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Claudette Vaughan, Editor of Abolitionist Online, interviews Rabbit Adam Frank, May 2007
Rabbi Adam Frank lives and works in Jerusalem with his family. He wrote an excellent article titled “What’s Jewish about a Vegan Diet?” posted at Jewishveg.com. We wanted to catch up with the Rabbi and ask him a few of our own questions. Here’s that interview.
Abolitionist: Is God a militant in an age where so many religious people refuse to speak favorably in terms of animal rights? Would God create his own Creation to then turn around and allow them to be eaten?
Rabbi Frank: We start with the premise that God created the world, God created both humans and the non-human animal kingdom, God created lions and God created lambs. Lions eat lambs so yes, God is capable of creating that which God knows will consume something else that is living. Is God a militant? Certainly not in any negative sense. I think it’s important to say why God is so critical, at least in my perspective of the world. I believe how we define what is good and bad, what is moral and immoral, what is ethical or unethical must originate from something outside of human opinion. Different communities of people may come up with different definitions of what is moral and what is immoral and for this reason it is critical for me to turn to a source which is external of humans to be the foundation of what is good and what is bad. Judaism turns to God and believes that God gifted to humanity the Five Books of Moses as the foundation of defining what it means to live an appropriate life. In Judaism there are numerous verses and sources that guard against the unnecessary and cruel treatment of animals. These sources speak of human potential in its ideal form. Unfortunately, human influence – the human touch -- corrupts. While Judaism certainly has many teachings instructing that humans be sensitive and sensitized to other parts of God’s creation, I believe there has been a corruption, and sometimes even a willful ignoring, of certain percepts which allow us, all humans, to live more comfortable personal lives at the expense of others.
Abolitionist: Why are you vegan, Rabbi?
Rabbi Frank: I am vegan because both Jewish law and my own use of logic and reasoning tell me that there is something terribly wrong with the animal food industry which places the animals in the conditions that is modern factory farming. I want to be clear, too, as this gets to your question of how do we lead a revolution of thinking to get people to stop eating meat and to make them more sensitive to their consumptions. I think the message has to be non-radical for human ears. The concept that people have no right to eat animals or that people have no right to infringe on the individual autonomy of an animal is so foreign to human thinking that it will be ignored. Judaism teaches that animals can be seen to exist in order to serve human needs but in the same breath Judaism obligates us to act as proper stewards and to act compassionately toward all that God created. Part of Judaism is to imitate/imbue the compassion of God. As God is compassionate towards humankind, so too must humankind be compassionate towards animals. I am vegan because farming methods are abusive and cruel to animals. I don’t want my food choices to condone the suffering that occurs in the animal food industry.
Judaism takes seriously the idea of personal responsibility. Communal change for the better and improved societal ethical behavior starts with the individual -- I cannot expect or hope for others to be concerned about animal suffering if my own actions reflect disregard for the well-being of animals.
Abolitionist: None of the holy books declare anywhere that humans have to eat meat. Do you think that factory farming itself is an abomination against God?
Rabbi Frank: You’re right. I can’t speak for other holy books. I can only speak for Jewish sources. At the biblical level, Jewish sources do not require us to eat meat, though animal sacrifice was required in the times of the ancients. Built into the Jewish religion is the concept that we would use and even kill animals for some purpose. In Hebrew, the word for sacrifice – korvan – literally means to draw closer or to “draw near”. Whether pagans or Jews, why would people sacrifice animals? Sacrifices were a vehicle to give up something of great value as a way of service to something greater.
Abolitionist: Couldn’t sacrifice also mean to sacrifice the human condition as now stands to submit to God?
Rabbi Frank: The ideal in certain Christian beliefs is abstinence. Judaism embraces moderation not abstinence. In Judaism, the ideal is to have a sexual relationship that occurs in the realm of the holy partnership of monogamous commitment. No action should go unchecked. The idea that we humans make sacrifices in our own personal lives for the greater good is certainly part of Jewish practice. In fact, that which distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability to make choices based on our reason, knowledge, sensitivities, and beliefs.
Abolitionist: In ‘Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals and the Call to Mercy” Matthew Scully is troubled on the subject of, “Kosher meats require the anaesthetized killing and blood-draining, with the kill pace exceeding hundreds of animals per hour, in plants mostly unsupervised by non-Jews”. We asked Australian Jewish groups also about ‘kosher’ and they said it wasn’t happening. That they had done their own inspections and it just wasn’t happening due to stress and other things on the kill floor and they reported it was a dreadful way to be killed. By your education you have been impacted by the thought that the treatment of animals to fulfill human food desires is an appalling violation of Jewish law prohibiting the unnecessary infliction of pain on an animal. Can you further outline your thoughts here please?
Rabbi Frank: Are you talking about AgriProcessors at the plant in Iowa? In late 2004, there was a video expose filming the operations in a kosher slaughterhouse in North America. In Australia, secular law requires that the animal remains upright during the killing process. The abuse that occurs in kosher slaughter has to do with the animal handling systems but not the actual killing method. E.g., how do you position the animal prior to the kill and how soon after the cut is the animal moved. As I said earlier, anything that humans touch is going to be corrupt, and for various reasons the system of shackling and hoisting an animal – of raising it upside down off the killing floor while still conscious – became a practice in kosher and non-kosher slaughter in the early 1900’s in America as a result of secular federal sanitary laws. In order to process the amount of kosher meat that is currently in demand there are animal handling systems similar to those described above in use that fulfill the letter of Jewish slaughter laws but transgress the Jewish laws of animal welfare. Also, like any industry the bottom line is profits and this influences the systems by which meat is produced. So the idea is to produce the product as inexpensively as possible and that means an individual animal’s welfare is surrendered. This mentality occurs in kosher slaughter as it occurs in secular slaughter as it occurs in any industry where humans have contact with animals. I think it’s upon Jewish leadership to make a change.
Abolitionist: The late Henry Spira was an effective and gracious animal activist who was also Jewish. He said the animals live in “their own universe of pain and suffering”. As we wake up every morning, day in and day out, how should we as vegans relieve some of that pain and suffering for animals, day in and day out?
Rabbi Frank: We need to get people to the stage where they recognise that there is terrible cruelty occurring and it’s unnecessary and that the industry norm is one which provides for that cruelty. I find the following example helpful: While children, we believed the police were all good but as adults we realise that police can be corrupt and that the citizens best interests are not always at hand. We also have to realise with regard to the food industry that just because governments have anti-animal-cruelty laws, the laws and their lack of enforcement allow for an industry norm that is nothing short of torturous for animals. Every time we sit down to eat we have a choice. Judaism teaches that the one who gives charity is transformed more than the person who receives that charity – similarly, the decision I make to eat a non-dairy sherbet instead of ice cream is as much as about me as it is any animal that I’m trying to not cause pain to.
Abolitionist: What are your views on comparing factory farming to the Holocaust? Should this comparison best be left to the Jewish people to discuss?
Rabbi Frank: I, as much as any other Jewish leader I know, have a sensitivity and a commitment to the well being of animals. I am very offended by the comparison and there are several reasons why. I think humans should make a distinction between human life and animal life. The offensive part of the comparison is not that it elevates the value of an animal life but that it reduces the horror of what happened during the Holocaust. The Holocaust was the attempted genocide of a people, a way of life, of a value system whose massacre had no benefit other than the extinction of the Jewish ‘other.’ The comparison discounts the psychological torture of daughters raped in front of parents, of newborns beheaded while in the hands of their mothers, of parents murdered in the presence of their children; it discounts the torment of losing all worldly possessions, security of being and the loss of faith in humankind.
The truth is I don’t think it helps the cause. It draws a picture that animal rights people and animal welfare people are equating human life and animal life – a message so radical and foreign to normative human thinking that it allows the audience to dismiss the message which is the non-radical message of compassion to animals.
I think the term “genocide” should be applied to humans and not animals. Of the people who kill animals in the billions, the goal is not to extinguish the animals – to wipe them off the face of the earth – it’s not to deanimalise an animal as was the goal during the Holocaust to dehumanize the Jewish people. The goal is to provide meat and “comfort” to humans. The goal in genocide, specifically during the Holocaust during WWII was the elimination of Judaism and anybody connected to Judaism. The goal was to seek to get humanity to see Jews as animals, as vermin. Once the Nazis convinced people to think it was okay to treat Jews like animals then there was no reason not to put them into the conditions which the pictures from out of the Holocaust show. I don’t think the word ‘genocide’ is an appropriate word regarding animals unless it’s the genocide of trying to exterminate or extinguish one of the species.
Abolitionist: Three and a half years ago you attended your first animal rights conference and you have said this event was a wake-up call to you. What happened?
Rabbi Frank: I learned the reality of the animal food industry of which I was previously unaware, and I interacted with people who were sensitive, caring, thoughtful humans who weren’t anti-establishment folks but who, like me, had simply seen the evidence and thought to themselves “we have got to try and stop this”. I could hear the message better at this animal rights conference because it wasn’t coming to me from out of anger or militism but from a sense of there are atrocities occurring here and let’s do something to repair it. I identified with the messenger which allowed me to hear the message which I might add was a non-radical message.
Abolitionist: How will the movement turn this thing around?
Rabbi Frank: This is how we will do it. We’ll appeal to people’s reasoning. When I teach here in Jerusalem I start by saying “There are 6 million people here in Israel. Let’s say everyone here in Israel eats half a chicken a week. That’s 3 million chickens a week. That’s 150-160 million chickens a year. I ask is it possible to raise, to give veterinary care, to transport, to slaughter this sheer number of animals in any way we can ensure that we are being compassionate and appropriate?” This appeals to peoples’ reasoning. In America, 25 million animals are being killed each day – is logical to believe that the well-being of the animals are being cared for in an honest way? I teach: If you take a knife and stick it in the side of a cow, the cow is going to move away from the knife. The cow is going to yell, to bleed and to run away. If you cut into a cow’s leg or if you cut a tendon she’ll do the very same thing as what a human would do. Empirical evidence shows us that a cow can suffer. So we keep building the argument based on logic.
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