August 14th, 2013
RABBI SHMULY YANKLOWITZ
I was a 23-year-old graduate student when I decided to be a vegetarian after attending a lecture by Professor Martha Nussbaum on the neo-Aristotelian capabilities argument, which holds that it is morally wrong to shorten any other being’s capability or potential. In an article published a few years later, Nussbaum wrote that “humans share a world and its scarce resources with other intelligent creatures,” all of which are entitled to a “dignified existence.” While the idea of dignity may have a wide scope of interpretation, Nussbaum argued that it was obvious that the way animals are treated today do not meet this criterion:
…circus animals beaten and housed in filthy cramped cages, the even more horrific conditions endured by chickens, calves, and pigs raised for food in factory farming, and many other comparable conditions of deprivation, suffering, and indignity. The fact that humans act in ways that deny other animals a dignified existence appears to be an issue of justice, and an urgent one.
Indeed, there is no obvious reason why notions of basic justice, entitlement, and law cannot be extended across the species barrier…
I realized that the amount of pain (and loss of life) experienced by animals so that I could eat them far outweighed my gains from eating meat. I had been living with blindfolds to the reality of the great suffering in the industry, and felt that I needed to take responsibility for my participation in it: I finally gathered the courage to look at that reality and make some really hard life changes. I had been eating meat daily, so it wasn’t the easiest change at first. My wife has been a vegetarian from her early teenage years. On our wedding day, we became full vegans together.
The biblical character Noah is my animal welfare hero. Noah could not have imagined a world without each animal existing in it. The Midrash teaches that Noah not only heroically saved two from each species by giving them shelter from the storm on the ark, but for all those weeks that the ark was afloat, he would run tirelessly from one to the next to give them proper water, food, and care. Reading the story of the flood each year reminds us that to live in a redeemed world we must prioritize care for the most vulnerable sentient beings on our planet.
Contrast this concern for animals with how we slaughter animals and aquatic creatures today. Data extrapolated from U.S. Agriculture Department data revealed that for 2010, nearly 9.3 billion animals were slaughtered for food, including
- 8.7 billion chickens,
- 243 million turkeys,
- 110 million pigs,
- 35 million cattle/calves, and
- 21 million ducks.
In addition, more than 876 million animals raised for food purposes died of other causes, for a total of more than 10.15 billion animals who died for our dinners in one year in the United States alone (and this doesn’t account for animals killed by hunters). As for aquatic animals, more than 53 billion were killed for American food consumption in 2010. Can any heart remain unmoved in the face of such shocking figures, and the suffering this entails?
Those who justify the mass slaughter of animals tend to couch their arguments in terms of a supposed libertarian concern that their “right” to eat meat is being jeopardized, or that eating meat is somehow beneficial to the world. One caller to a popular talk radio program, for example, employed a bewildering degree of pseudo-science to defend the meat industry:
…hay and grass is useless to humans and when it dies back in the wintertime it all just rots, …. it turns into methane. But cows …. make food out of it like milk and cheese and meat, and less plant matter is available for bacteria to decay. So cows therefore are a carbon sync, a food maker, and its byproducts are a fertilizer to greening the planet.
Apart from appearing to argue that vegetation is harmful, this caller ignored the problem that animal waste represents to drinking water and the atmosphere (yes, waste generates methane), and completely avoided the moral question of what happens to these “cows.”
Many others deal with this situation by ignoring it, or employing spurious arguments. Most people have pets, yet they eat meat. Australian scientists discovered that people tend to rationalize this, especially when reminded how much suffering these animals endure when they are slaughtered, by convincing themselves that the animals they eat are not as intelligent as the animals they keep as pets. The idea that slaughtering less intelligent animals is somehow morally justified is a potentially dangerous idea; in the last century, humans who were judged to be mentally deficient were forcibly sterilized or even euthanized, and we must see that this abuse does not return by having a concern for all sentient beings. In addition, the premise is likely false: Research tends to show that many of the animals we commonly eat are as intelligent as those we commonly keep as pets. For example, pigs (while treyf for observant Jews, millions of Americans eat pork) are about as intelligent as dogs or cats.
Even animals routinely killed for sport are proving to be more intelligent than previously thought. Prairie dogs, rodents related to squirrels, inhabit prairie and grassland in the southwestern United States. Scientists have discovered that in addition to living in large communities, these small animals employ what may be the most complex language system in the animal kingdom, belying the idea that they are not intelligent. In spite of this, they are shot by the thousands for sport, while others proclaim without evidence that the prairie dog holes present hazards for cattle and ranchers.
As religious Jews, we yearn to return to the Garden of Eden, a world where the eating of sentient creatures is not imaginable, and we are called upon to be people of compassion. (In fact, the rabbis consider mercy and compassion to be essential characteristics to being Jewish (Beitzah 32b).) By doing so, we not only fulfill the mandate of the Torah but we regain our very humanity. Noah was the model.
Rabbi Levi said: For twelve months, Noah and his sons did not sleep, for they were compelled to feed the animals, beasts, and birds. Rabbi Akiva said: Even branches for elephants and glass shards for ostriches they brought aboard by hand in order to feed them. Some animals eat at two o’clock at night, while others eat at three. Thus, you may deduce that they never slept. Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Yosi the Galilean: One time, Noah was late in feeding the lion. Therefore, the lion mauled him, and he came away limping, (Midrash Tanchuma, Noach 9).
The rabbis considered Noah righteous precisely because of his care for animals.
[The Torah calls Noah] “a righteous man (tzaddik),” because the term “righteous” specifically refers to one who provides food for G-d’s creatures. Two individuals are called righteous for having provided other creatures with food: Noah and Joseph . . . Joseph sustained [his family and all the people of Egypt]. Rav Achavah son of Rav Ze’ira said, “The sons of Noah . . . were all righteous because they showed compassion toward both animal and humans, (Midrash Tanchuma, Noach 4).
As the Torah portion of Noach is read soon, consider learning these ideas from the Shamayim V’Aretz “Noach Seder.” with others in your community. Today, again as in biblical times, the world is flooding, putting the soul of each creature at risk. Will we follow Noah’s example to work to reverse the trends of abuse and neglect and to show mercy and compassion to each creature? Or will we allow for this mass slaughter to continue? Only we have the power to decide.