Essays and Musings on Animals and Society

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

For Yom Kippur, Give Up Eating Animals -- Forever 

A day of atonement is of little value if the very next day you resume behaviors that ruin lives.

With rare exceptions, every time you eat an animal, you're consciously and unnecessarily contributing to the suffering of another creature. Often the suffering is prolonged and severe. Jews, of all people, should strenuously avoid causing other beings to suffer. Animals should not be the exception.

There is little doubt that animals have the capacity to suffer deeply. Factory farm hens live their entire lives in a space smaller then the computer screen on which you're reading this. They cannot even raise one wing. Is that not suffering? Their male chicks are taken away from them and crushed or suffocated, when one day old. Mothers -- is that not suffering? Who among us does not think that a broiler chicken, genetically engineered to be grossly overweight, suffers when he starves to death within inches of food because his legs can no longer lift his body?

We are the cause of that suffering, and we should be ashamed of it, and we should stop making excuses for continuing our destructive lifestyle. We should atone for causing the animals to live and die in misery. Making others suffer is just about the worst thing we can do in this world.

Rabbis should condemn carnivorism and help their congregations transition to a more humane diet, in which the blood of innocents is not shed. Of all the changes we can make in our life to relieve animals' suffering, none has a greater effect than becoming vegetarian, and it is easier than you think. God very clearly prescribes his desired diet on page one of the Torah. He presents humans with a bounty from which to be fed and nourished. His menu does not include animals. Animals are not food, they are companions. God endows animals and people with nefesh chaya, a "living soul." God makes a separate covenant with His animals.

Proverbs 12:10 counsels us: "The righteous person regards the life of his beast." How should we interpret "regards?" With common sense, compassion, and the Golden Rule.

Anyone with a pet (and many without) can see that animals derive enjoyment from life. At times, their delight is irresistible and catching. By the same token, we recognize their pain and sadness. It is much like ours. The animals scream and writhe when in physical pain; they withdraw and lose interest in daily activities when they're depressed.

In factory farms, the source of most of our meat and dairy, and, unfortunately, on many smaller, even so-called "humane" farms, the mistreatment of animals is a never-ending horror movie. Chickens, laying hens, and turkeys never see the light of day, breathe fresh air, bask in the warmth of the sun, or feel the earth beneath their feet. They never exercise, they never play, they never experience one moment of happiness. They have nothing to look forward to. Their lives are dreary and depressing. Some go mad from the lack of activity, resorting to compulsiveness, self-mutilation, and cannibalism. They live in filth. No veterinarian tends to their illnesses, though most are sick. Drugs and genetic engineering combine to make the animals top-heavy — deformed so that humans can feast on more meat. Many animals die of heart attacks long before the rest are transported to the slaughterhouse.

Is this how God intended animals to live?

The overriding and recurring message in the Torah is to be merciful. To be loving, as God loves us. Our behavior toward animals is the antithesis of love. It is worse than hate, for hate implies that the object of our hate has value. We have committed the worst sin: indifference. We don't care how much we cause God's non-human creatures to suffer. When pressed, we come up with convenient, self-serving rationalizations. We're lulled into believing our protective lies because most of our friends and relatives echo them. But this does not make our actions right. Jews have been on the other side of indifference; the memories are painful.

Everyone knows the Golden Rule. Extend it past your own species. "Others" should include all who are capable of benefiting from the goodness in our hearts, and that can suffer from our heartlessness.

When discussing this topic, there are always those who say, "but God lets us" do this or that. God, in various contexts, lets us get away with a lot of things. But surely we don't want to interpret His word in the manner of an unruly six-year old. The point is not "what can we get away with," but "how should we live?" What pleases God?

There also some who point out that certain foods are traditional: a brisket at Rosh Hashannah, a boiled egg during the Passover Seder. Traditions are valuable and an integral part of Jewish heritage. But kindness is even more important.

Please consider this during Yom Kippur. It is never too late to change, especially when it's for the better. As God's children, we have enormous power, and a solemn responsibility to use that power for good. In the past, and up through the present time, we have used our privileged position to torment every creature in the world, including ourselves. We have enslaved and brutally slaughtered animals because we like the taste of their flesh. We cruelly confine and barbarically electrocute fur-bearing animals because we like the feel of their skin. We live in an age where we no longer have to kill animals to survive. Therefore, doing so is clearly wrong (unless we are humanely euthanizing an animal in misery who will not survive). Technology enables us to create products from plant sources that taste like meat. We have access to a dazzling array of fruits, vegetables, and grain all year. We can wear clothes made of synthetic fibers that keep us warm in sub-zero temperatures and are stylish as well.

We know what to do to reduce suffering; failing to act — especially because of apathy — is evil. The vast majority of Jews reading this live in relative peace and freedom. We know how much we cherish that. Let the animals have their peace and freedom. Atone to the hundreds of animals who, by this point in your life, have been killed essentially at your behest. Atone to the millions of animals stuck in dark, human-made Hells where rotting corpses foul the air and excrement covers their feathers and fur. If you eat dairy products, atone to the cows who see their newborns pulled away to the horrific veal crate. If you eat eggs, atone to the hens in battery cages who have no idea what it's really like to be a hen, who will never spread their wings to protect their young nor feel the nurturing of their mother's wing.

If you eat poultry, pray for the most widely abused animals on earth. We are constantly inventing new ways to inflict pain on chickens, turkeys, and ducks. Their whole life is a horror. English has 500,000 words. None describe the 45-day life of a modern "broiler" chicken. These animals are deprived of everything. Their lives get steadily worse week by week, as their bodies grow out of control. The lucky ones die early. The modern slaughterhouse is a fast-paced, unregulated bloodhouse, where angry, frustrated workers squeeze chickens until the feces pop out, or rip off chickens' heads and squirt coworkers with the blood gushing from the end of the severed neck. Body parts are pulled off the chickens who are hung improperly. The chicken's last memory is of being conscious but completely paralyzed as his or her throat is cut. One poultry plant worker described the chickens as "screaming with their eyes." A single day of atonement hardly seems enough.

A Word About Keeping Kosher

If you abstain from animal-derived products you are automatically kosher.

Kosher laws govern slaughter, and are difficult enough to enforce, but the worst suffering is in how the animals live. Virtually all the cruelties of factory farms are allowed under kosher law. Moreover, kosher slaughter itself is cruel. It specifes that the animal be fully conscious when killed. The effect is to terrorize the animal during his/her final moments of life. To comply with U.S. law, animals are suspended above ground when slaughtered. Typically they are strung up by their legs and attached to a moving conveyer belt. If the equipment malfunctions, as it often does, the animal could be hanging upside down for several minutes. This is terrifying for almost any animal; many injure themselves trying to escape or become upright.

The spirit of kosher laws is humane treatment of animals, and by far the most humane option today is to be a vegetarian.


On the eastern shores of Maryland and Virginia are hundreds of long, windowless sheds. Each one is filled with up to 50,000 chickens. The chickens' lives consist of constant confinement, chronic discomfort, frustrated desires, and unrelenting boredom; simply existing is a chore. A few hundred yards from some of these buildings is a paradise. A lush woods with dense undergrowth and a canopy of towering trees. In this little forest are animals of all sorts: industrious insects, darting lizards, small burrowing mammals -- and chickens who scratch in the ground, form flocks, raise families, bathe in the dirt, and roost in high branches. The chickens live free, as they have for eons. They use their beaks and wings and repertoire of calls for the purposes intended by God. They are content and robust and busy, and their tapestries of green, gold, and red feathers dance in the sunlight.

In one direction, Eden, in the other direction, a human-constructed Hell. They are deceptively close to one another. We have the power to make the world (the animals' world and our world, for they are the same thing) more like God's ideal or more like the time of depravity and greed before The Flood. The distance between these two extremes is surprisingly, disturbingly small. We can change direction at our next meal, the one that comes after a day of fasting. We can pledge to live in harmony with the animals. In doing so, we honor God and draw closer to Him. We have a tremendous opportunity to emerge from Yom Kippur with greater compassion, to repeal our killing ways, to not repeat the behaviors that have caused so many of God's weakest creatures to suffer. This Yom Kippur, seriously consider becoming vegetarian. You won't have so much to atone for next year.



Richard Schwartz, author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, offers this Yom Kippur story as an example of how compassion toward animals is righteous and prayerful.

"Rabbi Israel Salanter, one of the most distinguished Orthodox Rabbis of the nineteenth century, failed to appear one Yom Kippur eve in time for the sacred Kol Nidre Prayer. His congregation became concerned, for it was inconceivable that their saintly rabbi would be absent or late on this very holy day. They sent a search party to look for him. After much time, their rabbi was found in a Christian neighbor's barn. On his way to the synagogue, Rabbi Salanter had come upon one of the neighbor's calves, lost and tangled in the brush. Seeing the animal in distress, he freed him and led him home. His act of compassion represented the rabbi's prayers on that Yom Kippur evening."

Note that the injured calf whom Rabbi Salantar encountered had a better life than any factory farm animal.



"Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they're only animals." (Theodor Adorno, German Jewish philosopher)



"His tender mercies are over all His creatures" (Psalm 145:9)

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