Friday, May 25, 2012

Thoughts on Shavuot and vegetarianism

On Shavuot, the "Feast of Weeks" or "Feast of First Fruits," it is traditional to eat a dairy meal  rather than a meat meal.  (For those of you not familiar with the Jewish dietary laws, meat and milk are never served at the same meal.)   Two explanations are usually given for this.  The first is allegorical, comparing the Jews who had just received the Torah at Sinai to newborn babies who were not yet weaned.  The second is more practical:  The details of the dietary laws concerning animals were not yet revealed (they come later in the book of Exodus), so the people did not yet know how to properly slaughter and prepare meat.

In this day and age, we would do well on this meatless holy day to give some thought as to the issues surrounding meat-eating.   With the growing interest in vegetarianism and veganism among Jews today, let us consider this except from Richard Schwartz's new book, Who Stole My Religion?, in the chapter, "Should Jews be Animal Rights Activists?": 


Responses to justifications for eating meat

Many apologists for the exploitation of animals seek justification in Jewish scripture, but their analysis is largely based on a misunderstanding of two important Torah verses that, when better understood, actually endorse the struggle to improve conditions for animals.  The first misunderstanding is the common claim that the Torah teaching granting humans dominion over animals (Genesis 1:26) gives us a warrant to treat them in whatever way we may wish.

That this interpretation is incorrect is demonstrated by the fact that immediately after God gave humankind dominion over animals (Genesis 1:26), God prescribed vegetarian foods as the diet best suited to humans (Genesis 1:29).  This mandate is almost immediately followed by God’s declaration that all of Creation was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). 

Adam and Eve’s original vegetarian diet was consistent with the kind and gentle stewardship that God entrusted to them and to all humankind.  Another indication of the true message of “dominion” is the Torah verse that indicates that God put Adam, the first human being, into the Garden of Eden “to work it and to guard it” (Genesis 2:15).  To guard something implies that one must protect it, not exploit it.  Based on these statements in Genesis, the Jewish sages saw human dominion as based on responsible and caring stewardship.

In support of this analysis, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel and one of the outstanding Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, stated in his booklet, “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace”:

There can be no doubt in the mind of any intelligent person that [the Divine empowerment of humanity to derive benefit from nature] does not mean the domination of a harsh ruler, who afflicts his people and servants merely to satisfy his whim and desire, according to the crookedness of his heart. It is unthinkable that the Divine Law would impose such a decree of servitude, sealed for all eternity, upon the world of God, Who is “good to all, and Whose mercy is upon all His works” (Psalms 145:9).

The second error that the apologists for animal exploitation make is the presumption that the necessary implication of the Biblical teaching that only human beings are created “in the Divine Image” is that God places little or no value on animals. While the Torah does state that only human beings are created “in God’s Image” (Genesis 5:1), animals are also God’s creatures, possessing sensitivity and the capacity for feeling pain. So the fact that humans are in a different spiritual category than animals does not give us the right to treat animals as mere objects or machines for our pleasure.  God is concerned that they are protected and treated with compassion and justice.  In fact, the Jewish sages state that to be “created in the Divine Image” means that people have the capacity to emulate the Divine compassion for all creatures.  Rabbi Dovid Sears, in his book A Vision of Eden:  Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism, in reference to the Talmudic teaching that we are to emulate God’s ways, states, “Compassion for all creatures, including animals, is not only God’s business; it is a virtue that we, too, must emulate.  Moreover, compassion must not be viewed as an isolated phenomenon, one of a number of religious duties in the Judaic concept of Divine service.  It is central to our entire way of life.”

In his classic work Ahavat Chesed (“The Love of Kindness”), the revered Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin) discusses this teaching at length.  He writes that whoever emulates the Divine love and compassion to all creatures “will bear the stamp of God on his person.”

Is today's meat really kosher?

The original intent of kosher slaughtering was to cause the animal as little pain as possible, as well as drain out the blood.  And indeed, studies have shown that a quick cut to the throat with a sharp knife renders the animal unconscious within seconds, before the pain sensation ever reaches the brain.  (Think back to the last time you accidentally cut yourself and did not immediately realize it.)  Even PETA has affirmed that, if done properly, kosher slaughtering is humane.  However, today’s kosher industry tends to focus only on the actual moment of slaughter, and the packing and preparation of the meat afterward.  Very little, if any, attention is paid to how the animals are treated before slaughter.
One has to wonder if this can be reconciled with the original intent of kashrut.  How can it still be humane if most kosher meat, dairy, and eggs now come from the same abominable factory farm conditions as does non-kosher food?   Shouldn’t we be concerned — indeed alarmed — about the ways that food is being produced?

In the past, farm animals ran free in pastures or open country, grazed on grass, and were slaughtered only for special occasions, such as when Abraham slaughtered a calf for his angelic guests. Chickens were hatched naturally under mother hens and usually eaten by Jews only on Shabbat and holidays — and then only after the birds had a life of freedom to scratch, peck, and live as a chicken was created to do.  There was nothing remotely resembling the year-round factory farm conditions under which food animals are raised today.  Therefore, although the Torah does permit eating meat, the conditions under which animals are raised today are a far cry from those used for the flocks of our ancestors...
(excerpted from Schwartz, Who Stole My Religion?, pp. 199-201)


Richard Schwartz then goes on to describe some of the horrific conditions in today's factory farms and the meat industry in general, coming to the conclusion that while the Torah does permit eating meat, there are many other considerations as well. "In light of the horrible conditions under which most animals are raised today," he writes, "Jews who eat meat raised under such conditions seem to be supporting a system contrary to basic Jewish principles and obligations."  Just because we can do something does not necessariy mean we should do it.  In this day and age, Schwartz says, vegetarianism is the diet most in harmony with the Torah we received at Mt. Sinai.
For more on this and other issues related to animals, vegetarianism, and the environment, download your free PDF copy of Who Stole My Religion? today.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Book review posted on May 8 on the email list, JewishMediaReview

Who Stole My Religion?: Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet. Richard H. Schwartz. Lulu Enterprises. Inc. ( Paperback. 357 Pages. $20.00. ISBN: 978-1-105-33646-1.

As Rabbi Harold Schulweis writes: “Richard Schwarz has boldly broadened the Jewish agenda, and allowed fresh air into the dogma and doctrine of Jewish faith and political and social judgment with candor. He reminds us that ours is a questioning faith of a choosing people in its never-ending search for that which embraces all the searchers of Godliness.”
In the five decades since Richard Schwartz first became a religious Jew, he has watched the mainstream Jewish community shift more and more to the Right, often abandoning the very values that originally attracted him to Orthodox Judaism. In this soul-searching book, Schwartz examines the ways in which he believes his religion has been "stolen" by partisan politics, and offers practical suggestions for how to get Judaism back on track as a faith based on peace and compassion. Tackling such diverse issues as U.S. politics, Israeli peace issues, the misuse of the Holocaust, antisemitism, U.S. foreign policy, Islamophobia, socialism, vegetarianism, environmentalism, Schwartz goes where many Jews fear to go -- and challenges us to re-think current issues in the light of positive Jewish values. (With photos, notes, action ideas, resource lists, and annotated bibliography. Also includes appendix materials with Rabbi Yonassan Gershom.)

This is an important book, and should be read by all people concerned with healing our broken world, and restoring Judaism to its role as an open, accessible religion.

Dov Peretz Elkins