Making the Invisible Visible

February 13th, 2022

By Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard

Just say the words “the Trolley problem” and a lot of people start nodding. And if they don’t get it right away, most do when you start describing it: “You know, a runaway trolley is on course to collide with and kill a number of people (for some reasons it’s almost always 5 people) down the track, but you can intervene and divert the vehicle to kill just one person on a different track…” 

As a thought experiment, it is fascinating and opens insightful conversations about ethics and psychology. However, for all its insight, the question itself is a tad…useless. Just consider: how many times are you really going to face this situation? 

In her work Fellow Creatures, Professor Christine Korsgaard notes the relative silence of the Western philosophical tradition when it comes to animals. Philosophers spill much ink over scenarios like the one above but do not consider the more prakctical ethical questions of how we are to understand and treat the other animals with whom we share this earth. And why are discussions about animals more practical? Observe, she says, how ethical questions about our relationship with animals are woven into the daily fabric of our lives; what we eat, what we wear, what medications we take, and what products to use on our bodies/homes/gardens/cars, etc. all involve animals. 

Whether we own pets or not, animals touch every part of our daily lives. And yet, in our philosophical traditions, issues involving animals are rarely given a full airing – and even then only by a handful of thinkers. 

And while Jewish tradition, with its agricultural/nomadic roots, has much to say, I would not have known it based on what classes my rabbinical school offered. I do not remember a single class/lecture/shiur about what our tradition teaches on animals, and to be honest, at the time, I doubt I would have taken it. 

The work we do at Shamayim is an attempt to reverse that trend in the Jewish community and, by extension, the larger American society. To do so, we need to offer more classes and opportunities to learn what our tradition teaches about animal welfare. With that in mind, I invite you to join me for a weekly text study…email me at jonathan@shamayim.us And we also must find ways of bringing to the fore the pervasive use of animals in our lives and ask the question: are we treating them in a way that is aligned with our values and worthy of our being created in the divine image?

Seemingly, animals are either pets or problems (whales washing up on beaches etc.). Otherwise, they, and the way we treat them, is invisible. Our practice is to make them visible.

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