December 9th, 2021
By Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard
In many different religious traditions, we find some version of this famous statement by Gandhi:
The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
The idea is straightforward enough: you can learn a lot about people by how they treat the vulnerable.
And if that is the case, then we are a schizophrenic society.
On the one hand, we treat our pets with such love and devotion. They are a part of our families and our lives such that we would defend anyone trying to harm them and we grieve and mourn when they die. (There will probably be a nationalized health care plan for pets before there is one for their owners. I kid of course…maybe. Have you seen the insurance premiums?) On the other hand, the cruelty and suffering we inflict on cows, pigs, chicken and fish is abominable. If we ever saw anyone treating a dog let alone our dog that way, they would be arrested.
Melanie Joy offers a powerful answer in her work Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows. She notes that we are part of a system that encourages us to numb ourselves and put a chasm between our food and its source. This numbing and this distance allows us to dissociate our food from the animal we are eating and its treatment and care. It allows us to love our dogs and not think twice about our food.
It is, of course, more complex and layered but the fundamental truth is this: there is this yawning gap in people’s thinking when it comes to food and it is a vital imperative of this moment to find ways across it. And I say ways because there is no magic pill, no single answer/video/picture/etc. that will persuade everyone.
In this week’s question of the week I ask: what weight/importance does your plant based/vegan diet have on how you see yourself and how you self identify? Given that many of you reading this may be vegan or plant-based, the answer is obviously that diet is very important — if not among the most important markers of identity. However…so are everyone’s eating habits…whether they are aware of it or not! It is the importance that food plays not only in maintaining them physically but also sustaining people’s sense of self that adds to the depths of the chasm we face.
We have to meet people where they are and move them to where we all need to be; in a society in which we believe in being kind to all kinds.