[This post first appeared in article form on the website of CHAI - Concern for Helping Animals in Israel]
I grew up in a non-observant household, but I had a strong Jewish identity founded on an appreciation for the dignified history of our people and for Judaism’s value-driven contributions to humanity. Long before my acquisition of a serious Jewish education, I took great comfort and pride in the knowledge that Judaism pioneered the idea of respectful responsibility of interaction between humans and the animal world. At an early age I was taught that the laws of Jewish slaughter reflect the concern for minimizing an animal’s pain at the end of life. In my adult studies toward rabbinic ordination, the Jewish texts and sources affirmed the teachings of my childhood. Painfully, in the summer of 2003 the realities of our food industry hit me like closed fist.
It was then, in Washington D.C., that I attended my first and only animal rights conference. Like the seeming majority of Americans, I considered myself an animal lover. This conference was the single most sobering and important wake-up-call to my nearsighted understanding of what it means to have concern for animals. My eyes and mind were exposed to the realities of modern animal husbandry, and I received an invaluable education. As a Jew, I was particularly impacted by my evaluation that the treatment of animals to fulfill human food desires is an appalling violation of the Jewish law prohibiting the unnecessary infliction of pain on an animal. Additionally, though the animal rights industry is disproportionately represented by a large number of Jewish activists, with the exception of one speaker I was the only observant Jew participating in the conference of more than 500 attendees.
At the conference, I was able to meet with people who were at one time on the front lines of animal agriculture. That is, many animal welfare activists are people who previously worked in the animal-food based industry and whose experiences led them to work to alleviate/eliminate the abuses they witnessed. These abuses are documented by hours of films, scientific data and research, and hundreds of testimonials. Critical thinking can help the reader better understand the issues: in the U.S., over 9 billion animals are killed each year for our food supply – the number equates to over 25 million animals a day. It is not possible to breed, raise, handle, transport and slaughter this number of animals in a non-abusive way. Cruelty to animals is the industrial norm and not the exception.
How was I to reconcile Jewish teachings of human responsibility toward animals with the reality of modern factory farming? As an observant Jew, I believe that Jewish law which governs Jewish life is intended to shape a character of sensitivity, kindness, passion and compassion. Not only does my observance of Jewish law craft my character, it constructs my vehicle of relationship with Gd. To ignore the religiously unlawful atrocities inflicted by humans onto the co-inhabitant animals of the world would be devastating to the integrity with which I approach my observance of Jewish obligations. It would also taint the relationship of sincerity that I desire to have with Gd.
The wealth of knowledge we have about the realities of modern animal husbandry forces the critically-thinking, compassionate person to conclude that modern society’s appetite for personal pleasures and comforts through food consumption comes at the expense of a non-represented other, namely the animals. As a Jew who has spent years learning Jewish sources that indicate that part of the mission of an ethical, value driven society is to protect its weakest members, the decision to abstain from foods directly related to animal abuse is a mandate.
I do not want to be misunderstood: Jewish teachings affirm that humans have the privilege to use animals for our needs. Alas, were it not for the utilization of animals as instruments of labor communities could not have developed and succeeded as they did before the advent of fuel-driven machines. However, Judaism also legislates that human use of animals must be done with a concern for the animals’ physical welfare and dignity. To be clear: we humans are permitted to use animals for our needs only in concert with adherence of concern for animal suffering. It must be pointed out that the end user of a product knowingly derived by cruel means is a participant in the cruelty.
I will use a pronounced example to illustrate the point. It is unlawful to poach the elephant. For years elephants were hunted and killed for the sole purpose of harvesting the ivory of their tusks. Today, the illegal poaching of elephants still occurs. Not only are the elephant poachers criminals, but those who purchase the ivory of the hunted elephants have also committed a crime. Were there no consumer willing to buy the tusks, there would be no incentive for the hunters to poach elephants. I apply this same principle to my food choices.
Modern societies permit atrocious living conditions and heinous mistreatment of animals for the food industry. The reasons for this abuse are economic – produce vast quantities of product at the least possible expense. Modern, secular thinking may allow for sentient creatures to be treated like inanimate objects, but Jewish tradition which expresses the concepts of humility and responsible stewardship does not. Unarguably, Jewish law legislates human interaction with animals. Unarguably, adherents to Jewish law view observance of the law as a medium of relationship with Gd. A holistic reading of Jewish law prohibits modern factory farming practices. My decision to abstain from the consumption of animal products is an expression of my adherence to Jewish law, and it expresses my disapproval and disdain for the cruel practices of the industry.
When we are children, we are taught to trust the police, the judicial system, and the government. Only with intellectual maturity do we understand that corruption makes these institutions imperfect. Similarly, we trust that Westernized governments have adequate laws and law enforcement to protect animals from painful abuses. As children we grow up with images of pastoral farms and happy animals and caring stewards. Intellectual maturity, i.e., the critical thinking to which I referred earlier, should dispel our beliefs that societal rules protect animals from torturous conditions. The powerful and wealthy industrial-animal-farming lobbyists maintain such influence on government that reforms for the sake of morality are virtually non-existent. Mounds of evidence prove that both the government and the food industry, and even Jewish leadership, have betrayed our trust in the prevention of animal cruelty and suffering.
Judaism does not make the claim of moral superiority; rather, it makes the demand for responsibility of actions. Judaism starts from a place of concern for justice and tries to protect all members of community, both local and global, from abuses of power and privilege. Thus, Judaism’s critique of a social system that fails to protect all of its inhabitants is that the system needs repair. Importantly, within Judaism there is a self-correcting mechanism for its own failures. This mechanism depends on its members voicing concern and condemnation at a societal leadership that fails them. The decision not to oppose the systemic animal abuse in the food industry is to condone this abuse – and, it is the wrong decision for the serious Jew and the compassionate person. As Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel writes, “The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.”