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Farm-Animal Sanctuaries: Where the Torah Comes to Life

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.9781583334416_TheLuckyOnes3.30.indd

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.

Jenny Brown

Jenny Brown with one of the steers at the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary.

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.

When Rabbis Attack!

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, 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.

OU articleTo illustrate just how weak their arguments are, let’s take a closer look at the Orthodox Union post, written by Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, their VP of Communications.

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.

Rabbi Safran devotes about a third of his essay to a description of the ancient Egyptians’ attitudes toward animals, which is about as irrelevant as the woman-and-dog story.safran

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?

A Sex Therapist, a New Book Called “Holy Eating,” and The Beet-Eating Heeb

If the Beet-Eating Heeb were to write a book, he might call it “Holy Eating.”

After all, what two words better describe Jewish veganism?

So imagine The Beet-Eating Heeb’s surprise (he won’t say dismay) when he discovered a newly published book called “Holy Eating.” And the author not only happens to be a fellow member of the Pittsburgh Jewish community, he is someone BEH is personally fond of — Dr. Robert Schwartz.

But wait a minute. The last time BEH checked, his friend Bob Schwartz was working as a sex therapist. Now he has written a book about eating?

Upon hearing about this book, The Beet-Eating Heeb immediately contacted Bob’s publicist, presented his Official Blogger Credential, and obtained a reviewer’s copy.

Then BEH dove into the book, anxious to see if the author’s definition of “holy eating” was veganism.

The book is subtitled “The Spiritual Secret to Eternal Weight Loss.” But The Beet-Eating Heeb knows that a well-designed vegan diet will help overweight people shed pounds.

As it turns out, “Holy Eating” is a 173-page elaboration of one big idea. And it’s the same big idea that undergirds this very blog.

Here it is: The most compelling intellectual, moral and personal reasons for behavioral change often won’t produce change at all if they don’t have a religious or spiritual component.

That’s hardly a novel concept. It is the core of 12-step addiction programs.

However, very few other diet books advocate a spiritual approach to weight loss. Similarly, very few other animal-welfare or personal-health blogs advocate a religious approach to veganism.

So The Beet-Eating Heeb is feeling some brotherly love toward Bob.

On the vegan question, though, Bob kept The Beet-Eating Heeb in suspense.

About a quarter-way through the book, in a chapter called “The Kabbalah of Eating,” Dr. Schwartz quotes another author as saying, “A Jewish mystic meditates on how the food has been created and is being kept in existence every minute by God’s will,” which leads to “mystic joy.”

You don’t need to be a Kabbalist or even Madonna to recognize that keeping animals confined in obscenely crowded conditions, then killing them about one-third of the way through their natural life span, hardly sounds like God’s will. Meditating about factory-farmed meat, milk and eggs does not lead to mystic joy.

Dr. Robert Schwartz

Dr. Robert Schwartz

But Bob did not explain the type of food the Jewish mystic was meditating on.

Not until Page 137 does the good doctor broach the subject of what a holy eater should – and should not – consume. The first 85 percent of the book focuses exclusively on how much one should eat. (In a word, less.)

Bob deserves full credit for noting, as The Beet-Eating Heeb did in his March 8 post, that God’s first dietary instructions to humankind included only fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains. Animal products were not on the list of approved items.

But the definition of “holy eating” in this book does include meat. Just not much.

Dr. Schwartz strongly urges his readers to reduce their meat consumption, for health and spiritual reasons.

At the end of a chapter titled “So What Should I Eat?,” Dr. Schwartz summarizes what he calls the “essential food guidelines derived from the Bible.” Conspicuously, meat is not explicitly mentioned in his summary, while he does urge his readers to “eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”

So you can see why The Beet-Eating Heeb believes Bob is heading in the right direction, even if he doesn’t quite reach the holiest destination.

BEH cuts Dr. Schwartz some slack. Equating veganism with holy eating would probably be a bridge too far for this book, considering Bob already risks alienating many readers by suggesting that obese people are spiritually deficient at mealtime.

So even if non-vegans are a couple of cards short of a full spiritual deck, as The Beet-Eating Heeb would say, Dr. Schwartz could not make that point without relegating his book to the worst-seller list.

What if you have no intention of becoming a vegan but you need to lose weight? Should you buy this book?

The Beet-Eating Heeb says yes, if …

The “if” is, if you consider yourself a spiritual person, preferably but not necessarily of the Jewish variety. If you are spiritual, invoking God consciousness while eating might indeed be your secret to eternal weight loss. Dr. Schwartz presents several approaches, including meditation, in an accessible writing style.

If you’re not a spiritual person, well, The Beet-Eating Heeb feels sorry for you, and out of sympathy will save you $15 by steering you away from this book.

By the way, BEH just thought of a name for his future book: “Holier Eating.”

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