The following exchange is a response to Daniel Brook's article from the July/August 2009 issue of Tikkun magazine.
Conversation on Vegetarianism
Letter from Ruth Eisenbud:
Dear Rabbi Lerner.
A friend sent me information about your magazine, Tikkun. She thought it might be of interest to me, since I am concerned with alleviating the suffering inflicted on animals.
While doing my work as an animal advocate, I noticed a trend: India has had more far reaching positive results protecting animals than western nations. The notable existence of approximately 400 million vegetarians there is yet another indication of a successful message of compassion. The author of a report documenting the decrease of animals in research in the Indian state of Gujarat, attibutes these compassionate results to the hard work of animal activists and to the Jain religion, which teaches that all life is sacred and worthy of respect.
Your stated vision of Tikkun to heal the planet is admirable, so I hope you will respond to my concerns. I wonder if your vision includes alleviating the suffering of animals and if so, whether you think the view of Judaism that animals may be harmed or indeed killed to meet a human need is compatible with this goal?
In an effort to create a more compassionate paradigm for animals, based on the intrinsic worth of their lives and not on their value to man, this letter is being sent to religious leaders of the Judeo/Christian/Islamic religious faiths. Since you are concerned with attaining a more peaceful world, it is my hope that you will not dismiss it, because animal abuse and violence toward humans have the same root.
Response from Rabbi Michael Lerner:
In our July/August 2009 issue of Tikkun we have a strong article arguing why it is a Jewish mitzvah to be a vegetarian, and this article is really just another formulation on a theme that has appeared many times in Tikkun magazine. So, Ruth, we have taken an unequivocal stance on this issue. I hope you will subscribe to Tikkun magazine (at www.tikkun.org) and even become part of our Network of Spiritual Progressives (www.spiritualprogressives.org), because we need more people in our movement who can openly and strongly advocate for the wellbeing of animals.
Response from Ruth:
Dear Rabbi Lerner,
I have taken your advice and checked the Network of Spiritual Progressives website. In the article “US Jews Becoming More Secular,” the discussion attributes the declining numbers of practicing Jews in the United States primarily to intermarriage. It has been my experience in the animal rights community that many of my colleagues from Judeo-Christian traditions feel unwelcomed by a tradition that so devalues animal lives. Most refuse to attend events at their respective houses of worship, as the evidence of animal abuse makes participation untenable for them. Many more have completely renounced religion, as the rhetoric of compassion for animals seems empty and meaningless, in view of the permissible abuse that is sanctioned. Others, myself included have sought spiritual meaning and growth in religions which deliver a consistently compassionate message of respect for the lives of all beings.
If you are concerned about dwindling membership, it would be beneficial to engage in a meaningful discussion with those who have been so disappointed by the traditionally presented view of compassion for animals. While an attempt to address the issue of vegetarianism as it relates to Judaism is admirable, the issues surrounding animal abuse — such as scientific testing, use of their body parts including leather in clothing, and animal sacrifice as in the custom of kapparot — are also worthy of discussion. At the root of all these abuses are the view that animal life has less worth than human life, and the sanctioning of harming or slaughtering animals to meet human need. Until this view is examined, those of us who work to end animal suffering will find no refuge in the faiths that facilitate it.
I would hope that a discussion about the meaning of compassion for animals is not dependent on whether or not I become a paying member of the Network, but rather on arriving at a message which is not merely an illusion of compassion, but is rooted in a deep understanding that cherishes the lives of all beings.
Response from Rabbi Lerner:
Here's my counter evidence: My Bay-area synagogue, Beyt Tikkun, has been relentlessly vegetarian since it began in 1996, yet it attracts very, very few Jews who care about vegetarianism, whereas many other synagogues that are carnivorous attract many, many Jews more than we. Tikkun has consistently supported the call for vegetarianism and for animal rights, but has received very little support from Jews who were previously alienated from the Jewish world because of that issue. Our experience is that most of those alienated from the Jewish world are so alienated because of Israel's treatment of fellow human beings (Palestinians) and because of the spiritual deadness connected to a Judaism that has sought to accommodate itself to the values of American materialism and selfishness (in part, because of the post-traumatic stress disorder that continues to shape the woundedness of the Jewish people after 1700 years of persecution culminating in the genocide of the 20th century).
Response from Ruth:
Dear Rabbi Lerner,
Thank you so much for responding. I see that you are indeed interested in reinvigorating the spiritural message of Judaism. I respect your courage for addressing the issue of spiritual emptiness, as most are not willing to admit that it is cause for alarm.
Your evidence and mine are not mutually exclusive. Our experience is based on input from our respective communities. It is entirely likely that those who have left the Judeo/Christian tradition due to animal concerns are not returning at all, as they do not believe it is ever possible for religion to honor their deeply felt beliefs of compassion. As noted in my previous reply, the well-being of animals is more than a matter of vegetarianism and for many includes a world view that animals’ lives have intrinsic worth and should not be measured by their worth to humans.
Undoubtedly some of those who have left the Jewish faith have also done so because they are concerned with the mistreatment of their fellow human beings, the Palestinians, or with excessive materialism.
What I try to keep in mind about the situation in the Middle East is that both sides follow religions which allow for the harming and killing of living beings deemed to be lesser. This includes, but is not limited to, animals. Psychological studies have shown that there is a profound connection between animal abuse and human-on-human violence. In fact serious animal abuse is often a precursor to the harming of humans. Criminologists look for a pattern of animal abuse when evaluating potential suspects. The harming, exploitation and killing of animals can easily be transposed to a group of humans deemed to be lesser.
You aptly cite “spiritual deadness connected to a Judaism that has sought to accommodate itself to the values of American materialism.” I would add that it is not only Judaism but Christianity as well that has lost its spiritual message, and Christian institutions too are experiencing a decline in membership. I note this because it is relevant to your concerns about Judaism
Spirituality is by definition intended to enliven and expand the spirit by exploring one's innermost soul and by de-emphasizing the material and political world. Once religion concerns itself with the benefits of materialism or affiliates itself politically, it has moved away from emphasis on the inner self, the soul.
A heightened and living spiritual awareness is contingent on a peaceful, reflective, non-violent frame of mind. It is not possible to reach this level while participating in violence, whether it be toward one's fellow humans or toward other living beings. That is why I am troubled by the premise of the Abrahamic faiths that sanctions the harming and killing of non-human beings.
I would ask you to consider the state of mind of someone involved in harming either humans or animals: it is often numb and hardened, sometimes agitated, either overtly angry or full of suppressed rage, and mean-spirited.
Not only those doing the harming and killing, but also those who participate as consumers or endorsers suffer from this numbing of the spirit.
For me, the bottom line came after a discussion with a retired Rabbi. During services I objected to the endless passages recounting animal sacrifice by leaving the room when they were read. One day the aforementioned Rabbi followed me out, probably with the hope that I would come to see his reality. As part of his duties as a rabbi he went to the slaughter house to witness and insure that the slaughter was done according to tradition. He noted that the screams of the animals were terrible. I asked if he was vegetarian. When he said no, at that moment I understood that it would no longer be possible for me to follow teachings that are in such denial about the suffering of our fellow creatures. I saw a man whose heart and spirit were so deadened to the pain and terror of another living being by teachings which relegate animals to an inferior status, that he viewed the suffering before him as a technical exercise.
There was no room for compassion in this man. He had to shut down his spirit in order to sustain the values of his community and teachings that endorse the harming and slaughter of animals.
When you harm another living being, or benefit from its harm, the harm you do to yourself by having to deaden something inside you is just as tragic as the harm done to the other being. This is the very root of the deadening of the spirit that is relevant to your intention to return a purer sense of spirituality to your congregation and fellow members of the Jewish community.
The logic of the premise that man is above the animals and therefore entitled to harm, exploit or kill them for his benefit is questionable, as this scheme fails to take into account the individuality of humans and animals. It allows for a decent and good dog, who may even have saved a life, to be used as a scientific subject, while a human serial killer has the right to decline consent. Where is the justice in this?
Granting respect for the lives of all beings does not undermine but rather enhances man’s respect for his fellow humans. When you allow the spirit of compassion to grow, and extend it fully to both humans and animals, everyone benefits. I do not understand why there is such resistance to extending full compassion to all living beings within the religions of the Abrahamic tradition.
Jains, like Jews, are a small minority. They too have been subjected to persecution, but have quietly persisted in maintaining a non-violent lifestyle for millenia and discretely influencing the society around them. Gandhi, though a Hindu, conferred with a Jain teacher on how to pursue a campaign based on non-violence to liberate India from the British — with stellar results. In addition, India has the most far reaching animal protection legislation of any nation. All this was accomplished by allowing Hindus to be Hindus, while quietly instilling the value of compassion for all beings.
Jains seek not converts, but rather to support and encourage the value of ahimsa. They are respectful of the beliefs of other religions and do not challenge these beliefs. This quote is from Jainism and the New Spirituality by Vastupal Parikh, Ph.D. It is a discussion between Dr. Parikh and a friend who is a Catholic priest:
I have profound respect for Christian priests and nuns who provide selfless service, kindness and care to millions of poor, sick and dying people around the world. Some even run animal shelters or follow in the footsteps of such compassionate Christian saints as Francis of Assisi! Almost every religion has such compassionate followers. However, I am dismayed that some of these individuals lose their sense of empathy when they sit down at the table for a dinner of turkey, lamb chops or veal. How could these compassionate people “enjoy” feasting on animals or approve of killing animals in the name of sports?
How could people justify, even to their own conscience, events like the crusades, the inquisitions, the jihads, the animal sacrifice and wars in the name of God.
I raised the question about this apparent contradiction with a close friend — a Catholic priest. The occasion may not have been the most appropriate one. We were having a dinner at a restaurant. I had ordered a cold bowl of fruit salad and the priest had ordered veal.
“Dr. Parikh, you don't know what you are missing.” The priest was the one who opened the topic.
“Missing? How can I miss something which I have never had before?”
“That’s the point. You don't even know what a pleasure it is to have a nice sizzling steak. It is heavenly!”
“Father, I am an ordinary lay person brought up in the Jain tradition of self restraint and respect for all life. I really do not understand how anyone — let alone a priest — can derive pleasure in having an innocent little calf killed for his food. Isn't that calf your God's beautiful creations just like you?”
“Yes Dr Parikh God's creation indeed! So is the rest of this universe. God created it all for our pleasure, and God has given us the domain over it”
This interpretation of “domain” or “thou shalt not kill” did not appeal to me. The word domain is in the Bible. However, does it mean “responsibility to care for,” or “the right to kill”?
I lost contact with the priest for several years after the incident. However, during an accidental meeting...he told me that he had become a vegan (a vegetarian who avoids all animal products, including milk, cheese, butter, ghee, etc.). One-up-manship was beaming through the chuckle.
My thoughts have been presented to you with the hope that they will help re-awaken the soul of Judaism, which you so courageously seek, and make it accessible to those who are concerned with spiritual well-being and compassion.
Response from Rabbi Lerner:
In accord with your desire to get this discussion more broadly understood, I'll put it on our website, maybe our blog, and if we have space, in the magazine itself. Please send us a one sentence bio that we can use to identify you?
Let me again repeat to you what you seem not to be able to hear: There is within Judaism a strong and growing movement of people who are developing this consciousness of the need to stop killing and eating animals. But this is a process, and I don't think it is particularly helpful to put on the defensive anyone who has not yet gotten to that level of consciousness in their own lives. I don't think it helps the process of awakening awareness to the suffering of animals to be confronted by others whose moral certainty can sometimes feel like self-righteousness.
I do know that killing animals has at some points in human history been perceived as a necessity — when it was we who were prey to other animals. The irresponsible destruction of animal species today cannot be justified in these terms, and yet, as someone who lives not far from where mountain lions and bears sometimes attack humans, I can also understand why some people even today feel that to protect their own children they want to have a rifle in their homes. Similarly, I understand why people kill poisonous snakes and spiders and why they don't feel particularly sympathetic to rats and mice that sometimes try to infest their homes or raccoons that act in aggressive ways toward them at night (just as they don't like other human beings to act that way either, and support putting such people in prison). Yes, I would prefer a complete reordering of the way we relate to animals, including understanding why many would be angry at us for occupying what was once their territory. But I don't think we should romanticize animal life and fail to note how brutal it often is (just watch the behavior of lions in the wild attacking antelopes or the consumption of rabbits by birds or snakes to see that the violence in the animal kingdom is not introduced there by human behavior). So, while I reject violence toward animals (there's a very old adage that Jews don't hunt — because the kosher laws make it impossible to eat animals that are killed by hunting) I don't reject the human beings who do not yet fully grasp that point. It is enough for me if at this juncture in human history people would absolutely and unconditionally draw the line at killing other human beings.
You argue the slippery slope position: that eating animals (even if they are killed by others) leads to a moral insensitivity. My experience teaches me otherwise. I know many, many human beings who have risked their careers, their money, their relationships, or even their lives to fight against the oppression of others (e.g. in the civil rights struggle, the struggle for women's rights, the struggle against homophobia, the struggles against the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, the struggle against Israeli oppression of Palestinians, the struggle against oppressive immigration policies, the struggle to preserve the planet and protect it from all the ways that corporate forces and the international capitalist marketplace are destroying it) who nevertheless will eat a hamburger or chicken or ham and not thereby have their dedication to eliminating human suffering reduced one bit.
Moreover, I believe that those struggles would actually lose some of their support if the culture of the movements that supported them was a culture that did more than we already do in Tikkun — namely to gently raise these issues, but not give the message that those who remain animal-eaters are unwelcome or seen as morally obtuse and objectionable (in the way that we do say that people who are racist, sexist, homophobic or anti-Semitic are morally obtuse and not welcome unless they understand why our movements do not want these to be sanctioned inside our movement and are committed to struggling with these internalized ideas and practices). Why the difference? Because I don't believe, based on the experience I've had in progressive movements, that people are yet ready to have their meat-eating activities put on the same level as these other obnoxious ideas and behaviors. I do think, however, that we may be getting there in the near future as more people come to understand the environmental consequences of raising animals for consumption — but I think it is that argument, far more than the moral arguments about the suffering of animals, that is likely to become the persuasive key to getting people to reduce if not eliminate their animal-eating proclivities. ln this, as in all matters about building a movement, one needs to take a compassionate attitude toward those who do not yet share one's own level of understanding, and mix that with the humility to accept the possibility that one might be wrong and therefore that it is always important to not be arrogant in judging others or communicating to them a feeling that they are on a lower level of morality if they don't agree with us.