How many vegans can you name who live in Southeastern Montana, where cattle outnumber people by a ratio of about 100-to-1? (Conservative estimate.)
Think that’s tough. Try this one:
How many religious studies professors can you name who research what our sacred texts say about the proper treatment of animals?
The Beet-Eating Heeb hates to show up his beloved readers, but he can name someone in both categories. It helps that it’s the same person.
Meet Lisa Kemmerer.
Tenure-track positions are hard to find in academia, which might explain why the professor who has written one of the most authoritative books on the intersection of animal welfare and religion is on the faculty of the Montana State University – Billings.
BEH, as one of the very few bloggers who writes about the theology of veganism, feels fortunate to have found Lisa.
Her book “Animals and World Religions” (Oxford University Press) is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the role that religion can play – make that, should play – in ending the oppression of animals.
Lisa and The Beet-Eating Heeb recently talked about her important work – and about what it’s like to be a vegan advocate in cattle country.
BEH: Lisa, what’s it like to be vegan in Billings, Montana?
Kemmerer: My social life is limited. It’s a ranching place, very conservative—not always comfortable.
I know there are other vegans out there, but they’re students, in a different space in life. They can’t provide a community for me. I don’t know any vegans in Billings that I have commonality with, and of course I simply don’t eat out.
BEH: Many of your students are cattle ranchers themselves. How do they respond when you tell them that the widespread suffering of farm animals is a violation of religious principles?
Kemmerer: I have lots of ranching students in my classes and they bristle at animal ethics. They especially bristle at hearing that what they’re doing is inconsistent with their own faith.
Why am I beating my head against a wall with a bunch of ranching students? I’m needed here. It’s not socially comfortable for me, but I think it’s necessary.
BEH: If the major religions emphasize the compassionate treatment of animals, how did we get into a situation where we’re slaughtering 9 billion farm animals in the U.S. alone?
Kemmerer: People can ruin any religion. There is no religion that teaches us that what is happening in animal agriculture is OK.
Humanity has a tendency toward ignorance of religions. We have a tendency toward selfishness. We tend to be arrogant. Between ignorance, selfishness and arrogance, we create a recipe for the dismissal of religious teachings.
In Genesis 1:29, after creating a vegan world, God said creation was “very good.” People can read these passages three times, but they aren’t hearing that the world was intended to be vegan. That’s where arrogance and selfishness come in.
One of my frustrations is that the religious community isn’t generally interested in these issues. It’s frustrating and sad because it’s so important—the suffering is so great.
BEH: The Beet-Eating Heeb knows a lot about the emphasis in Jewish texts on the compassionate treatment of animals, but what about Christianity?
Kemmerer: It is true that the Jewish tradition is rich with how to relate to nature and animals. Christians share these texts with the Jewish tradition. I wish they would pay more attention to this part of scripture. Too many Christians are ignorant of Jewish texts, but they are foundational to Christianity.
BEH: Was Jesus a vegetarian? There seems to be some debate about that.
Kemmerer: The Bible doesn’t tell us what Jesus ate. And what he ate doesn’t make much of a difference, no more than it makes a difference what Jesus was wearing on his feet.
The real question is: What would Jesus think of what we’re eating today? What would Jesus think of our slaughterhouses? No sincere Christian can say, “Those slaughterhouses are fine. Jesus would only worry about human needs and suffering.”
Jesus would not like what we’re eating today, based on the suffering of animals.
BEH: What about Islam?
Kemmerer: Though Judaism does, Christianity doesn’t have laws for the protection of animals, and Christians ignore the ones they’ve inherited from the Jewish tradition.
Islamic law is very strict with regard to animals. Muslims are supposed to satisfy the basic needs of domesticated animals, which goes right to the heart of factory farming. Animals are not supposed to be targeted in warfare; we have no right to cause animal suffering through human conflicts. These are wonderful teachings! Such direct laws are very important for the protection of animals.
Muslims tend to restrict their focus to laws governing the slaughter of animals, but this is not the only issue covered by Islamic law.
BEH: That’s a problem in Judaism, too. Sigh.
Now what about Hinduism? Many of the Hindus whom The Beet-Eating Heeb knows are vegetarian, although not vegan.
Kemmerer: Hinduism has the wonderful ideas of ahimsa (not to harm) and karma.
Hindus are ahead of most of the world’s people in terms of actually living up to some of their basic religious beliefs. But milk is a huge part of their diet, and in contemporary times milk is associated with tremendous suffering. That is something Hindus need to look in order to adhere to the central tenets of their religion.
BEH: One last question Lisa. Some people in the animal-rights and veg-advocacy movement blame religion for our society’s horrible treatment of animals. That’s the wrong place to put blame, if you ask The Beet-Eating Heeb. But if we’re ever going to have a more compassionate and merciful relationship with animals, can religion be part of the solution?
Kemmerer: Yes, religion is critical to bringing change for animals.
When I show people want’s happening on factory farms and point out how these methods are inconsistent with their most fundamental religious beliefs, they’re inclined to change — they feel compelled to change. But if you are talking to an atheist, you don’t know what their ethical code is, and they can simply say, “I don’t care.” Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus—they can’t say they don’t care. Religious teachings call us to care — require that we care.
If we’re going to talk about religion with others, we need to be informed so that we can be sensitive to the beliefs and practices of others. If we are educated, we will be more effective advocates for the animals. I would like to believe that “Animals and World Religions” can help us to be more effective in our advocacy, which is to say, I hope that this book will help bring change for animals.
The Beet-Eating Heeb might be inclined to say that bloggers are the most valuable members of the vegan-advocacy movement.
OK, so he is a little biased.
But he is willing to say that farm-animal sanctuaries rank right up there, especially after reading the “The Lucky Ones,” the poignantly titled 2012 autobiography of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary Co-Founder Jenny Brown.
Whether it’s out of ignorance or indifference, carnivores are blind to what – make that “who” – they are eating. But farm-animal sanctuaries yank the blinders right off.
At a typical such sanctuary, visitors see and feel for themselves that cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys have unique personalities, just like our dogs and cats. And these farm animals can be every bit as affectionate.
In addition, these sanctuaries vividly and intimately convey the same idea that the authors of the Jewish sacred texts sought to convey: That the gap between humans and animals is rather small.
The Beet-Eating Heeb would never say that humans and animals have equal standing, Jewishly speaking. And frankly, all but the most extreme animal-rights activists, when push comes to shove, value human life more than animal life, if ever so slightly. (If your house is on fire, you’re going to make sure your kids are safely outside before you go looking for your pets.)
But it’s also true that human beings have a unique and unfortunate tendency to exaggerate their superiority over other sentient beings. Indeed, meat-eating itself is based on the faulty premise that animals are vastly inferior and thus should be killed if we like the way they taste.
The wise authors of the Torah and other sacred texts recognized that egocentric human beings have a tendency to view themselves as the be-all and end-all. So these authors – who, if you’re Orthodox, would include God Himself – repeatedly told us that animals should be treated with compassion, and that animals have almost equal standing in the Divine hierarchy.
It’s a busy new year. Neither you nor The Beet-Eating Heeb has time right now to explore the entire theology of animals in the Jewish tradition.
So let’s just consider three of the many verses that define the proper human-animal relationship:
Genesis 9:8 – “And G-d said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you – birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well – all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth.’ “
Exodus 20:10 – “The seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: You shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.”
Shulchan Aruch, Book 4 — “It is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature. On the contrary, it is our duty to relieve the pain of any creature.”
Just to review, animals are included in God’s covenant with human beings, animals are entitled to a day of rest on Shabbat, and it is our duty to relieve the pain of any creature, not inflict it.
All of these teachings are followed to a T in a farm-animal sanctuary like Jenny Brown’s.
What The Beet-Eating Heeb finds to be particularly moving in her book are her accounts of her extraordinary efforts to relieve the pain of injured and sick animals – animals who were subjected to abuse and deprivation in factory farms and even in smaller farms.
Jenny is not Jewish, but she is fulfilling a Torah mandate, bigtime.
The only problem with farm-animal sanctuaries is that relatively few people ever visit one. Unlike reading a blog, which is available to anyone with an Internet connection, visiting such a sanctuary usually requires schlepping out to the countryside.
Jenny has found a way around that problem by writing a compelling book.
The book in itself is a pretty valuable addition to the veg-advocacy movement, The Beet-Eating Heeb would have to admit.
One sure sign that the veg movement is a growing force among Jews is the backlash we’re seeing from certain highly placed but sadly misguided rabbis.
This backlash can be traced at least as far back as 2002, when Aish.com, one of the most popular Jewish Websites, posted an essay that attempted to defend meat-eating from a Jewish perspective.
Then as recently as two weeks ago, none other than the Vice President of Communications for the Orthodox Union launched a direct yet feeble attack against Jewish vegetarianism. The Orthodox Union (OU) is the world’s largest kosher certification agency, so the fact that it posted an essay condemning vegetarianism on its home page is interesting, although not altogether shocking.
BEH views these anti-vegetarian screeds as a positive development. The only reason these rabbis are writing articles in defense of killing animals is because an increasing number of Jews are waking up to the horrors of factory farming.
Moreover, what these articles show, by the very weakness of their arguments, is that Jews are standing on very solid ground, theologically speaking, when we advocate for plant-based diets.
Rabbi Safran starts out with a doozy of a logical fallacy. His anecdote about an elegant-looking woman fussing over her small dog is, first of all, totally irrelevant to the issue at hand. There is no evidence that the woman is a vegetarian. In fact, odds are she is a meat-eater, like Rabbi Safran.
Moreover, the story is a perfect example of what’s known in logic as a straw-man argument.
With the anecdote, the rabbi is clumsily implying that vegetarians and vegans care more about animals than they do about people. The only problem with that implication is, it’s simply untrue. Or, as British Friends of BEH might say, “What rubbish!”
Generally speaking, veg*ns who abstain from meat for ethical reasons also care deeply about their fellow human beings.
It’s not like God gave us a limited, finite capacity for compassion. It’s not a zero-sum game. Caring about animals does not preclude caring about people.
In fact, both God and our Sages recognized that someone who is compassionate toward animals is more likely to be compassionate toward people, not less.
The two greatest leaders in Jewish history – Moses and King David – were selected for leadership at least partly on the basis of the compassion they demonstrated as shepherds.
Like those two shepherds, veg*ns have expanded their personal circles of compassion to encompass animals as well as people, exactly as the Torah commands us to do. The merciful treatment of animals is a major point of emphasis in the Torah. Or has Rabbi Safran forgotten this?
Actually, it’s not the vegans and vegetarians that the rabbi should be concerned about. He should worry about himself and his fellow meat-eaters.
Perhaps it was Rabbi Joseph Albo, the great 15th Century philosopher and Torah scholar, who put it best when he wrote: “In the killing of animals there is cruelty, rage, and the accustoming of oneself to the bad habit of shedding innocent blood.”
Well said, even if it’s obvious.
Let’s face reality. Eating meat in our modern era entails either hardening your heart to the suffering of animals or blinding your eyes to it.
Yet in his entire essay, he doesn’t devote so much as a syllable to the pervasive abuse and heinous mistreatment of animals in factory farming. As a leader of the OU, he is surely aware that kosher slaughterhouses get the vast majority of their animals from factory farms.
The Beet-Eating Heeb refuses to either harden his heart or blind his eyes to this reality, to this cruelty. Yet Rabbi Safran, on behalf of the OU, sees fit to attack vegetarianism. That’s chutzpah, folks. Or something worse.
And here’s the kicker.
Rabbi Safran, out of either surprising ignorance or sheer audacity, tries to justify meat-eating as an “exercise of dominion” over animals.
Surely he must know that the granting of “dominion” in Genesis 1:28 is followed immediately by the injunction to eat plants and only plants in Genesis 1:29. The Torah could not be clearer. “Dominion” explicitly excludes the right to kill animals for food.
This piece by Rabbi Safran is typical of the anti-vegetarian genre. Time and again, when rabbis seek to defend their consumption of meat, they take Torah quotations out of context, deviate from the principles of logic, and ignore the realities of modern farming.
Ah, but there is no point in getting upset at Rabbi Safran or the OU.
Rather, we owe them a debt of gratitude for showing the world, if only unintentionally, that vegetarians and vegans embody the highest ideals of the Torah.
Now can’t we all just enjoy some seitan brisket?