|July 22, 2015||Reform the Scandal-Prone Kosher Meat Industry? Let's Get Real.||no comments|
|February 24, 2015||When the Famous Rabbi Met the Frightened Calf||no comments|
|January 25, 2015||What Would Moses and King David Do?||no comments|
|June 09, 2014||How Do Jews Bless Meat?||no comments|
|April 10, 2014||Lamb’s Blood Aside, Passover is a Vegan-Friendly Holiday||no comments|
|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|
Here we go again.
Two years after Israeli animal-rights investigators filmed shocking abuses of chickens and turkeys at the Soglowek kosher-meat plant, equally egregious practices were caught on film again this summer.
In a well-intentioned op-ed published in Ha’aretz on July 16, rabbinical student Ayalon Eliach observed that “the gulf between the purpose of keeping kosher and the practice of keeping kosher is now greater than ever.”
That’s an understatement.
But an even greater gulf – one of tragically enormous proportions – has emerged between the core Jewish principal of tza’ar baalei chayim and the practices of the kosher-meat industry.
It’s not just the morally repugnant practices we’ve observed in undercover videos shot in the largest kosher slaughterhouses, whether its Soglowek in Israel or Agriprocessors in the United States.
It’s the fact that the kosher-meat companies obtain virtually all of their animals from the same factory farms that serve the secular meat industry. And you thought kosher meat was more humane?
The Torah mandate of tza’ar baalei chayim forbids Jews from inflicting unnecessary suffering on an animal. Indeed, the Torah – both the Five Books of Moses and the Torah writ large – expresses exquisite sensitivity to the needs and natures of animals.
Yet unnecessary suffering is universal in factory farms, the source of more than 95 percent of our meat.
In the beef industry, cows are typically branded, castrated and dehorned, all without anesthetic. And, in the dairy industry, mother cows are permanently separated from their calves just hours after birth, causing extreme emotional distress for parent and child alike, all so that the farmer can monetize all the milk.
Chickens in the poultry industry have it worst of all. They are generally crammed into windowless warehouses, in which as many as 50,000 chickens are given an average of less than one square foot of space apiece. These are breeding grounds for disease, as we have seen this year in the U.S., where a bird-flu epidemic has resulted in the loss of almost 50 million birds.
And this is just scratching the surface of the tip of the iceberg. How’s that for an effective mixed metaphor?
All of these practices – which are the standard modus operandi of modern animal agriculture – constitute egregious violations of tza’ar baalei chayim. This is exactly why many leading rabbis now say that no meat can truly be considered kosher.
For instance, in a recent interview, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland David Rosen identified himself as a vegan and said:
“Anybody with eyes in their head can see that (factory farming) is a categorical transgression and desecration of the prohibition on causing cruelty to animals.”
Last time The Beet-Eating Heeb checked, most people do have eyes in their head.
To expound on Rabbi Rosen’s statement:
In Jewish thought, we are not allowed to fulfill a mitzvah by committing an averah, a sin. Hence, even if the laws of kosher slaughter are scrupulously observed, the meat cannot be kosher if tza’ar baalei chayim was violated along the supply chain.
Simply put, kosher-meat companies are subsidizing the infliction of unnecessary suffering, every time they purchase another animal from a factory farm.
Why is this allowed to continue?
Could it be because the kosher-meat companies are a significant source of revenue for the Orthodox community, both through kosher-certification fees and through corporate philanthropy?
BEH commends Mr. Eliach for calling for reforms in the kosher establishment. However, such calls for change have been made and heard many times before, with little effect. The industry and its rabbinic allies are highly resistant to reform.
Fortunately, there is a practical solution within our reach – and it’s found in the Torah, and in the teachings of many of our greatest rabbis.
The solution is to wean ourselves off meat, dairy and eggs altogether and to move toward a vegan diet.
The Godly ideal of a plant-based diet is set forth in Genesis 1:29 and reinforced in passages across all five books of the Torah.
As Rav Avraham Kook, the chief Ashkenazic rabbi of pre-state Israel, so eloquently stated in his book “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace”:
“The failure to heed the good and noble instinct to refrain from taking any form of life, whether for one’s needs or physical gratification, constitutes a moral lack in the human race.”
If you have ever heard of the Talmud, chances are the mere mention of the word causes your eyes to glaze over.
Most people think of it as a vast compendium of hair-splitting arguments about arcane issues in Jewish law. And they would be mostly right.
However, amid all the details and debates are some amazing stories with messages and morals that remain highly relevant.
The Beet-Eating Heeb is pleased to share such a story with you right now. (If you have a copy of the Talmud at home, you can follow along at Bava Metzia 85a.)
About 2,000 years ago, shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple, there existed a rabbi named Judah HaNasi. He wasn’t just any rabbi. This was the guy who put the Oral Torah into writing, preserving it for posterity, creating what we call the Mishnah.
On top of that, he was a direct descendant of King David, hence the name Judah the Prince. In other words, he was a big deal. A very big deal.
One day, when he was putzing around in his front yard, a bellowing calf, eyes bulging with fear, came running toward him.
The calf hid himself inside the rabbi’s robe, tucking in his tail so that no part of him would be visible.
Rabbi Judah HaNasi, being a pretty smart guy, quickly sized up the situation.
This calf was trying to escape his owner, who was taking the young cow to the shochet, the slaughterer.
So what did the rabbi do?
Not what you might have hoped. Or expected.
Rabbi Judah HaNasi, in his sternest voice, lifted up his robe and scolded the calf.
“This is why you were created,” the rabbi said. “Go back to your owner!”
At least that wasn’t what the calf had expected.
The calf, with tears streaming down his face, made his way back to his owner. And met his demise later that day.
However, no sooner had the calf departed from the rabbi’s robe when a funny thing happened to Judah HaNasi. Actually, what happened isn’t that funny.
He immediately developed a painful toothache. Then kidney stones. And splitting headaches.
It seems God and His angels did not approve of the way Judah HaNasi treated that poor calf.
According to the Talmud, “They said in Heaven, 'Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him.'”
The intense pain from his ailments persisted. And persisted. And persisted some more. Year after excruciating year.
Keep in mind, there was no Vicodin or codeine back then.
Then one day, in Year 13 of The Pains, the rabbi’s housemaid came into his study, where he was struggling to concentrate on his work, as anyone who has suffered chronic pain can understand.
“Excuse me Rabbi,” the housemaid said. “I have found a nest of weasels in the spare bedroom. Should I swat them with my broom?”
The rabbi considered the matter for a moment, cleared his throat, and said:
“Leave them be. It is written (in Psalms 145:9) that His tender mercies are over all His works.”
And with that, his pain instantly disappeared. The toothache. The headache. The stomachache. All gone. Just like that.
What happened? The Talmud tells us:
“Said they in Heaven, 'Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate to him.'”
Quite a story, eh?
So why do you think this account of Rabbi Judah HaNasi’s misstep and redemption is recorded for posterity?
It’s because we are supposed to see ourselves as Rabbi Judah HaNasi.
Every time we choose what to eat, we face choices similar to the ones that confronted the great rabbi of yesteryear.
We can choose to eat the flesh, secretions and eggs of animals who were subjected to lives of abject misery, only to be brought to violent deaths. Or we can choose to eat the food that grows out of God’s wonderful earth, which is what God wants human beings to do, if the Torah is any indication.
Like Rabbi Judah HaNasi, we have a choice.
We can support cruelty. Or we can bring more chesed, more kindness, into the world.
The choice is yours.
The Beet-Eating Heeb is back after a long layoff, tan and well-rested.
OK, purple and over-worked.
So what provoked BEH to start writing again?
That is a link to the most damning, most disturbing, most important animal-related investigative story you will read this year. Yes, BEH knows it’s only January. But this is a real doozy.
ICYMI, The New York Times on Monday, January 19, published a startling front-page expose about the federal Meat Animal Research Center. Let that sink in for a second.
On its face, it’s absurd and offensive that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is conducting research on farmed animals for the benefit of the meat industry.
Once you learn what actually has transpired at that center, you’ll find that words like “absurd” and “offensive” are far too mild.
The Beet-Eating Heeb urges you to read the entire article. But, as a service to his time-conscious readers, he will summarize a few of the main findings. Brace yourself.
- Cows, which normally give birth to one calf at a time, were genetically re-engineered to have twins or triplets, resulting in an unusually high rate of still births and deformities.
- Newborn lambs were abandoned in open pastures, left to starve to death or to perish in harsh weather or in the jaws of predators.
- Pigs were bred to produce unnaturally large litters, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of piglets.
- In one case, a young female cow was placed in restraints so that a group of bulls could take turns mounting her. Her injuries were so severe that she died just hours later. All for a study on the sexual libido of bulls.
This is just a sampling of the horrors that have occurred at this previously obscure center in Nebraska.
Granted, the Standard Operating Procedure on America’s factory farms is not much better.
But that’s private enterprise. In the case of the Meat Animal Research Center, we’re talking about a taxpayer-funded, government-operated facility. This is being done in our name, with our money (if you’re an American).
The Center is a grotesque stain on the moral fabric of our country, a country that has the audacity to refer to itself as “one nation under God.”
Excuse The Beet-Eating Heeb for pointing out that God insists we treat animals with compassion, respect and sensitivity, if the Torah/Bible is any indication.
In Jewish terms, the Research Center’s activities blatantly violate Tzaar Baalei Hayim, the prohibition against causing unnecessary suffering to animals.
It’s the heartless treatment of the little lambs that really gets to BEH. In our religion, the two greatest leaders in history, Moses and King David, were chosen by God because of the compassion they each showed for sheep in their care.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in response to The Times’ article, has ordered his staff to produce an updated Animal Welfare Strategy within 60 days. The new strategy is to include the creation of an independent panel to review research practices, according to a Reuters report.
Sorry, Tom, but this tepid, bureaucratic response is wholly inadequate. Nothing less than the immediate and permanent closure of the Center will suffice. Something is rotten in Denmark, or Nebraska. If the people running the Research Center don’t care about the well-being of the animals there – and they obviously don’t – then the problems will resurface.
The vegan-advocacy/animal-rights community has taken notice. By The Beet-Eating Heeb’s count, at least four petitions and action alerts were in circulation within 72 hours of the appearance of the Times story.
But there is a real danger, even a high probability, that this issue will fade from our consciousness by the end of next week, if not sooner.
Sustained pressure must be put on Secretary Vilsack, President Obama and Congress to do the right thing and pull the plug on the Research Center. BEH would love to see our government leaders try to defend the continued existence of that hellhole. It cannot credibly be done.
You don’t need to be a vegan or vegetarian to get this one. What the Times’ reported will shock the moral conscience of all but the most hard-hearted people.
So just don’t sit there. Here’s a few things you can do:
- Sign one of the petitions. BEH recommends this one.
- Call the White House, your Senators and your Congressional representative to demand the immediate closure of the Research Center.
- Educate people by submitting a guest op-ed to your local newspaper, by posting the Times’ article or this blog post on your social-media feeds, and by telling your friends, family members, neighbors and co-workers about this situation.
- Finally, counteract this horrible misuse of your tax dollars by donating generously to nonprofits that are working to end the exploitation of farmed animals. If you’re Jewish, BEH suggests you join Jewish Vegetarians of North America.
You know if The Beet-Eating Heeb is back at it again, that this is a serious issue.
Will this shameful Research Center be allowed to continue its sadistic experiments or be mercifully shut down? The answer may well depend on us.
The Beet-Eating Heeb was asked recently if there is a Jewish blessing for kale.
Yes, there is, and it’s the same blessing we recite for all vegetables:
That translates as:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the ground.
You might be wondering, then, what is the Jewish blessing for meat?
Here it is:
It bears repeating. Here’s the blessing for meat again:
There is no mistake here. There is no specific blessing for meat in the Jewish religion.
There is a blessing for bread and grains. For wine. For fruit. For vegetables. But not specifically for meat.
What does that tell you?
If a Jew wishes to recite a blessing before consuming the flesh or secretions of an animal, he or she is to recite a catch-all blessing that doesn’t refer to food or sustenance at all. And that generic blessing is only to be recited after one has recited the blessings for plant-based foods.
Why is this the case?
Because the Torah literally describes meat-eating as an act of human lust, not as something that God wants us to do. In fact, the Torah tell us that God on multiple occasions sought to create a vegetarian, or vegan, world, only to be frustrated by the depravity of humans.
The rabbis of yore who developed our system of blessings understood that it would be inappropriate, if not an outright apostasy, to bless an activity that explicitly contradicts a Torah ideal.
If meat-eating reflected God’s will, you can bet your tuchus that there would be a specific blessing for it.
You might assume that The Beet-Eating Heeb dreads Passover.
After all, the very name of the holiday relates to the smearing of lamb’s blood on the doorposts of the Hebrews.
It would be one thing if the lambs had willingly donated a pint or two at the local blood bank. We all know that’s not how it happened.
Furthermore, the Ashkenazic prohibition on eating legumes (which is pointless) really limits The Beet-Eating Heeb’s diet. This means eating even more beets than usual. Not such a bad thing, but he really misses lentils.
Believe it or not, though, BEH looks forward to Pesach every year as a holiday whose main spiritual themes intersect with veganism.
You might find that to be quite a stretch, especially if your mother is making her brisket for the Seder again this year.
But hear BEH out.
Without further fanfare, or actually any fanfare, The Beet-Eating Heeb presents:
The Top 3 Reasons Passover is a Vegan Holiday
No. 1: At Passover, we celebrate our freedom, our deliverance from slavery.
It seems like a good time to abstain from meat, dairy and eggs, since the animals from which those products are derived are treated like slaves, or worse.
Actually, anthropologically speaking, the very motif of slavery comes from animal agriculture. (This may be the most intellectual sentence BEH has ever written.)
Allow The Beet-Eating Heeb to translate.
Buying and selling living beings, binding them with chains, and branding them with hot irons are all actions that we associate with slavery. And these are all actions that originated in animal agriculture.
In modern factory farming, what animals experience is even worse than slavery. BEH will spare you the details this time around. But suffice it to say, during Passover, it would be a little hypocritical to celebrate our freedom while participating in the confinement, mutilation and killing of other sentient, soulful beings.
2. At Passover, we seek to free ourselves from our own personal mitzrayim, our bad habits.
And meat-eating is a very bad habit. Bad for your health. Bad for the planet. And very bad for the animal involved.
Pesach provides the perfect opportunity to make changes in our lives. Reducing or eliminating animal products from your diet is one of the best changes you can make.
Why do we eat matzah, the bread of affliction?
It’s not because we enjoy the feeling of constipation. (A feeling vegans rarely get, by the way.)
It’s because, spiritually, matzah is humble. It is unleavened. It has not risen.
We rid our homes of chametz and we eat matzah to remind ourselves to remain humble.
The whole concept of killing animals for food is based on the misguided notion that we are far superior to our furry and feathered friends.
The rabbis of the Talmud realized that humans would have a tendency to be anthropocentric. (BEH is on a roll.) Yes, anthropocentric. Look it up, if you have to.
Those rabbis found many ways to make the point that if human beings are superior by animals, it’s not by much. Take, for instance, the mitzvah of feeding your animals before you feed yourself. That’s humility, baby.
So, you see, The Beet-Eating Heeb has good reason to engage in vegan advocacy, right there at his Seder table.
If we take the spiritual significance of Passover seriously, then we must consider going veg.
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.