The Vegetarian Activist & The Vegetarian Chassid: A Conversation In The Vegetable Garden – Part I
Based on an email dialogue between a passionate secular Jewish vegetarian activist and a more equivocal Orthodox vegetarian
Some teachings in Jewish religious literature say animals have no intellect and cannot speak. Yet recent scientific studies clearly show that animals are intelligent and some species do have language.
Animals plan and strategize, solve problems, learn from experience, adapt to new situations, and demonstrate other elements of intelligence. Some primates can remember and repeat sequences of numbers faster and more accurately than human college students, and there is no question that dolphins, bonobos, gray parrots and other animals are intelligent creatures.
As for language, some animals have been taught an English vocabulary exceeding a thousand words, and certain birds can tell the difference between languages such as Japanese and English. Studies show that primates can communicate with humans using sign language or by pressing symbols in sequence on keyboards. Certain animals communicate in a range above human hearing, and faster than our hearing can register. So for every note we hear, for example, a bird might hear as many as ten. Other animals communicate in ranges too low for human hearing. And like human children, animals are not born knowing what they need to know to survive and prosper. They must be taught or learn on their own.
The Talmudic sages do not say that animals have "no intellect," but implicitly consider the human intellect as superior. If one occasionally comes across statements from later Jewish religious thinkers that man possesses "sekhel (intellect)" and animals don't, this should not be taken at face value. These authors only mean to say that there is a categorical difference between humans and animals. The donkey of Rabbi Pinchos ben Ya’ir would have remained undistinguished if the rest of its long-eared brothers, too, refused to eat untithed barley, nor would Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s donkey have had much claim to fame if other animals commonly refused to eat or drink stolen foods. And despite the unusual intellectual abilities of these animals of the tzaddikim, we do not find that they passed the entrance exams to the local yeshivah.
Jewish philosophers, as well as the kabbalists, define man as "medaber," the "speaking being." At the same time, they and the sages of the Talmud before them acknowledge that animals and birds, too, have some sort of speech. King Solomon is said to have understood that speech. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai even understood the “speech” of leaves rustling in the wind!
You are right that animals also communicate, and some more highly-developed species have their own kinds of language; but you must admit that these communication systems are far less sophisticated than those of humans -- prairie dogs notwithstanding. We must teach those parrots and myna birds our human words. This is not their natural way of communicating with each other. The complex sounds certain animals make are not the equivalent of human speech.
It is fundamental to Jewish thought that despite the encompassing unity of life, there is a hierarchy in creation, and the dignity -- and responsibility -- of humanity stands at the top of the ladder. Yet Judaism places G-d at the center of everything. Thus, our greatest characteristic is that we are created "in G-d's image (be-tzelem Elokim)." As Rav Kook states in his "Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace," we exist not in order to dominate the rest of creation like tyrants, but to recognize and "reconnect" to G-d -- "be-gin de-ishtimodin lei," as the Zohar states -- and to fulfill the great task G-d has given us: to perfect His kingship on earth according to the guidance of the Torah.
We need not reject this idea of a hierarchy for fear that it will lead to wanton exploitation because we, as religious Jews, bring unity and harmony to the entire matrix of life through the mitzvos that we perform and through the compassion that the Torah instills in us.
And if a Jew should behave in a way that violates the mitzvos, or merely remains insensitive to the spirit and intent of the Torah, that individual has failed to understand his mission in life -- even if he puts on talis and tefillin every morning, even if she lights the Shabbos candles and keeps a kosher kitchen, etc. As the Ramban states in his commentary on the Torah portion "Kedoshim" (Leviticus 19:2), the Torah demands that we strive for holiness, and one who does not take this to heart could easily remain a menuval, a coarse and depraved person, without actually breaking the laws of the Torah.
So you consider Orthodox supervisory rabbis and kosher slaughterhouses that mistreat animals to be violating the Torah?
I would hesitate to condemn anyone without carefully studying the facts. However, if it would be proven that such supervisory rabbis and kosher companies have shown a lack of concern for avoidable tza'ar ba'alei chaim – such as by willfully ignoring existing animal welfare regulations, or by making no effort to reduce animal distress indicated by bellowing, or by using electric prodders unnecessarily, etc. -- I would say that yes, they are in the wrong, and that this is a tremendous chillul Hashem, a disgrace of G-d's Name.
This does not make the meat produced treif -- kashrus is an entirely separate matter -- but it does mean that these individuals have failed to recognize and to do what the Torah wants from us. As I've said before, when it comes to tza'ar ba'alei chaim, we have certain explicit laws, such as the prohibition to allow animals to see other animals being killed (Yoreh De'ah 36:14), for example -- and then there is the category of "lifnim me-shuras ha-din," going beyond the letter of the law in order to prevent avoidable animal suffering. Only an achzor and a baal ga'avah, a cruel and arrogant person, would fail to recognize this and act accordingly.
There is a tradition that that prior to their creation, animals agreed to G-d's plan that that they would be slaughtered (see Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla, Sha’arei Orah, Gate 6). In addition, the kabbalists say that eating animals raises their “holy sparks” and their da'as, or consciousness -- so the implication is that we are doing animals a favor by eating them, and this is why they consented to be slaughtered. Most animals, however, are certainly not passive in the face of slaughter – at least when they understand what is going on. They try their best to escape! How are animals' terror and flight responses to be reconciled with the claim that they gave their consent and are being granted a "favor" to serve human needs?
Just because on some awesome transcendent plane the animals collectively agreed to their earthly destiny before they were created doesn't mean that they shouldn't be motivated by the basic pleasure-pain response that characterizes all sentient beings. For example, when I go to the dentist, I know that what he's doing is good for me -- but I still don't like the experience one bit! A wise person knows that everything we go through is ultimately for the good -- "gam zu l'tovah," as the Talmudic saint Nochum Ish Gamzu used to say -- yet our self-preservation instincts still tell us that pain hurts!
According to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (Likutey Moharan I, 4, based on the Gemara in Pesachim 50a), realizing that everything is ultimately good, whether we experience it as good or bad, is an experience of "World to Come" – the World of Oneness -- right here in this world. But there is a spiritual barrier that separates these two domains or modes of experience, and for this reason, it is difficult for a mortal human being to grasp that sublime reality. Why shouldn't this be the case with animals, too?
Again, practically speaking, I believe that a great deal of animal distress in the meat industry, both kosher and non-kosher, can be eliminated by improving handling and restraint systems. Those who are unwilling to opt for vegetarianism should at least be supportive of proposals for such improvements.
Part 2 continued here.