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By Richard Schwartz, PhD, Jewish Vegetarians of North America
Rabbi Avi Shafran is correct in stating that Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, does not get it when it comes to understanding why many in the the Jewish community were upset and outraged by PETA’s insensitive "Holocaust on Your Plate" exhibit and now feel that her recent apology is inadequate. However, this does not negate the fact that Jews should be actively involved in ending the widespread abuses of animals on factory farms and in other places and reducing the threat to public health and sustainability posed by animal-based diets. This is not because of anything PETA says or does. It's because Judaism mandates it.
While properly challenging PETA to get it, we should also consider issues that many in the Jewish community do not seem to get:
The mass production and consumption of animal products is causing an epidemic of human degenerative disease and is contributing significantly to global warming, rapid species extinction, the destruction of tropical rainforests and other habitats, a global fresh water crisis and many additional threats to humanity.
Animal-based diets and agriculture violate basic Jewish mandates to take care of our health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help the hungry, and pursue a more peaceful world.
Rabbi Shafran properly points out that Judaism stresses the uniqueness, sanctity and dignity of every human life. Once again, this raises moral issues that the Jewish community does not seem to be getting:
- What about the dignity of the over one million Americans stricken annually with heart disease, stroke, various types of cancer and other chronic degenerative diseases strongly connected to the consumption of animal products?
- What about the sanctity of the lives of an estimated 20 million people who die annually from hunger and its effects and of the hundreds of millions of people who are chronically malnourished, while 70 percent of the grain produced in the United States and almost 40 percent of the grain produced worldwide is used inefficiently to fatten confined animals for affluent people’s tables?
- What about the unique value of every human being who is, or soon will be, threatened by global warming, severe water shortages and environmental destruction secondary to the mass global production of 50 billion food animals every year – over ten billion in the United States alone?
Rabbi Shafran is also correct in pointing out that Judaism has very powerful teachings on compassion to animals. However, like many other Jewish leaders, he fails to relate these teachings to the many ways that animals are currently mistreated on factory farms and in other settings.
In view of the Jewish teaching of tsa’ar ba’alei chaim (the Torah mandate against causing unnecessary pain to animals), can we justify such routine and legal horrors of factory farming as:
- The force-feeding of ducks and geese to create the delicacy of foie gras (banned in Israel, but not the United States).
- The separation of calves from their mothers within one or two days of birth to be crated in darkness for sixteen weeks, then slaughtered for veal.
- The infanticide of 250 million newborn male chicks in American egg-laying hatcheries every year because layer chickens are genetically incapable of being converted into chicken meat in six to eight weeks.
- The confinement of egg-laying hens inside filthy rows of wire cages so small and crowded they can’t raise a wing and must be painfully “debeaked” (without the costly benefit of painkillers) to keep them from pecking each other to death.
Since we Jews are called to be rachamanim b'nei rachamanim (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors) and to worship a compassionate God, Whose mercies are over all of His creatures, can we continue in good conscience to follow diets that involve so much cruelty to animals?
Clearly, Jewish values and the consumption of animal foods are in serious conflict. If Judaism is to remain relevant to many of the great problems of today, I believe that all Jews must seriously consider adopting a more humane and sustainable plant-based diet. In my view, it is a moral, social and ecological imperative.
Jews comprise only a small percentage of the world’s people. We are responsible for only a small portion of the problems resulting from modern intensive livestock agriculture. However, it is essential that we Jews strive to fulfill our challenge to be a light unto the nations and to work for tikkun olam – the healing and repair of our imperfect and unjust world. This mission must include the lightening of the immense burden of our diets on animals, the environment and the world’s poor and hungry. To do so is to demonstrate the relevance of Judaism’s eternal teachings to the problems of the world today. I hope we and the rest of the world get it before it’s too late.
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