The Beet-Eating Heeb has been thinking it, studying it, questioning it and ultimately confirming it. Now he’s just going to blurt it out:
The mistreatment of animals is the root of all oppression.
Yes, whether its racism, sexism, homophobia, or even terrorism, it all starts with justifying the torturing and killing of farmed animals.
BEH was prompted to finally write about this by two seemingly unrelated phenomena that entered his field of bespectacled vision.
One is the sickening spate of terrorist attacks in Paris, in Beirut and in the skies over the Sinai Peninsula.
The other is BEH’s recent reading of “The Question of the Animal and Religion,” by Aaron Gross, a professor of religion and animal studies at the University of San Diego.
He did mention that these seemed unrelated, right?
Here’s the connection:
It is the binary division of the world into two parts – namely, us and them – that leads to discrimination, oppression, violence, and even wholesale slaughter.
ISIS views the world this way, dividing the world into two camps: those who subscribe to their twisted version of Islam, and those who don’t. Never mind that people in both camps eat, sleep, defecate, procreate, bleed, dream and die. If you fall into the latter camp, ISIS would like to chop – or blow — your head off.
Meat-eaters, whether they acknowledge it to themselves or not, also have a binary world view: there are humans, and there are farmed animals. Never mind that humans and farmed animals are alike in that they eat, sleep, defecate, procreate, dream, bleed and die. If you have the misfortune of being a farmed animal, (most) humans would like to chop you into bite-size pieces and eat you.
Gross, whose book came out earlier this year, doesn’t put it quite so bluntly, but he does write:
“If we find there are profound limits to our ability to change the deeper structures of sexism and racism, … it is because we sometimes focus on the tip of an iceberg. If we actively defend something like the present human/animal binary, we constrain our ability to rethink the other binaries to which it is linked.
“Trimming back the relatively small part of a weed that is above ground will not eliminate it if one is simultaneously fertilizing its roots.”
By this point, you might have already posted a nasty comment on this post. How dare you, BEH, equate meat-eaters with ISIS terrorists?
Relax, this is not about the moral equivalency of meat eating and terrorist attacks. We can affirm that human life has more value than animal life, at least from a Jewish perspective.
What BEH is saying is that once we start basing our attitudes and actions on such binary, us-and-them thinking, it is a slippery slope.
In practical terms, we cannot totally free ourselves from dividing the world in binary fashion. After all, there are some differences between whites and blacks, men and women, Jews and Moslems, and humans and animals.
The trouble starts when we begin emphasizing the differences and ignoring the similarities, focusing on what separates us rather than on what unifies us.
The Torah reminds us, again and again, that humans and animals are fellow travelers on this journey through life.
For instance, in Genesis 6, humans and animals are both referred to as basar, or flesh. In Genesis 9, God tell us five times that the Divine Covenant encompasses both humans and animals. We’re even told that animals must be given a day of rest on Shabbat, just like humans (Exodus 20:10).
BEH could go on and on, but you get the point. The emphasis is on our commonalities.
When we ignore these teachings, things start going very badly – for animals, then for us.
Almost inevitably, the oppression of animals influences the oppression of people. The sordid history of slavery in America provides a perfect illustration. The whole motif of slavery – the buying and selling of lives at auctions, branding, whipping, forced labor – emanated from animal agriculture.
Author Charles Patterson, in his seminal book “Eternal Treblinka,” identified similar connections in the Holocaust. It’s not just that Jews were transported to concentration camps in cattle cars, or that Nazi propagandists likened Jews to rats and other animals. The very philosophical underpinning of Nazism – namely, eugenics – originated in animal agriculture.
The good news is, we can genuinely hope to end all forms of discrimination and oppression – including the most violent manifestations – if we can get our relationship to animals right.
BEH freely admits that this is a subject matter better suited to book form than blog post. But BEH doesn’t have time to write a book, and even if he did, you probably wouldn’t have the time – or the inclination – to read it.
So BEH will instead distill this issue to its simplest terms: If we’re not going to oppress animals, we’re sure as heck not going to oppress people. If we tip over the first domino, the others — racism, sexism, violent religious extremism — will begin falling in short order.
Put another way: Call BEH immediately if you find out that even one ISIS terrorist is an ethical vegan.
If you have ever heard of the Talmud, chances are the mere mention of the word causes your eyes to glaze over.
Most people think of it as a vast compendium of hair-splitting arguments about arcane issues in Jewish law. And they would be mostly right.
However, amid all the details and debates are some amazing stories with messages and morals that remain highly relevant.
The Beet-Eating Heeb is pleased to share such a story with you right now. (If you have a copy of the Talmud at home, you can follow along at Bava Metzia 85a.)
About 2,000 years ago, shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple, there existed a rabbi named Judah HaNasi. He wasn’t just any rabbi. This was the guy who put the Oral Torah into writing, preserving it for posterity, creating what we call the Mishnah.
On top of that, he was a direct descendant of King David, hence the name Judah the Prince. In other words, he was a big deal. A very big deal.
The calf hid himself inside the rabbi’s robe, tucking in his tail so that no part of him would be visible.
Rabbi Judah HaNasi, being a pretty smart guy, quickly sized up the situation.
This calf was trying to escape his owner, who was taking the young cow to the shochet, the slaughterer.
So what did the rabbi do?
Not what you might have hoped. Or expected.
Rabbi Judah HaNasi, in his sternest voice, lifted up his robe and scolded the calf.
“This is why you were created,” the rabbi said. “Go back to your owner!”
At least that wasn’t what the calf had expected.
The calf, with tears streaming down his face, made his way back to his owner. And met his demise later that day.
However, no sooner had the calf departed from the rabbi’s robe when a funny thing happened to Judah HaNasi. Actually, what happened isn’t that funny.
He immediately developed a painful toothache. Then kidney stones. And splitting headaches.
It seems God and His angels did not approve of the way Judah HaNasi treated that poor calf.
According to the Talmud, “They said in Heaven, ‘Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him.’”
The intense pain from his ailments persisted. And persisted. And persisted some more. Year after excruciating year.
Keep in mind, there was no Vicodin or codeine back then.
Then one day, in Year 13 of The Pains, the rabbi’s housemaid came into his study, where he was struggling to concentrate on his work, as anyone who has suffered chronic pain can understand.
“Excuse me Rabbi,” the housemaid said. “I have found a nest of weasels in the spare bedroom. Should I swat them with my broom?”
The rabbi considered the matter for a moment, cleared his throat, and said:
“Leave them be. It is written (in Psalms 145:9) that His tender mercies are over all His works.”
What happened? The Talmud tells us:
“Said they in Heaven, ‘Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate to him.’”
Quite a story, eh?
So why do you think this account of Rabbi Judah HaNasi’s misstep and redemption is recorded for posterity?
It’s because we are supposed to see ourselves as Rabbi Judah HaNasi.
Every time we choose what to eat, we face choices similar to the ones that confronted the great rabbi of yesteryear.
We can choose to eat the flesh, secretions and eggs of animals who were subjected to lives of abject misery, only to be brought to violent deaths. Or we can choose to eat the food that grows out of God’s wonderful earth, which is what God wants human beings to do, if the Torah is any indication.
Like Rabbi Judah HaNasi, we have a choice.
We can support cruelty. Or we can bring more chesed, more kindness, into the world.
The choice is yours.
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.