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Caroline B. Glick: Forgetting freedom at Passover

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Sandra Block and Lisa Gerstner: How to Profit From Your Passion

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Lori Nawyn: At Your Wit's End and Back: Finding Peace

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Jewish World Review Oct. 24, 2008 /25 Tishrei 5769

‘Why aren't all religious people vegetarians?’

Response by Miriam Kosman

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With the start of the weekly Torah portion cycle this weekend, beginning with the Creation story, a challenge from a "lover of all beings" to a noted philosophy lecturer

http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Dear Miriam,

I am a vegetarian for ideological reasons, and it really bothers me that people eat meat. I wonder why Judaism, which seems to put such a big emphasis on sensitivity, allows people to eat meat. It seems inconsistent to me — with all the self-discipline that Judaism requires, I would think that it would be a simple thing for a Jew to take on not eating meat, and yet, it seems that it is even a mitzvah (religious duty) to eat meat on Sabbath and religious festivals. How can human beings and in particular the Torah be so cruel?

From someone who loves all living beings

Dear Lover of All Beings!

First of all, I want to tell you that I am impressed with your integrity and strength of character. It is not easy to refrain from pleasure for an ideal, and when a person chooses a vegetarian lifestyle, I imagine that it is not a one-time choice, but something that one has to struggle with over and over, every time a particularly tasty food appears on the table.

The topic of the relationship between humans and animals is a fascinating one in Judaism, and one that really deserves to be explored in depth. If you don't mind, I would like to start with a story that is a bit extreme in nature but did, actually, happen, and that I think can help us to understand the Jewish perspective.

A number of years ago, I had a student who was a fairly radical proponent of animal rights. Once, I mentioned to her that I was going to call an exterminator to get rid of some cockroaches and she was utterly horrified. How could a humane person cause a veritable "holocaust" to innocent bugs? To me, the answer was straightforward. I had no doubt that there would be no peaceful co-existence between me and the cockroaches and with all due respect, I chose me. I asked her what she would do and she said she would move to a different apartment. While I appreciated her sensitivity, it was clear to me that, without being dramatic, my life and my home came first!

A few months later, she called me from Jerusalem, where she had begun studying advanced Jewish studies, and said, "Miriam, now I understand why you were willing to exterminate those bugs."

Happy to be vindicated from my role as Inquisitioner, I asked her how she had come to that conclusion. "I have been learning the first chapter of Genesis and I see that the world was created as a hierarchy, with man at the pinnacle. In other words, the whole world was created for man, so — you really are more important than the cockroach."

Thanking her profusely for the compliment, and feeling affirmed and validated in my role as someone more important than a cockroach, I hung up the phone. But that conversation got me thinking ...

My student had really touched on one of the most fundamental concepts in Judaism. The universe is a hierarchy and the pinnacle is humanity. Every amoeba, every galaxy, and everything in between was created for the express purpose of creating a backdrop for the ongoing, heart dropping, hair raising, spine tingling drama of man in his endless pursuit of a relationship with his Maker.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) emphasizes this point, while explaining why innocent animals were killed in the flood in Noah's time together with the guilty humans, with a parable. A man builds a beautiful wedding canopy for his son. When his son dies before the wedding, the father destroys the canopy. "What use is a wedding canopy without my son?" In the same way, G-d exclaims, "What use is there in all these animals if I had to destroy the point of it all — mankind!"

At the same time, it is interesting to note the many laws dealing with our obligation towards animals. We are both prohibited to cause pain to animals, as well as obligated to relieve an animal's suffering.

We are even told that Moses was chosen as our leader because of his extreme sensitivity to the sheep that were under his care. It is not for nothing that one of the prized pictures in Jewish homes shows one of the Torah greats of the last generation standing outside feeding the neighborhood cats, or that there are many treasured legends about our leaders caring for the most helpless of G-d's creations.

And yet, even after reviewing these sources and many others, what becomes glaringly obvious is the difference in perspective between the Torah approach and the approach of animal rights activists. Nowhere does the Torah talk about animal rights. The emphasis is entirely on the obligation of man.

The death blow that Darwin and Freud dealt to the concept of man as the pinnacle and purpose of Creation, with the ability — nay, the mission — to change the world, and bring it to ultimate perfection, has dramatically changed society's perception of its role vis-a-vis the animal kingdom.

JWR contributor Dennis Prager conducted an interesting experiment. He asked high school students whom they would save if they were standing on the banks of a raging river, and both their beloved, pet dog and a human stranger were drowning, and they could only save one. Fifty percent of American students chose to save the dog. But what was the most telling about the switch in perspective in the Western world was that of the other fifty percent, nine-tenths said that they would not judge those that chose the dog. "They are entitled to their opinion ..."

The point being that even those who felt that that they would save the human, simply because he was a human, did not view their choice as being based on an objective value — that human life is worth more than animal life — but only as a personal opinion.

When I conducted the same survey here in Israel, those that chose the dog were considerably less than fifty percent, but the very fact that it was an issue that could be discussed in an academic setting says a lot about the value of human life in our society. (I am always amazed to discover that some of the students who would choose to save their dog over the human stranger are not even vegetarian. The implications of that perspective are, to my mind, staggering ... If she were hungry enough, would she eat a human?)

Darwin and Freud notwithstanding, the Torah, unequivocally, maintains that a human being, any human being, comes before an animal, and that that human being — as opposed to an animal — has the ability to choose good over evil and rectify the world.

While the commentaries differ about whether the reason for the many mitzvos about preventing pain to animals is concern for the animals, from our imperative to be G-d like or simply, as the Ramban states, to train us to be kinder, more merciful people, the clear result of these laws has been to create a nation historically renowned for its high level ethical and humane behavior. ( For those who maintain that we are what we eat, it might be interesting to note that no kosher animal is carnivorous ...).

To paraphrase the nineteenth century French scholar Anatoly Beaulieu: The fact that a Jewish woman never went out into her back yard, picked up her pet chicken, wrung its neck and dumped it into the dinner pot had wide ramifications on her and on the Jewish people. Instead, she brought her chicken to the shocheit, who sharpened his knife so that the killing would be as painless as possible, and said a blessing thanking G-d for sanctifying us with His commandments. She then took the chicken home, and went through the hour long process of removing all blood from the meat. This may help us understand why murder is rare among Jews and a distaste for physical violence, in general, is a trait associated with the Jewish nation.

Paradoxically, it is those who realize their superiority as humans, and understand the obligation and responsibility that that entails, who are the most likely to extend their mercy towards animals to other human beings, as well, and, of course, vice versa. It was Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, with his astute understanding of human nature, who pointed out that were man to accord animals the same status as humans, humanity would forget its unique status, and cease to demand a higher level of morality from humans. Your average lion, tiger, or bear is unlikely to consider any ethical issues before sinking its teeth into its prey, and though no kosher animal is carnivorous, the ability to put a value or ethic above one's own gratification is uniquely human.

A piece of steel will always move towards the stronger magnet. It doesn't have the ability to say, "Oh, that poor, weak magnet! Let me pretend I am attracted to her." A plant will always grow towards the sunlight. It can't say to itself, "Oh, that poor housewife. It would make her so happy if all my greenery cascaded into her kitchen." It follows the rule of nature. And as for the animal kingdom, we need only consider Buridan's theoretical donkey that would die if it were equally thirsty and hungry, and food and drink were equidistant from it, because of its inability to make a decision. Its primitive instincts are so powerful that even that most basic of drives — self-preservation — falls victim to them.

Consideration of ethics or values don't even come into the picture. It is only the human who can be in a situation where every fiber of his being is pulling him in one direction, and yet can defy that desire by listening to the irritating little buzz of his conscience or morality that leaves him no peace. At this point in history, psychologists, sociologists and criminologists constantly debate how much free choice a human being actually has, and how much the myriad factors pulling at him need to be taken into consideration, when judging him. And yet, the Torah maintains, "Hinei nassati lifneichem es hatov ve'es hara. I have put before you both the good and the evil." You have the ability to recognize the difference and make the right choices.

Though not compelling as evidence, it is still worthy of note that it was the Nazis who forbade vivisection, at the same time that the gas chambers were belching smoke, and that many Germans watched with equanimity as the Jews were being dragged from their homes, and then turned their attention and worry to the animals that were left behind.

The depth here is that as long as we talk about animal rights, we raise animals to the level of humans. And to be consistent with that approach, it would be those students who chose to save the human stranger, rather than their own beloved dog who depended on them, who would have to defend their position.

When I did Dennis Prager's experiment with one group, a student asked me, "What if the dog was a highly trained seeing-eye dog and the person was a severely brain damaged individual?" When I answered that I would still save the person, she said, "So it is just a preference of species." Yes. It is a preference of species. It is an awareness that a human being who was created betzellem Elokim, in the Divine's image, despite any limitations he might have, exists on an entirely different plane. And it is for him that the entire world was created.

This approach demands responsibility from us as humans. We must constantly justify the existence of the entire universe, and remain focused on our ultimate goal. By taking care of the helpless creatures dependent on us, and remembering that it is only by virtue of our superiority that we maintain the right to deprive an animal of life, we are spurred on to exemplify that superiority.

Interestingly, The Sefer Ha'ikarim claims that it was this very perspective — that there is no value difference between animals and humans — that caused Cain to kill Abel, and to ultimately bring the entire mankind to the violence and anarchy that eventually resulted in the destruction of the world through the flood.

And it was for this very reason, he explains, that after the flood, meat was permitted to mankind. When I put part of a chicken or cow on my dinner plate, it becomes clear to me that I am not a cow, and not even a chicken. This chicken and cow were created for my use, and that becomes the spur that drives me to justify my existence, and ultimately theirs.

(In mystical terms, the purpose of the world is unity. Unity between the physical and the spiritual; unity between humanity and its Creator. The credo of the Jew, "Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad," (Hear, O, Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one) is carried out in myriad actions on a daily basis by a Jew who tries to reveal in every physical action its deep spiritual root. When a human being, striving to express his tzellem Elokim, eats food, he takes that mundane, physical creation and transforms it into a pulsating life force.

It becomes the very energy and glue that joins him to his Source. Lucky is the chicken, from this perspective, that makes its way to a Sabbath table, its very essence transformed into a cohesion of body and soul; six mundane work days and the holy Sabbath; the lowly homo sapiens with his Creator.

(I once read about a beautiful custom in an ancient Sephardic community: After eating the chicken and fish at the Sabbath table, the bones would be placed on a beautiful silver platter in the middle of the table, where they would remain until the end of the meal. The idea was: Of the trillions of chickens in the world, how many merit to make it to a Sabbath table? If the purpose of Creation is mankind, and the purpose of mankind is achieving unity between physical and spiritual, between finite man and infinite G-d, then let this particular chicken, which has achieved the ultimate in chickenhood, bask in its presence at the Sabbath table till the end ... (though I must admit that one of my friends commented that that kind of custom might be a real deterrent to having dessert ... So maybe there were some other reasons for it, too!)

Becoming a vegetarian for health reasons certainly can find its basis in the Torah's emphasis on protecting one's health. And even an individual refraining from eating meat because of the unprecedented suffering that today's mass production often causes can find Torah sources that resonate to this approach. Certainly, eating veal, duck and geese, which are all produced by cruel practices of restricting the movements of animals, or force feeding, is frowned on by some responsa as unfitting for the refined human being.

But the vegetarian, and all humanity, should take heed to remember the ultimate message, which is dramatized by having a fellow creature appear on one's dinner plate — that a human being is light worlds away from an animal, and that while he bears responsibility towards animals, and for that matter, towards the universe, he and only he justifies its existence.

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Mrs. Kosman is a lecturer for the Nefesh Yehudi organization in Israel. The above was translated from the Hebrew, from a question-and-answer column for secular Israeli university students, in Nefesh Yehudi's magazine, Pharhesya. It appears courtesy of the monthly magazine, The Jewish Observer.

© 2008, The Jewish Observer