory.”
The slaughterhouse, after a brief closure, has reopened. It remains to be seen whether Soglowek will improve its practices.
Nonetheless, Lau’s tough talk heartened The Beet-Eating Heeb for two reasons.
The rabbi specifically invoked “tzar baalei chaim,” the Jewish prohibition on inflicting unnecessary suffering on animals. He acknowledged the reality that the laws of kosher slaughter only apply to the last seconds of an animal’s life. What happens in the modern factory farm and during transport to the slaughterhouse typically involves multiple forms of cruelty, but is not governed by kashrut.
Second, Lau’s response to the Soglowek scandal stands out in vivid contrast to how America’s kashrut establishment has reacted to similar situations in U.S. slaughterhouses.
The most obvious example is the infamous Agriprocessors case, in which undercover investigators from 2004-2008 documented shocking cruelty at what was then the world’s largest glatt-kosher slaughterhouse. In response, the Orthodox Union, the country’s largest kosher-certification agency, repeatedly denied that anything was amiss.
Indeed, the Orthodox Union engaged in a public-relations campaign on behalf of Agriprocessors, essentially telling kosher consumers, and veterinary experts, not to believe what they were seeing with their own eyes.
Don’t take The Beet-Eating Heeb’s word for it, although you certainly can. Documentary evidence of the OU’s shenanigans can be found in the archives of the OU’s own Website.
Why would Orthodox rabbis bend over backwards to defend the perpetrators of cruelty?
BEH can answer in one word: Money.
The OU is the United States’ largest certifier of kosher products. It’s a very big business. The amount of money that the OU collects from kosher certification is not available on Guidestar, but suffice it to say, the total amount has quite a few zeros.
Agriprocessors was the sordid intersection of the country’s largest slaughterhouse and largest kosher certifier. Compassion, ethics, and concern for animals didn’t stand much of a chance. Neither did Judaism or Jewish values, for that matter.
Mark BEH’s words. There will be another Agriprocessors. There will be another videotaped, well-documented case of heart-wrenching, stomach-turning cruelty at a large American kosher slaughterhouse.
After all, kosher slaughter in the modern, factory-farming era resembles an assembly line. Make that a disassembly line. The point is, the sheer volume of animals, and the rapid line speed of the slaughter, all but ensures that cruelty will occur.
We can only hope that next time, America’s Orthodox rabbinate will not sacrifice compassion on the altar of economic expediency.
Jews around the world this week are reading the story of Noah in Genesis 9.
(Was he the one who first said, “When it rains, it pours”?)
Ironically, while most people associate this story with the saving of animals in the Ark, it is in this particular Torah portion that God first gives humans permission to kill animals for food.
Yup, the animals had barely set foot on terra firma when God told Noah and his sons, “Every living thing that moves shall be food for you.”
You can practically hear the cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys saying, “Are you kidding me?”
A year ago this week, The Beet-Eating Heeb, as a service to readers and animals alike, explained why Genesis 9 doesn’t really condone meat-eating, after all.
But BEH left out an important point, which he will rectify right this very second.
If God really approves of us killing animals by the billions, why would He say that animals are explicitly included in His covenant?
It’s right there in Genesis 9, just a few short verses after humans supposedly got a permit to open slaughterhouses. (Emphasis on supposedly.)
In Genesis 9:12, God says, "This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations.”
Every living creature is in covenant with the Divine.
God was evidently concerned that humans would want to overlook this inconvenient truth, especially when there is meat on the grill.
So God repeated the statement not once, but three additional times.
Genesis 9, Verses 15, 16 and 17 all state that God includes animals in his covenant.
Sheesh, get the hint?
God does not want us to slash the throats of animals, or to abuse them in countless and hideous other ways, as we do in modern factory farms. Not if the word “covenant” means anything.
By definition, God would never have included the animals in His covenant if he didn’t care about their well-being. To which you’re probably saying, “No duh,” or amen.
To take it a step further, God could have established a covenant with animals without telling humans about it. But that would defeat the purpose. The reason this covenant is repeated four times in the Torah is because He is depending on us to make it a reality.
This is fundamental to Jewish thought. We are supposed to be God’s partners in perfecting creation. We are supposed to implement God’s will.
Sadly, we haven’t just ignored the fact that animals are partners to the same covenant we have with God. As the party responsible for making the covenant a meaningful reality, we have trashed it.
In the United States alone this year, 10 billion farm animals will be killed, while another 200 million animals will be killed by hunters, 100 million more in vivisection, and another 2 million in the fur industry.
And these figures don’t measure the brutality, the cruelty, the torture and the torment that these animals experience before they are killed.
This is how we honor the Divine covenant.
Animals shouldn’t be mad at God for what He said in Genesis 9:3. Technically, He may have given humans permission to eat meat. But He made it perfectly clear that He would strongly prefer that we don’t.
The animals should be mad at humans. We have betrayed them. And in so doing, we have betrayed God and His covenant.
Fortunately, we can begin to repair this covenant with a simple step.
One of the most dramatic and meaningful stories in the Torah is read this week in synagogues around the world.
It is a food-related story and it merits our attention, yet it is seldom discussed. Or depicted in movies.
The story, found in Numbers 11, describes part of the Israelites’ journey in the desert, before their thunderous encounter with God at Mount Sinai.
As you likely know, the Torah tells us that God sustained the Israelites on a diet of manna. And manna was described as similar to coriander seed. A vegan dish, to be sure.
It probably won’t shock you to learn that some of the Israelites complained about the fare and demanded meat, never mind that the manna was filling and healthy.
So who were these meat-lovers? The Torah described them, in Hebrew, as ha’asafsoof. The Jewish Publication Society translates that as “the riffraff.” Not exactly a neutral description. Just another case of the Torah expressing disdain for meat-eating.
Moses, who consulted public-opinion polls long before there was Gallup, heard the riffraff and relayed their concerns to God.
If The Beet-Eating Heeb can be so bold as to paraphrase God Himself, His response was something like this:
They want meat, do they? I’ll give them some meat, alright … until it’s coming out of their nostrils.
Actually, that’s pretty close to a direct translation.
God then called forth a mighty wind that deposited quails – yes, quails – throughout the Israelites’ camp.
Fire up the barbecue!
In normal circumstances, the fat and cholesterol might have killed the riffraff, but not for a few years. God decided to cut to the chase. The Torah says:
“The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when the anger of the Lord blazed forth against the people and the Lord struck the people with a very severe plague. That place was named Kibroth-hattaavah.
Kibroth-hattaavah? That translates to, “the graves of craving.”
Did The Beet-Eating Heeb say something about the Torah expressing disdain for meat-eating?
Nothing subtle here. First, God tells us explicitly, in Genesis 1:29, that we are to eat plants and only plants. Then, as if He hadn’t made His point perfectly clear, meat-eaters are described as “riffraff” who are struck down by a plague and buried in the “graves of craving.”
Don’t get The Beet-Eating Heeb wrong. He would never refer to today’s meat-eaters as riffraff. That’s a little too harsh.
And BEH would be the first to acknowledge that there is another, albeit complementary, interpretation of this story. Some theologians say the Divine wrath was provoked simply because some Israelites were not content with God’s beneficence. They wanted more. That the “more” was “meat” is not the key to the story, per this interpretation.
However, viewed in the context of the entire Torah, the fact that meat was involved appears significant. Very significant.
Consider this: In Numbers 11:4, the Hebrew word used to describe the riffraff’s desire for meat is “ta’avah.” JPS translates that as “gluttonous craving.”
Now fast forward to Deuteronomy 12:20, when the Israelites are getting their final instructions before entering the Land of Israel. They are told that they can eat meat, if they have the urge to do so. Well, not urge, exactly. Here again, the desire for meat is described as “ta’aveh.” A gluttonous craving.
So what’s going on here? Is the Beet-Eating Heeb crazy, or does it seem that God would prefer that we not kill animals for food?
To put this in contemporary perspective, God has given us an Earth with an incredible bounty of fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains to sustain us. Yet we succumb to our “ta’avah” and kill billions of animals a year.
As we recall from the recently observed holiday of Shavuot, it’s worth noting that the Israelites were only deemed spiritually worthy of receiving the Torah after they had returned to a diet of manna, not meat.
Interesting story, eh?
How many vegans can you name who live in Southeastern Montana, where cattle outnumber people by a ratio of about 100-to-1? (Conservative estimate.)
Think that’s tough. Try this one:
How many religious studies professors can you name who research what our sacred texts say about the proper treatment of animals?
The Beet-Eating Heeb hates to show up his beloved readers, but he can name someone in both categories. It helps that it’s the same person.
Meet Lisa Kemmerer.
Tenure-track positions are hard to find in academia, which might explain why the professor who has written one of the most authoritative books on the intersection of animal welfare and religion is on the faculty of the Montana State University – Billings.
BEH, as one of the very few bloggers who writes about the theology of veganism, feels fortunate to have found Lisa.
Her book “Animals and World Religions” (Oxford University Press) is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the role that religion can play – make that, should play – in ending the oppression of animals.
Lisa and The Beet-Eating Heeb recently talked about her important work – and about what it’s like to be a vegan advocate in cattle country.
BEH: Lisa, what’s it like to be vegan in Billings, Montana?
Kemmerer: My social life is limited. It’s a ranching place, very conservative—not always comfortable.
I know there are other vegans out there, but they’re students, in a different space in life. They can’t provide a community for me. I don’t know any vegans in Billings that I have commonality with, and of course I simply don’t eat out.
BEH: Many of your students are cattle ranchers themselves. How do they respond when you tell them that the widespread suffering of farm animals is a violation of religious principles?
Kemmerer: I have lots of ranching students in my classes and they bristle at animal ethics. They especially bristle at hearing that what they’re doing is inconsistent with their own faith.
Why am I beating my head against a wall with a bunch of ranching students? I’m needed here. It’s not socially comfortable for me, but I think it’s necessary.
BEH: If the major religions emphasize the compassionate treatment of animals, how did we get into a situation where we’re slaughtering 9 billion farm animals in the U.S. alone?
Kemmerer: People can ruin any religion. There is no religion that teaches us that what is happening in animal agriculture is OK.
Humanity has a tendency toward ignorance of religions. We have a tendency toward selfishness. We tend to be arrogant. Between ignorance, selfishness and arrogance, we create a recipe for the dismissal of religious teachings.
The religions themselves can’t do anything. They are only powerful through believers.
In Genesis 1:29, after creating a vegan world, God said creation was “very good.” People can read these passages three times, but they aren’t hearing that the world was intended to be vegan. That’s where arrogance and selfishness come in.
One of my frustrations is that the religious community isn’t generally interested in these issues. It’s frustrating and sad because it’s so important—the suffering is so great.
BEH: The Beet-Eating Heeb knows a lot about the emphasis in Jewish texts on the compassionate treatment of animals, but what about Christianity?
Kemmerer: It is true that the Jewish tradition is rich with how to relate to nature and animals. Christians share these texts with the Jewish tradition. I wish they would pay more attention to this part of scripture. Too many Christians are ignorant of Jewish texts, but they are foundational to Christianity.
BEH: Was Jesus a vegetarian? There seems to be some debate about that.
Kemmerer: The Bible doesn’t tell us what Jesus ate. And what he ate doesn’t make much of a difference, no more than it makes a difference what Jesus was wearing on his feet.
The real question is: What would Jesus think of what we’re eating today? What would Jesus think of our slaughterhouses? No sincere Christian can say, “Those slaughterhouses are fine. Jesus would only worry about human needs and suffering.”
Jesus would not like what we’re eating today, based on the suffering of animals.
BEH: What about Islam?
Kemmerer: Though Judaism does, Christianity doesn’t have laws for the protection of animals, and Christians ignore the ones they’ve inherited from the Jewish tradition.
Islamic law is very strict with regard to animals. Muslims are supposed to satisfy the basic needs of domesticated animals, which goes right to the heart of factory farming. Animals are not supposed to be targeted in warfare; we have no right to cause animal suffering through human conflicts. These are wonderful teachings! Such direct laws are very important for the protection of animals.
Muslims tend to restrict their focus to laws governing the slaughter of animals, but this is not the only issue covered by Islamic law.
BEH: That’s a problem in Judaism, too. Sigh.
Now what about Hinduism? Many of the Hindus whom The Beet-Eating Heeb knows are vegetarian, although not vegan.
Kemmerer: Hinduism has the wonderful ideas of ahimsa (not to harm) and karma.
Hindus are ahead of most of the world’s people in terms of actually living up to some of their basic religious beliefs. But milk is a huge part of their diet, and in contemporary times milk is associated with tremendous suffering. That is something Hindus need to look in order to adhere to the central tenets of their religion.
BEH: One last question Lisa. Some people in the animal-rights and veg-advocacy movement blame religion for our society’s horrible treatment of animals. That’s the wrong place to put blame, if you ask The Beet-Eating Heeb. But if we’re ever going to have a more compassionate and merciful relationship with animals, can religion be part of the solution?
Kemmerer: Yes, religion is critical to bringing change for animals.
When I show people want’s happening on factory farms and point out how these methods are inconsistent with their most fundamental religious beliefs, they’re inclined to change—they feel compelled to change. But if you are talking to an atheist, you don’t know what their ethical code is, and they can simply say, “I don’t care.” Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus—they can’t say they don’t care. Religious teachings call us to care—require that we care.
If we’re going to talk about religion with others, we need to be informed so that we can be sensitive to the beliefs and practices of others. If we are educated, we will be more effective advocates for the animals. I would like to believe that "Animals and World Religions" can help us to be more effective in our advocacy, which is to say, I hope that this book will help bring change for animals.
The Beet-Eating Heeb might be inclined to say that bloggers are the most valuable members of the vegan-advocacy movement.
OK, so he is a little biased.
But he is willing to say that farm-animal sanctuaries rank right up there, especially after reading the “The Lucky Ones,” the poignantly titled 2012 autobiography of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary Co-founder Jenny Brown.
Whether it’s out of ignorance or indifference, carnivores are blind to what – make that “who” – they are eating. But farm-animal sanctuaries yank the blinders right off.
At a typical such sanctuary, visitors see and feel for themselves that cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys have unique personalities, just like our dogs and cats. And these farm animals can be every bit as affectionate.
In addition, these sanctuaries vividly and intimately convey the same idea that the authors of the Jewish sacred texts sought to convey: That the gap between humans and animals is rather small.
The Beet-Eating Heeb would never say that humans and animals have equal standing, Jewishly speaking. And frankly, all but the most extreme animal-rights activists, when push comes to shove, value human life more than animal life, if ever so slightly. (If your house is on fire, you’re going to make sure your kids are safely outside before you go looking for your pets.)
But it’s also true that human beings have a unique and unfortunate tendency to exaggerate their superiority over other sentient beings. Indeed, meat-eating itself is based on the faulty premise that animals are vastly inferior and thus should be killed if we like the way they taste.
The wise authors of the Torah and other sacred texts recognized that egocentric human beings have a tendency to view themselves as the be-all and end-all. So these authors – who, if you’re Orthodox, would include God Himself – repeatedly told us that animals should be treated with compassion, and that animals have almost equal standing in the Divine hierarchy.
It’s a busy new year. Neither you nor The Beet-Eating Heeb has time right now to explore the entire theology of animals in the Jewish tradition.
So let’s just consider three of the many verses that define the proper human-animal relationship:
Genesis 9:8 – “And G-d said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you – birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well – all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth.’ “
Exodus 20:10 – “The seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: You shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.”
Shulchan Aruch, Book 4 -- “It is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature. On the contrary, it is our duty to relieve the pain of any creature.”
Just to review, animals are included in God’s covenant with human beings, animals are entitled to a day of rest on Shabbat, and it is our duty to relieve the pain of any creature, not inflict it.
All of these teachings are followed to a T in a farm-animal sanctuary like Jenny Brown’s.
What The Beet-Eating Heeb finds to be particularly moving in her book are her accounts of her extraordinary efforts to relieve the pain of injured and sick animals – animals who were subjected to abuse and deprivation in factory farms and even in smaller farms.
Jenny is not Jewish, but she is fulfilling a Torah mandate, bigtime.
The only problem with farm-animal sanctuaries is that relatively few people ever visit one. Unlike reading a blog, which is available to anyone with an Internet connection, visiting such a sanctuary usually requires schlepping out to the countryside.
Jenny has found a way around that problem by writing a compelling book.
The book in itself is a pretty valuable addition to the veg-advocacy movement, The Beet-Eating Heeb would have to admit.
One sure sign that the veg movement is a growing force among Jews is the backlash we’re seeing from certain highly placed but sadly misguided rabbis.
This backlash can be traced at least as far back as 2002, when Aish.com, one of the most popular Jewish Websites, posted an essay that attempted to defend meat-eating from a Jewish perspective.
Then as recently as two weeks ago, none other than the Vice President of Communications for the Orthodox Union launched a direct yet feeble attack against Jewish vegetarianism. The Orthodox Union (OU) is the world’s largest kosher certification agency, so the fact that it posted an essay condemning vegetarianism on its home page is interesting, although not altogether shocking.
BEH views these anti-vegetarian screeds as a positive development. The only reason these rabbis are writing articles in defense of killing animals is because an increasing number of Jews are waking up to the horrors of factory farming.
Moreover, what these articles show, by the very weakness of their arguments, is that Jews are standing on very solid ground, theologically speaking, when we advocate for plant-based diets.
To illustrate just how weak their arguments are, let’s take a closer look at the Orthodox Union post, written by Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, their VP of Communications.
Rabbi Safran starts out with a doozy of a logical fallacy. His anecdote about an elegant-looking woman fussing over her small dog is, first of all, totally irrelevant to the issue at hand. There is no evidence that the woman is a vegetarian. In fact, odds are she is a meat-eater, like Rabbi Safran.
Moreover, the story is a perfect example of what’s known in logic as a straw-man argument.
With the anecdote, the rabbi is clumsily implying that vegetarians and vegans care more about animals than they do about people. The only problem with that implication is, it’s simply untrue. Or, as British Friends of BEH might say, “What rubbish!”
Generally speaking, veg*ns who abstain from meat for ethical reasons also care deeply about their fellow human beings.
It’s not like God gave us a limited, finite capacity for compassion. It’s not a zero-sum game. Caring about animals does not preclude caring about people.
In fact, both God and our Sages recognized that someone who is compassionate toward animals is more likely to be compassionate toward people, not less.
The two greatest leaders in Jewish history – Moses and King David – were selected for leadership at least partly on the basis of the compassion they demonstrated as shepherds.
Like those two shepherds, veg*ns have expanded their personal circles of compassion to encompass animals as well as people, exactly as the Torah commands us to do. The merciful treatment of animals is a major point of emphasis in the Torah. Or has Rabbi Safran forgotten this?
Actually, it’s not the vegans and vegetarians that the rabbi should be concerned about. He should worry about himself and his fellow meat-eaters.
Perhaps it was Rabbi Joseph Albo, the great 15th Century philosopher and Torah scholar, who put it best when he wrote: “In the killing of animals there is cruelty, rage, and the accustoming of oneself to the bad habit of shedding innocent blood.”
Well said, even if it’s obvious.
Let’s face reality. Eating meat in our modern era entails either hardening your heart to the suffering of animals or blinding your eyes to it.
Rabbi Safran devotes about a third of his essay to a description of the ancient Egyptians’ attitudes toward animals, which is about as irrelevant as the woman-and-dog story.
Yet in his entire essay, he doesn’t devote so much as a syllable to the pervasive abuse and heinous mistreatment of animals in factory farming. As a leader of the OU, he is surely aware that kosher slaughterhouses get the vast majority of their animals from factory farms.
The Beet-Eating Heeb refuses to either harden his heart or blind his eyes to this reality, to this cruelty. Yet Rabbi Safran, on behalf of the OU, sees fit to attack vegetarianism. That’s chutzpah, folks. Or something worse.
And here’s the kicker.
Rabbi Safran, out of either surprising ignorance or sheer audacity, tries to justify meat-eating as an “exercise of dominion” over animals.
Surely he must know that the granting of “dominion” in Genesis 1:28 is followed immediately by the injunction to eat plants and only plants in Genesis 1:29. The Torah could not be clearer. “Dominion” explicitly excludes the right to kill animals for food.
This piece by Rabbi Safran is typical of the anti-vegetarian genre. Time and again, when rabbis seek to defend their consumption of meat, they take Torah quotations out of context, deviate from the principles of logic, and ignore the realities of modern farming.
Ah, but there is no point in getting upset at Rabbi Safran or the OU.
Rather, we owe them a debt of gratitude for showing the world, if only unintentionally, that vegetarians and vegans embody the highest ideals of the Torah.
Now can’t we all just enjoy some seitan brisket?
It takes a lot to make The Beet-Eating Heeb cry.
He can chop onions and watch Brian’s Song, simultaneously, with dry eyes.
But he shed a tear last week at the Hazon Food Conference.
What caused this stoic beet-eater to show some emotion – at a conference, of all places?
The killing of a goat.
On a cold, dreary morning, Hazon presented a demonstration of the schechting (kosher slaughter) of a young goat in front of about 30 conference attendees, including The Beet-Eating Heeb.
It is true that the goat was raised humanely and that he suffered for only a few seconds.
But BEH still found the slaughter of this beautiful, golden-furred animal to be troubling. Deeply troubling. On many levels.
It was particularly disconcerting to see Jews killing an innocent, gentle, affable animal – in a completely Jewish context, no less.
Judaism is about celebrating life, not about causing unnecessary death. At least as The Beet-Eating Heeb understands his religion.
But here were Jews taking a goat in the prime of his life and slitting his throat. Panicked and anguished, the goat immediately lurched forward and dropped to his knees as blood gushed from his neck. The shochet’s assistants then threw a tarp over the goat – and a tear streaked down The Beet-Eating Heeb’s cheek.
The goat’s corpse was then strung up in a shed, skinned and disemboweled.
Savage. How else could you describe this entire scene?
And to think this was the gold standard of slaughter. As good as it gets. Try to imagine the scene in an industrial slaughterhouse, where the vast majority of farm animals are killed and dismembered, often by the thousands in a single day.
But, ironically, had BEH witnessed the slaughtering of an animal in that kind of slaughterhouse, it would not have bothered him as much.
To see Jews engaging in an act of unnecessary violence and chilling betrayal . . .
This goat had been raised by young Jewish farmers who had engendered the animal’s trust with their humane care. Then, in an instant, these same Jews turned on the unsuspecting goat and killed him.
If that isn’t an act of supreme betrayal, what is? Is this any way for members of a religious community to act in relationship with one of God’s fellow creatures?
And for what purpose was this animal killed? That’s an easy one: Because some people like the taste of goat meat. Never mind that we live in an era and in a country in which vast amounts of fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains are available – all you need for optimum health.
Don’t get The Beet-Eating Heeb wrong. He supports Hazon’s decision to conduct a slaughter at the conference, if only because meat-eaters should be confronted with the reality of their dietary choices.
The demonstration helped BEH realize that the whole kosher-meats business is a morally problematic enterprise, to put it mildly.
So what’s the solution?
Should Jews get out of the slaughtering business and eat non-kosher meat?
Of course not.
The only solution is for Jews to abstain from meat altogether, which just happens to be the Torah ideal, anyway.
During a Webinar put on by the group Farm Forward, The Beet-Eating Heeb this month finally got an opportunity to ask author Jonathan Safran Foer the question that he had been dying to put to him. Well, maybe “dying” is a poor choice of words.
My fellow Jew, BEH asked, do you think it’s morally OK for humans to kill animals for food?
His answer was profoundly disappointing. Disillusioning in the extreme.
Safran Foer said, “The answer doesn’t really matter. Maybe it’s fun, intellectually, to consider the question. But let’s talk about what’s actually in front of us. The question is the least relevant to the choices we make on a daily basis.”
What? The matter of killing sentient beings for food “doesn’t really matter”? It’s “least relevant”?
This, from the sensitive soul and gifted writer who wrote “Eating Animals,” the book that has probably created more vegans than any other written work in history?
It doesn’t really matter? C’mon, man.
To state the obvious, the issue is of ultimate consequence and of grave concern to farm animals, who literally moan, bleat and otherwise beg for their lives. It’s one thing for their desperate but futile pleas to fall on deaf ears within the blood-soaked slaughterhouse. It’s quite another for these innocent animals to find a heart of stone inside the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer.
However, while his answer certainly seems surprising, even bizarre, it’s actually exactly what you would expect – when you consider the morally hypocritical corner that JSF has painted himself into.
Much to the chagrin of his legions of vegan fans, Safran Foer has firmly hitched himself to the “humane” farming movement. This movement, of which Farm Forward is a part, maintains that it’s OK to slaughter animals, as long as you raise them in a humane fashion. It’s a response, sort of, to factory farming.
Safran Foer discussed this movement in “Eating Animals” with a glowing profile of Niman Ranch. Since the release of the book, he has become a spokesman for Farm Forward, even doing a YouTube video that endorses consuming poultry.
The problem with Safran Foer, Farm Forward and the rest of the “humane” farming movement is the utter hypocrisy inherent in their position.
Please explain to The Beet-Eating Heeb how you can care about an animal’s welfare for a few years, then turn around one day and stick a knife into the animal’s throat.
The Beet-Eating Heeb, as all Jews should, finds this Jekyll-and-Hyde type of morality to be troubling, even scary. BEH favors a transcendent, consistent morality.
This whole “humane” farming movement reminds The Beet-Eating Heeb of the parable of the woman who rescued an injured rattlesnake and nursed it back to full health. For the next few months, the snake would curl up in the woman’s lap as she watched TV at night, just like a pet cat.
Then one night, out of the blue, the rattlesnake lifted its head and plunged its venomous fangs right into the woman’s neck.
“My God, how could you do that to me, after we spent all these nights together?,” the woman gasped as she died.
“Hey lady,” the rattler answered, “you knew I was a snake.”
Jonathan Safran Foer has aligned himself with the snake, metaphorically speaking.
Given all this, his answer to BEH’s question isn’t surprising, after all.
He has put himself in a position where he can’t say killing animals for food is wrong. But nor, given his obvious concern for animals, can he say it’s OK.
Characterizing the question as irrelevant was just a way of dodging it. Given the morally untenable position he has staked out, he didn’t have any good options when confronted with BEH’s query. Dismissing the question as frivolous, as he did, might very well have been the least bad option for him.
Of course, Safran Foer is entitled to believe and espouse whatever he wants. But BEH, as a big fan of his book “Eating Animals, would ask him to reconsider his ties to the “humane” farming movement and give animals the moral consideration they deserve – every day and always.
Is the vegan advocacy and animal rights movement on the cusp of transforming society?
Will it soon take its place alongside the feminist and civil-rights movements as a source of genuine, positive and lasting social change?
The Beet-Eating Heeb is not quite prepared to answer with an unqualified yes.
However, after attending last week’s annual conference of the Farm Animals Rights Movement, BEH is feeling decidedly more optimistic.
Known as the Animal Rights Conference (ARC), the four-day event drew approximately 500 people to a Hilton in Alexandria, VA.
The Beet-Eating Heeb, in his previous career incarnations, attended more national conferences than he can possibly count, including some much larger than ARC, such as the massive AIPAC Policy Conference.
But never has he witnessed such energy, emotion and commitment at a conference as he did last week.
The exhibit hall bristled with activity as conference goers jammed the narrow aisles to buy vegan books and t-shirts, pick up brochures, and trade stories with fellow activists. Several speakers received rousing standing ovations as they discussed their work on behalf of animals. More than one speaker broke down in tears in describing the horrific cruelty inflicted on cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys. A high percentage of the attendees, perhaps half, were under 40 years of age.
To paraphrase legendary hockey announcer Mike Lange, “You would have had to be there to believe it.”
So, what is the source of this vibe, this passion at a conference devoted mainly to vegan advocacy?
There are two sources, the way The Beet-Eating Heeb sees it.
One, vegan advocates are feeling the momentum as our movement accumulates significant gains. Veganism, relegated to the margins of society for decades, is suddenly becoming mainstream as more and more thought leaders promote its benefits and as vegan options proliferate in grocery stores and restaurants.
Two, vegan advocates are drawing energy from the sense of moral outrage we justifiably feel, aware as we are that 9 billion farm animals are being brutally murdered in the U.S. alone this year, aware that about 8.5 billion of them are subjected to lives of abject misery before they are trucked to the slaughterhouse.
The pieces are indeed falling into place to create a social-change movement of historic proportions.
As was the case with the historic social-change movements of yesteryear, there exists a deeply rooted, pervasive, absolutely unacceptable condition in society. And there exists a growing awareness of the problem.
“History will look back at veganism as one of the most important, transformative movements in human history,” Melanie Joy, a vegan author and psychologist, said at the conference.
A couple of week ago, The Beet-Eating Heeb might have dismissed such a statement as wishful thinking.
But after spending a few days with his fellow advocates, BEH can see the seeds of something big, very big, starting to bloom.
Which leads to a final, and, in The Beet-Eating Heeb’s mind, a very important question:
As the movement matures and gains ever more adherents, will people of religious faith be at the vanguard or on the sidelines?
There were several Jews at ARC. May there be many more next year. Compassion for animals is not just a Jewish teaching, it’s a core concept of our religion. Our Torah narrative, Mishnah and Talmud express exquisite sensitivity to the suffering of animals. We should be overrepresented in this new social-change movement, just as were in the feminist and civil rights movements of prior generations.
Will we be?