JUDAISM AND ANIMAL RIGHTS
There are probably no creatures that require more the protective Divine word against the presumption of man than the animals, which like man have sensations and instincts, but whose body and powers are nevertheless subservient to man. In relation to them man so easily forgets that injured animal muscle twitches just like human muscle, that the maltreated nerves of an animal sicken like human nerves, that the animal being is just as sensitive to cuts, blows, and beating as man. Thus man becomes the torturer of the animal soul. – Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch153
Here you are faced with God’s teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but also to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours. – Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch 154
The quotations above are just two examples of Judaism’s powerful teachings concerning the proper treatment of animals. Unfortunately, the Torah’s magnificent teachings on compassion for animals are often overlooked in a world where animals suffer enormously at the hands of humans. It is marvelous to have such beautiful teachings, but it would be even better if they were applied to reduce the current widespread mistreatment of animals.
The Relationship Between God and Animals
Judaism provides very powerful teachings about the proper treatment of animals. If Jews took these teachings seriously, we would be among the strongest protesters of many current practices related to animals.
The Torah teaches that animals are part of God’s creation and that people bear special responsibilities toward them. The Jewish tradition clearly indicates that we are forbidden to be cruel to animals and that we are to treat them with compassion. These concepts are summarized in the Hebrew phrase tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, the Torah mandate not to cause “pain to living creatures.” The Talmud states this is d’oraita, meaning a law that comes from the Torah (as opposed to one enacted by the rabbis later), and therefore is to be observed more strictly.
Psalms 104 and 148 describe God’s close identification with the animals of the field, the creatures of the sea, and the birds of the air. In the book of Genesis, we see the close connection between animals and people at the time of the Creation:
- Sea animals and birds receive the same blessing as people: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:22).
- Animals were initially given a vegetarian diet, similar to that of people (Genesis 1:29, 30).
- The important Hebrew term nefesh chayah (a “living being”) is applied in Genesis (1:21, 1:24) to animals as well as people.
Although the Torah clearly indicates that humans are to have “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26), a cooperative and mutual relationship is intended (see chapter 11). The rights and privileges of animals are not to be neglected or overlooked. Animals are also God’s creatures, possessing sensitivity and the capacity for feeling pain; hence they must be protected and treated with compassion and justice. God even made treaties and covenants with animals just as with humans:
“As for me,” says the Lord, “behold I establish My Covenant with you and with your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the fowl, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that go out of the Ark, even every beast of the earth.” (Genesis 9:9-10)
And in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and with the fowls of heaven and with the creeping things of the ground. And I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the land and I will make them to lie down safely. (Hosea 2:20)
God includes animals, as well as people, when he admonishes Jonah: “and should I not have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than 120,000 persons . . . and also much cattle” (Jonah 4:11).
The Psalms portray God’s concern for animals: “His tender mercies are over all His works” (Psalms 145:9). They picture God as “satisfying the desire of every living creature” (Psalms 145:16), “providing food for the animals and birds” (Psalms 147:9), and “preserving both man and beast” (Psalms 36:7).
God provides each animal with the attributes necessary for survival in its environment. For example, the camel has a short tail, so that it won’t become ensnared when it feeds upon thorns; the ox has a long tail, so that it can protect itself from gnats when it feeds on the plains; the feelers of locusts are flexible, so that they won’t be blinded by their feelers breaking against trees.
Jewish Teachings on Compassion for Animals
Jews are mandated to imitate God’s positive attributes and to be rachmanim b’nei rachmanim, “compassionate children of compassionate ancestors” (Beitza 32b). In Judaism, animals are not considered equal to human beings, but that does not mean that they can be mistreated. Perhaps the Jewish attitude toward animals is best summarized by the statement in Proverbs 12:10, “The righteous person regards the life (nefesh) of his animal.” This is the human counterpoint of “The Lord is good to all, and God’s tender mercies are over all His works” (Psalms 145:9). In Judaism, one who is cruel to animals cannot be regarded as a righteous individual. The Torah mandates numerous laws requiring compassion to animals, including:
- An ox is not to be muzzled when threshing the grain [so it does not suffer from being unable to eat food it sees and smells all day] (Deuteronomy 25:4).
- A farmer must not plow with an ox and a donkey together [so that the weaker animal would not suffer pain in trying to keep up with the stronger one] (Deuteronomy 22:10).
- Animals, as well as people, must be allowed to rest on the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:10).
The importance of this verse is indicated by its inclusion in the Ten Commandments and its recitation in the Shabbat morning Kiddush blessing in many traditions.
- Based on the question of the angel of God to Balaam, “Why have you hit your donkey these three times?” (Numbers 22:32), the Talmud states that animals are to be treated humanely.
- Based on Deuteronomy 11:15, “And I will give grass in the fields for your cattle and you shall eat and be satisfied,” the Talmud teaches that a person should not eat before first feeding his or her animals.
Many great Jewish heroes were chosen because they showed compassion to animals. Moses and King David were considered worthy to be leaders because of their kind treatment of the sheep in their care when they were shepherds (Exodus Rabbah 2:2). Rebecca was judged suitable to be Isaac’s wife because of her kindness in providing water to the ten thirsty camels cared for by Eliezer, Abraham’s servant (Genesis 24:14). All of these teachings should lead us to care for the welfare of animals, and to raise our voices in protest when they are mistreated. Unfortunately, many Jews are not protesting, perhaps because they are not aware of the extreme cruelty involved in the modern meat, egg, and dairy industries.
With regard to the treatment of animals, I have long seen my role to be that of a bridge between people with two extreme, opposite viewpoints, each of which expresses only part of the overall picture. One group consists of religious Jews who are admirably meticulous in carrying out mitzvot (commandments) but who overlook how grievously the mitzvot related to the proper treatment of animals are being violated on factory farms, as well as in laboratories, circuses, rodeos, and other settings. The other group is made up of dedicated animal rights activists who protest diligently against animal abuses, but who misrepresent religious teachings and often see religion as an enemy, rather than a potential ally in efforts to improve conditions for animals. In this chapter, I am attempting to help bring these two sides together in respectful dialogue.
Some Examples of the Mistreatment of Animals Today on Factory Farms
As indicated above, the Jewish tradition stresses compassion for animals and commands that we strive to avoid causing them pain (tsa’ar ba’alei chayim). Unfortunately, the conditions under which animals are raised for food today are quite different from any that the Torah would endorse. Below are just a few examples of the mistreatment of animals on factory farms.155
Chickens are raised for slaughter in long, windowless, crowded sheds, unable to see sunlight, breathe fresh air, or get any exercise. When the tiny chicks arrive, there is plenty of room, but they have progressively less and less room as they grow, and the shed becomes too crowded for the birds to move properly. Just prior to slaughter, the area that each chicken occupies – about half a square foot on average – is barely enough to move. Overcrowding and stress mark the lives of these “broiler” (meat) chickens, and they are generally slaughtered when only about six weeks old. By contrast, a normal chicken’s lifespan is eight to ten years.
In his April 14, 2003 article in the New Yorker, Michael Specter describes his first visit to a chicken farm:
I was almost knocked to the ground by the overpowering smell of feces and ammonia. My eyes burned and so did my lungs, and I could neither see nor breathe…. There must have been thirty thousand chickens sitting silently on the floor in front of me. They didn’t move, didn’t cluck. They were almost like statues of chickens, living in nearly total darkness, and they would spend every minute of their six-week lives that way.156
There is also much cruelty in the raising of chickens to produce eggs. Layer hens are extremely crowded, with five hens generally squeezed into an 18 by 20 inch cage. Crowding is so bad that a hen cannot fully stretch even one wing. The results of these very unnatural conditions are that the birds are driven to pecking at each other, which harms and sometimes kills their fellow cellmates, thus reducing the producers’ profits. To avoid this, the lighting is kept very dim (chickens are diurnal and not as active in low light), and the chickens are de- beaked. De-beaking is a very painful, often debilitating procedure that involves cutting off part of the beak with a hot knife while the hen’s head is held by hand or in a vise. This is the industry’s cruel strategy for obtaining maximum profit, rather than providing the hens more space and other improvements in their living conditions.
Because male chicks have no value to the egg industry and have not been genetically programmed to produce much flesh, they are discarded shortly after birth and disposed of by “chick-pullers.” Each day, U.S. workers stuff over half a million live chicks into plastic bags, where they crush and suffocate them, or grind them up while still alive to use them as fertilizer, or to feed them to other animals.
Today’s modern milk factories raise cows for maximum milk production at minimum cost,
resulting in much cruelty to the cows. Farmers artificially inseminate each cow annually, and then take her calf away almost immediately, so that the mother cow will constantly produce milk for human consumption. She lives with an unnaturally enlarged and sensitive udder and is milked up to three times a day.
While the dairy industry would like people to believe that its cows are contented, today’s factory-bred cows have to be fed tranquilizers to reduce their anxiety. As soon as their milk production decreases, after only a few years, they are slaughtered to produce hamburgers.
The following story by Dr. Michael Klaper, who spent much of his childhood summers working on his uncle’s dairy farm and is now a leading advocate for vegan diets, dramatically illustrates the cruelty of the dairy industry.
The very saddest sound in all my memory was burned into my awareness at age five on my uncle’s dairy farm in Wisconsin. A cow had given birth to a beautiful male calf. The mother was allowed to nurse her calf but for a single night. On the second day after birth, my uncle took the calf from the mother and placed him in the veal pen in the barn – only ten yards away, in plain view of the mother. The mother cow could see her infant, smell him, hear him, but could not touch him, comfort him, or nurse him. The heartrending bellows that she poured forth – minute after minute, hour after hour, for five long days – were excruciating to listen to. They are the most poignant and painful auditory memories I carry in my brain.
Since that age, whenever I hear anyone postulate that animals cannot feel emotions, I need only to replay that torturous sound in my memory of that mother cow crying her bovine heart out to her infant. Mother’s love knows no species barriers, and I believe that all people who are vegans in their hearts and souls know that to be true.157
The following two selections summarize the inhumane treatment of animals raised for food:
How far have we the right to take our domination of the animal world? Have we the right to rob them of all pleasures in life simply to make more money more quickly out of their carcasses? Have we the right to treat living creatures solely as food-converting machines? At what point do we acknowledge cruelty?158
Every year millions of animals are born and bred for the sole purpose of satisfying those who like the taste of meat. Their lives vary in length from a few weeks to a few years; most live a fraction of the time they would in more natural conditions. They die in slaughterhouses where, if the tranquilizers have their effect, they know only a few moments of the awful fear of death before they are stunned and their throats cut. This is what all meat-eaters actively support, for there would be no batteries, no sweatboxes, no need to castrate male animals or artificially inseminate females, no cattle markets and no slaughterhouses if there was no one insensitive enough to buy their products.159
British author Ruth Harrison eloquently summarizes how animals are raised on factory farms:
To some extent… man has always exploited farm animals in that he rears them specifically for food. But until recently they were individuals, allowed their birthright of green fields, sunlight, and fresh air; they were allowed to forage, to exercise, to watch the world go by, in fact to live. Even at its worst… the animal had some enjoyment in life before it died. Today the exploitation has been taken to a degree that involves not only the elimination of all enjoyment, the frustration of all natural instincts, but its replacement with acute discomfort, boredom, and the actual denial of health. It has been taken to a degree where the animal is not allowed to live before it dies.160
The conditions under which animals are raised today are totally contrary to the Jewish ideals of compassion and avoiding tsa’ar ba’alei chayim:
- Instead of animals being free to graze on the Sabbath day to enjoy the beauties of creation, they are confined for all of their lives in darkened, crowded stalls and cages without air, natural light, or room in which to exercise.
- Whereas the Torah mandates that animals should be able to eat the products of the harvest as they work in the fields, today animals are fed chemical fatteners and other additives in their food, based on computer programs.
Whereas Judaism indicates consideration for animals by prohibiting the yoking of a strong and weak animal together, veal calves spend their entire lives standing on slats, their necks chained to the sides, without sunlight, fresh air, or exercise.
Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, a 20th century Torah scholar in Jerusalem, stated: “It seems doubtful from all that has been said whether the Torah would sanction factory farming, which treats animals as machines, with apparent insensitivity to their natural needs and instincts. This is a matter for decision by halachic authorities.”161
Rabbi David Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland, uses even stronger language: “The current treatment of animals in the livestock trade definitely renders the consumption of meat as halachically unacceptable as the product of illegitimate means.”162 He makes clear that he is not referring only to the production of veal and goose liver, the “most obvious and outrageous” examples of animal mistreatment, but also to common practices in the livestock trade, such as massive drug dosing and hormonal treatment.163
The vicious cycle of misery that results from our addiction to meat is powerfully described by C. David Coats in his book, Old McDonald’s Factory Farm:
Aren’t humans amazing? They kill wildlife – birds, deer, all kinds of cats, coyotes, beavers, groundhogs, mice and foxes by the million in order to protect their domestic animals and their feed.
Then they kill domestic animals by the billion and eat them. This in turn kills people by the million, because eating all those animals leads to degenerative – and fatal – health conditions like heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and cancer. So then humans spend billions of dollars torturing and killing millions more animals to look for cures for these diseases.
Elsewhere, millions of other human beings are being killed by hunger and malnutrition because food they could eat is being used to fatten domestic animals.
Meanwhile, few people recognize the absurdity of humans, who kill so easily and violently, and once a year send out cards praying for “Peace on Earth.” In light of the horrible conditions under which most animals are raised today, Jews who eat meat raised under such conditions seem to be supporting a system contrary to basic Jewish principles and obligations. I believe that Jews should seriously consider becoming vegetarians, and preferably vegans, to be most consistent with basic Jewish teachings.
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 in Genesis 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, 28) gives us a warrant to treat them in whatever way we may wish. This interpretation is incorrect, as is demonstrated by the fact that immediately after God gave humankind dominion over animals (Genesis 1:26), He prescribed vegan 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 vegan 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 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 twentieth century, stated in his booklet (edited by Rabbi David Cohen) “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 compassion is upon all His works” (Psalms 145:9).
The second error 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 1:27, 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. In his book, The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism, referring to the Talmudic teaching that we are to emulate God’s ways, Rabbi David Sears states that “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 conception of the Divine service. It is central to our entire approach to 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.”
Some meat-eaters point to the biblical animal sacrifices as a justification for their eating meat today. But, according to Maimonides, the sacrifices were a concession to the primitive conditions in biblical times. Since sacrifices were the universal expression of religion in that period, if Moses had tried to eliminate them, his mission might have failed and Judaism might have disappeared. Instead, limitations were placed on sacrifices in Judaism: They were confined to one central location (instead of each family having a home altar), and the human sacrifices and other idolatrous practices of the neighboring pagan peoples were forbidden.
The prophets speak of sacrifices as an abomination to God if not carried out along with deeds of loving-kindness and justice. After the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis stated that prayer and good deeds should replace sacrifices in the absence of the designated site for burnt offerings, based on the statement from the prophet Hosea: “Take words and return to the Lord; instead of calves we will offer the words of our lips” (Hosea 14:2).164 In the early 20th century, Rav Kook wrote that there will be only non-animal sacrifices, such as fruits and grains, in the Messianic period when the Temple is rebuilt (may it come speedily in our day!).
In addition, we should note that sacrificial animals had to be perfect specimens without any blemishes (Deuteronomy 17:1). This means they must have been treated very gently and kindly, to avoid causing any injuries that would have disqualified them for use in the Temple service. Given the horrendous conditions under which most meat animals are raised today, it is doubtful that any of them would qualify as sacrifices.
Is Today’s Meat Really ‘Kosher’?
The 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 kashrut, because kashrut is designed to be humane. But how can it be humane if most kosher meat, dairy, and eggs 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 for the flocks of our ancestors.
Given that Jews should be rachmanim b’nei rachmanim (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors), can kosher consumers justify the cruelty of factory farms to mass- produce meat that we do not really need for nourishment? Can we justify the force-feeding of ducks and geese to create pate de foie gras? Can we justify taking day-old calves from their mothers so that they can be raised in very cramped conditions to be eaten as “tender” veal? Can we justify the killing of over 250 million male chicks in the U.S. alone immediately after birth at egg-laying hatcheries – a total waste of sentient animal life – because they cannot lay eggs and have not been genetically programmed to grow as much flesh as the meat-producing breeds? Can we justify artificially impregnating cows every year on what the industry calls “rape racks,” so that they will be able to produce more milk? Or artificially inseminating turkeys to get fertile hatching eggs, because the birds have been bred to get so fat they can no longer mate naturally? Can we justify the many other ways that animals are unnecessarily exploited and mistreated in our society to meet consumer’s claimed needs?
Another practice that raises questions about the modern treatment of animals is Kapparos(or Kapparot), a ritual performed annually by some Orthodox and Hasidic Jews between Rosh
Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Kapparos involves waving a live chicken over the head of the participant and reciting a special prayer, after which the chicken is slaughtered and the meat donated to poor people. Unfortunately, the donations to the poor do not always occur today. As with kosher meat in general, the chickens for this ceremony now come from factory farms, often trucked in from miles away without any food or water – raising some serious questions about cruelty to animals. In his new book, Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a More Compassionate Tradition, Rabbi Yonassan Gershom discusses the origins of this ritual and the Cabalistic meanings behind it. He comes to the conclusion that, while our ancestors were able to do it with the proper mystical focus (kavannah) and “raise the holy sparks” within the chickens, the cruelty involved in raising and transporting chickens under modern conditions cancels out the spiritual value of the ceremony. He therefore concludes that nowadays it is best to do Kapparos with the halachically-acceptable substitution of money instead of using a chicken.
Additional Issues Concerning Our Obligation of Compassion to Animals
Is Wearing Fur Consistent with Jewish Teachings on Compassion for Animals?
Jewish worshipers chant every Sabbath morning “The soul of every living being shall praise God’s name” (Nishmat kol chai t’varech et shim’chah). Yet, some people come to synagogue during winter months wearing coats that required the cruel treatment of some of those living beings whose souls, we declare, are praising God.
Should Jews wear fur? Several factors should be considered:
- What does the Jewish tradition teach about the treatment of animals? As discussed above,
Judaism expresses very strong laws and attitudes on the proper treatment of animals.
- How much suffering do animals who are raised or trapped for their fur actually experience?
- Does the wearing of fur coats have any redeeming factors that would override Jewish
teachings about the proper treatment of animals?
The Pain of Fur-Bearing Animals
Fur is obtained from animals who are either trapped or raised on ranches. Both methods involve violent and abusive treatment of animals, which are far from Jewish teachings on the dignity and sensibility of animals.165
Animals caught in steel-jaw leg traps suffer slow, agonizing deaths. Some are attacked by predators, while others often freeze to death or chew off their own legs to escape. It has been said that one can get a “feel for fur” by slamming your fingers with a car door.
Over 100 million wild animals are killed for their pelts every year. Many species of animals killed for their furs have become endangered or have disappeared completely in some localities. Millions of animals not wanted by trappers, including dogs, cats, and birds, die in traps annually and are discarded as trash animals. Many trapped animals leave behind dependent offspring who are doomed to starvation.
Treatment of animals raised on “fur ranches” is also extremely cruel. Sentenced to lifelong confinement, millions of foxes, beavers, minks, ocelots, rabbits, chinchillas, and other animals await extinction with no stimulation, little room to move, and all their natural instincts thwarted. The animals are simply a means to the maximization of production and profit, without regard for their physical, mental, or emotional well-being. Unnatural confinement and lack of privacy cause wild animals to exhibit neurotic behaviors, such as compulsive movements and self-mutilation. In the end, they suffer hideous deaths by electrocution rods thrust up their anuses, by suffocation, by poisoning (which causes painful convulsions), or by having their necks broken.
According to the International Society for Animal Rights, Inc., to make one fur garment requires up to 400 squirrels, 240 ermine, 200 chinchillas, 120 muskrats, 80 sables, 50 martens, 30 raccoons, 22 bobcats, 12 lynx, or five wolves.
Is Wearing Fur Really Necessary?
Judaism puts human beings, uniquely created in the image of God, on a higher level than animals and specifies that animals may be harmed and even killed to meet an essential human need. However, is the wearing of fur truly necessary for people to stay warm during wintry weather? There are now many non-fur coats and hats, available in a variety of styles, that provide plenty of warmth and are much lighter and easier to care for than fur. As for style, imitation fur is produced at such a high level of quality that even among Hasidim there is a small but growing trend to wear synthetic shtreimlach (fur-trimmed hats).
Based on the prohibition of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, Rabbi Chaim David Halevy, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, issued a p’sak (rabbinic ruling) in March 1992 mandating that Jews should not wear fur.166 Rabbi Halevy asked: “Why should people be allowed to kill animals if it is not necessary, simply because they desire the pleasure of having the beauty and warmth of fur coats? Is it not possible to achieve the same degree of warmth without fur?” Inspired by Rabbi Halevy’s prohibition and by Israel’s strict laws against mistreating animals, there have been several attempts to pass a law in the Knesset banning the manufacturing of fur in Israel, with an exception for Hasidic streimels for religious reasons. Had this law passed, it would have made Israel the only country in the world with such a ban. However, the bill has been blocked so far, despite widespread support, possibly by Knesset members who felt that attempts to ban the production of meat would follow.167
Do we really need the Knesset to pass a law to tell us what is right? In his book, The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues, Israeli author and educator Rabbi Nachum Amsel states: “If the only reason a person wears the fur coat is to ‘show off’ one’s wealth or to be a mere fashion statement, that would be considered to be a frivolous and not a legitimate need.” Rabbi Amsel also points out that hunting for sport is prohibited because it is not considered a legitimate need (based on Avodah Zarah 18b).
Rabbi Yona Metzger, former Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel, recently ruled against fur imports from China, where animals are often skinned alive.168 There is a growing awareness of the many cruelties involved in producing fur. One has to wonder what kind of lesson young people are learning when they see worshippers arriving at the synagogue in fur coats on the Sabbath day. Instead of reinforcing the many beautiful Jewish teachings about compassion to animals, we are teaching them that expensive status symbols and conspicuous consumption are more important than respect for God’s creatures.
If there was a reduction in the wearing of fur, not only would tens of thousands of animals benefit from our compassion and concern – we, too, would benefit by becoming more sensitive and more humane Jews and civilized human beings. We would be setting an example for the rest of the world that says there is no beauty in cruelty.
Because Judaism puts a higher priority on human life than on animal life, it is not, in principle, opposed to all uses of animals if there are significant benefits for humans that could not be obtained in any other way. But results from animal experiments should generally be viewed with some skepticism for the following reasons:169
- It is difficult to gain insight into a human disease by studying an artificially-induced pathology in animals, no matter how superficially similar the two may seem.
- Because of differences between species, studies conducted on animals cannot always reliably be extrapolated to humans. Many times, animals react to medicines differently than people. Aspirin, for example, is poisonous to cats. There is an ever-growing list of drugs deemed safe after very extensive animal testing, which later are proven to be carcinogenic, mutagenic (causing birth defects), or toxic to humans. Guinea pigs generally die when given penicillin; aspirin causes birth defects in rats and mice, but not in people; thalidomide was helpful when tested on laboratory animal, but causes birth defects in people; and insulin causes deformities in laboratory animals, but not with people.
- Contrary to the beliefs of most people, including supporters of animal experimentation, key discoveries in such areas as heart disease and cancer were achieved through clinical research, observations of patients, and human autopsy, not through animal testing. The greatest medical advancements were the result of improved hygienic approaches. Animal tests gave results that, at best, paralleled previous findings in humans.
- Misleading animal test results can sometimes be devastating for human health. In a number of cases, effective therapies were delayed because of misleading animal models. For example, the animal model for polio resulted in a misunderstanding of the mechanism of infection, delaying the discovery of a vaccine.
- Reliance on animal experiments and transplants from animals keeps people from considering their basic responsibility for their own health. If the billions of dollars spent on animal experimentation were instead spent on educating people about better nutrition and other positive lifestyle changes, there would be far greater benefits for human health. Of course there are other factors that affect humans’ health – including genetics – that are beyond people’s control, but lifestyle changes can make major differences in many cases.
Perhaps because of the above factors, animal experimentation has produced relatively little progress in many areas of medicine. Despite (or perhaps because of) relying heavily on extensive animal experimentation for medical advancement, health costs in the U.S. have been soaring in recent years, which has led to major budgetary problems in many cities and states and nationally, with the result that spending for many other human needs has had to be reduced. Health expenditures have been increasing more rapidly than any other element of the federal budget; total health costs grew from 6% of total GDP in 1960 to 17% in 2013, and are still rising.170
The question of necessity – again
Many laboratory experiments on animals are completely unnecessary. Must we force dogs to smoke to reconfirm the health hazards of cigarettes? Do we have to starve dogs and monkeys to understand human starvation? Do we need to cut, blind, burn, and chemically destroy animals to produce another type of lipstick, mascara, or shampoo?
A reduction in animal experiments would not mean that experiments have to be done on people. Healthier lifestyles would avoid the need for many experiments. Many alternative approaches to advancing medical knowledge have been developed that are often more accurate and cost effective. These include epidemiological studies, computer and mathematical models, genetic research, cell and tissue cultures, stem cell research, clinical pharmacology, diagnostic imaging (MRI, CAT, and PET scans), and autopsies.
Human health can best be advanced by improvements in hygiene, better diets and other lifestyle changes, and through clinical studies. As the poet Alexander Pope put it, “The proper study of mankind is man.”
Hunting and Other Blood Sports
Throughout the ages, rabbis have strongly disapproved of hunting as a sport. A Jew is permitted to capture animals only for purposes of human food, or for what is considered an essential human need. But to destroy an animal for “sport” constitutes wanton destruction and is to be condemned. Based on the statement “not to stand in the way of sinners” (Psalms 1:1), the Talmud prohibits association with recreational hunters (Avodah Zarah 18b). A query was addressed to Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (1713–1793) by a man wishing to know if he could hunt in his large estate, which included forests and fields. Rabbi Landau’s response in his classic collection of responsa Nodah b’Yehudahis follows:
In the Torah the sport of hunting is imputed only to fierce characters like Nimrod and Esau, never to any of the patriarchs and their descendants… I cannot comprehend how a Jew could even dream of killing animals merely for the pleasure of hunting… When sport prompts killing, it is downright cruelty. (Yore Deah, Second Series, 10)
It should be noted that meat from animals killed by hunting with a gun or bow would not be considered kosher, and would therefore be a violation of bal tashchit, the prohibition against unnecessary destruction or waste. Because Judaism opposes any cruel treatment of animals, it also looks unfavorably on rodeos, animal fighting events, fishing contests, dog racing, and the use of animals in circuses, because the animals are often mistreated while being trained for their acts.
Like many other industries involving animals, the racing industry is built on the exploitation of animals, with cruelty and abuse common. While horse racing currently exists in Israel only in a very small way, there are plans to expand the races to involve as many as 2,000 horses and to initiate gambling on the races. The group Concern for Helping Animals in Israel (CHAI) is working to educate lawmakers, and also the public, about current horse abuse in Israel and how it will be multiplied manifold if gambling on racing is legalized. CHAI stresses that in England and the United States, when gambling is involved, the welfare of the horses is sacrificed.
Nina Natelson, founder and director of CHAI, summarized the cruelty involved in horse racing in a personal email to me:
Thousands of horses are bred annually, but only the few fastest are chosen to race, with most of the rest sent to the slaughterhouse. Trained and raced by age two, before their bones have hardened, they often incur catastrophic injuries. Pushed beyond their limits, they suffer bleeding in the lungs, which can be fatal, and chronic ulcers. They are drugged to improve performance and so they can race even while injured, which worsens the injury. Corruption is inherent in this industry based on greed, so, for example, the legs of horses not fast enough to win have been broken to collect on insurance policies. When they are too old to possibly win, at around six (though their natural lifespan is around 25), even champions are often sent to the slaughterhouse or sold into a downward spiral of abuse. The U.S. Congress held hearings on the industry due to the high level of breakdowns and deaths in training and on the track. At the hearings, industry leaders admitted that the industry could not police itself and asked the government to start policing for illegal drug use and other corrupt practices.
On July 30, 2006, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, issued a p’sak halachah (rabbinical ruling) against horse racing. The ruling concludes: “It seems self- evident that one ought… not to participate in horse-races – neither in establishing them, nor by watching them: because of the pain to animals caused thereby, because it is ‘a dwelling place of scoffers,’ and because it is ‘playing with dice’ (the Talmudic term for gambling).”171 Among the reasons the Chief Rabbi cited for his conclusion:
- Racing involves the premature death of many horses, and this violates the Jewish law against wanton destruction.
- Horse slaughter would create a risk that horsemeat would be sold in Israel, violating Jewish law.
- Whoever shows compassion is shown compassion by God.
- Using horses for racing is unnecessary; it involves cruelty, and is conducted only for the
purpose of making some rich people richer; therefore it is prohibited.
- Judaism discourages gambling because it enriches one person at the expense of another.
Restoring and Transforming the Ancient New Year for Animals
As discussed above, Judaism mandates that animals be treated kindly. It is essential that this message be spread and put into practice in order to help create a society more consistent with
Jewish values, and to help end the horrendous conditions under which so many animals currently suffer. Because of the wide disparities between Judaism’s powerful teachings on compassion to animals and the horrible ways that animals are mistreated on factory farms and other settings, Jewish Veg (formerly known as Jewish Vegetarians of North America), of which I am president emeritus, has worked with a coalition of Jewish groups and individuals to restore and transform the ancient and largely forgotten Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana LaBeheimot (New Year’s Day for Tithing Animals for sacrifices when the Jerusalem Temple stood) into a day devoted to increasing awareness of Judaism’s beautiful teachings on compassion to animals and how far current realities for animals is from these teachings.
Many religious Jews are properly diligent in “building fences” around some mitzvot. For example, there is great care on the part of religious Jews to fulfill the laws related to removing chametz before Passover. But other mitzvot, including tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, are often downplayed or ignored. Perhaps this is not surprising when one considers that with regard to animals the primary focus of Jewish religious services, Torah readings, and education is on the biblical sacrifices, animals that are kosher for eating, and laws about animal slaughter, with relatively little time devoted to Judaism’s more compassionate teachings. It is essential that this emphasis on the killing and sacrifice of animals be balanced with a greater consideration of Judaism’s more compassionate teachings about animals. Hence the need to restore and transform the ancient, long forgotten holiday.
There is a precedent for the restoration and transformation of a holiday in Jewish History. Rosh Hashanah Lailanot, a day initially intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple offerings, was reclaimed in the 17th Century by mystics in Sefat, Israel, as a day for celebrating nature’s bounty and healing the natural world. Many Jews now regard this increasingly popular holiday, Tu B’Shvat, as an unofficial “Jewish Earth Day.”
It is hoped that the transformed New Year for Animals will also serve as a tikkun (healing or repair) for the current widespread mistreatment of animals previously discussed in this chapter. Awareness about tsa’ar ba’alei chaim is even more important because animal-based diets and agriculture are significantly contributing to many diseases that are afflicting Jewish and other communities, as well as climate change and other environmental problems that threaten all life on the planet. A major shift to plant-based diets is essential to help shift our precious, but imperiled, planet to a sustainable path. In addition, as discussed in more detail in the next chapter, the production and consumption of meat and other animal products arguably violate Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, and help hungry people.
Restoring the New Year for Animals would have many additional benefits, including (1) showing the relevance of Judaism’s eternal teachings to today’s critical issues, (2) improving the image of Judaism for many people by showing its compassionate side, and (3) attracting disaffected Jews through reestablishing a holiday that they find relevant and meaningful.
Rosh Hashanah LaBeheimot occurs on Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, one Hebrew month before Rosh Hashanah. Since Rosh Chodesh Elul ushers in a month- long period of introspection, during which Jews are to examine their deeds and consider how to improve their words and actions before the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this is an ideal time for Jews to consider how to apply Judaism’s splendid teachings on compassion to animals to reduce the current massive mistreatment of animals on factory farms and in other settings.172
153 Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, Chapter 60, Section 415.
154 Ibid, section 416.
155 Abuses of farmed animals are described in detail in Diet For a New America and The Food Revolution by John Robbins; Old McDonald’s Factory Farm by C. David Coats; Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, and many other powerful books. There are also many videos online of undercover investigations that show the horrors of factory farming.
156 Leah Garcia, “Why We Haven’t Seen Inside a Broiler Chicken Factory Farm in a Decade,” Foo Factory News, January 24, 2013.
157 “Choose life over death, kindness over killing,” Vegan Peace information compilation, http://www.veganpeace.com/veganism/compassion.htm
158 Ruth Harrison, Animal Machines, (London: Vincent Street, 1964), 12.
159 John Harris, “Killing for Food,” in Animals, Men, and Morals, S. R. Godlovitch and John Harris, eds. (New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1972), 98.
160 Harrison, Animal Machines, 3.
161 Carmell, Rabbi Aryeh, Masterplan: Judaism – Its Programs, Meanings, Goals (New York/Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1991), 69.
162 Rosen, Rabbi David, “Vegetarianism: An Orthodox Jewish Perspective,” in Rabbis and Vegetarianism: An Evolving Tradition, Roberta Kalechofsky, ed. (Marblehead, MA: Micah Publications, 1995), 53.
163 Ibid, 54.
165 Many facts about the cruelty involved in producing fur garments can be found in “Truth About Fur,”
166 Shmuly Yanklowitz, “The Religious Case Against Wearing Fur or Leather,” Jewish Journal, January 26, 2015.
167 Marilyn Kretzer, “Are Dirty Politics Holding Up Ban On Fur in Israel?” PETA, May 5, 2015.
168 “Rabbi Yona Metzger says no to fur,” Orthomom, February 20, 2007.
169 Many facts about animal experimentation can be found at “11 Facts About Animal Testing,”
170 “Health expenditures, Total (% of GDP), World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.XPD.TOTL.ZS 140
171 “Ruling of Chief Rabbi of Israel Against Racing,” report from ‘Concern for Helping Animals in Israel,’
172 I have four articles on this initiative at a special section at www.JewishVeg.com/schwartz. 142