God’s Forgotten Covenant with Animals
Jews around the world this week are reading the story of Noah in Genesis 9.
(Was he the one who first said, “When it rains, it pours”?)
Ironically, while most people associate this story with the saving of animals in the Ark, it is in this particular Torah portion that God first gives humans permission to kill animals for food.
Yup, the animals had barely set foot on terra firma when God told Noah and his sons, “Every living thing that moves shall be food for you.”
You can practically hear the cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys saying, “Are you kidding me?”
A year ago this week, The Beet-Eating Heeb, as a service to readers and animals alike, explained why Genesis 9 doesn’t really condone meat-eating, after all.
But BEH left out an important point, which he will rectify right this very second.
If God really approves of us killing animals by the billions, why would He say that animals are explicitly included in His covenant?
It’s right there in Genesis 9, just a few short verses after humans supposedly got a permit to open slaughterhouses. (Emphasis on supposedly.)
In Genesis 9:12, God says, “This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations.”
Every living creature is in covenant with the Divine.
God was evidently concerned that humans would want to overlook this inconvenient truth, especially when there is meat on the grill.
So God repeated the statement not once, but three additional times.
Genesis 9, Verses 15, 16 and 17 all state that God includes animals in his covenant.
Sheesh, get the hint?
God does not want us to slash the throats of animals, or to abuse them in countless and hideous other ways, as we do in modern factory farms. Not if the word “covenant” means anything.
By definition, God would never have included the animals in His covenant if he didn’t care about their well-being. To which you’re probably saying, “No duh,” or amen.
To take it a step further, God could have established a covenant with animals without telling humans about it. But that would defeat the purpose. The reason this covenant is repeated four times in the Torah is because He is depending on us to make it a reality.
This is fundamental to Jewish thought. We are supposed to be God’s partners in perfecting creation. We are supposed to implement God’s will.
Sadly, we haven’t just ignored the fact that animals are partners to the same covenant we have with God. As the party responsible for making the covenant a meaningful reality, we have trashed it.
In the United States alone this year, 10 billion farm animals will be killed, while another 200 million animals will be killed by hunters, 100 million more in vivisection, and another 2 million in the fur industry.
And these figures don’t measure the brutality, the cruelty, the torture and the torment that these animals experience before they are killed.
This is how we honor the Divine covenant.
Animals shouldn’t be mad at God for what He said in Genesis 9:3. Technically, He may have given humans permission to eat meat. But He made it perfectly clear that He would strongly prefer that we don’t.
The animals should be mad at humans. We have betrayed them. And in so doing, we have betrayed God and His covenant.
Fortunately, we can begin to repair this covenant with a simple step.
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.
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.
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 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.
To 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.
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?