Animal Rights and Judaism

Image: A black and white cow. (wernerdetjen/pixabay)

What are the rights of animals in Jewish tradition?

All animals are under the care of human beings; we are responsible for their well-being.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” – Genesis 1:28

Animals are entitled to rest on Shabbat.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.

– Exodus 20:8-10

Jews should avoid causing unnecessary pain to an animal, including emotional distress. We are permitted to eat some animals for food, but they  must be treated kindly. Properly schechting an animal involves keeping it calm and then killing it as quickly as possible with a minimum of pain.

For the same reason, physically altering animals is forbidden: docking tails, shaping ears, etc. are unnecessary pain.

One highly difficult question has to do with neutering animals. Castration of any animal or person is explicitly forbidden in Torah (Leviticus 22:24.) Neutering females is somewhat less fraught, but many poskim (rabbis ruling on the question) think it is included under the rule against cruelty. Balancing the commandments and the requirements of public health can be a very complex puzzle.

When an ox or sheep or goat is born, it shall remain seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as a food offering to the Lord. – Lev. 22:27

You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep going astray and ignore them. You shall take them back to your brother.  And if he does not live near you and you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall stay with you until your brother seeks it. Then you shall restore it to him.  And you shall do the same with his donkey or with his garment, or with any lost thing of your brother’s, which he loses and you find; you may not ignore it.  You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and ignore them. You shall help him to lift them up again. – Deut. 22:1-4

Even if we dislike the owner of an animal, we may not take out our frustrations on his animals. A lost animal must be fed and sheltered, and an animal in distress must be rescued.

If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.  -Exodus 23:4-5

Animals are entitled to eat when they are working and surrounded by food.

You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain. – Deut. 25:4

Hunting for sport is forbidden; one may theoretically hunt for food, but shechting the animal (killing it in a kosher fashion) is extremely difficult under those circumstances, and really not practical.

R. Simeon b. Pazi expounded [on Psalm 1:1-2] : ‘Happy is the man that hath not walked’ — i.e., to theatres and circuses of idolaters ‘nor stood in the way of sinners’ — that is he who does not attend contests of wild beasts;  ‘nor sat in the seat of the scornful‘ — that is he who does not participate in [evil] plannings. And lest one say, ‘Since I do not go to theatres or circuses nor attend contests of wild animals, I will go and indulge in sleep.’ Scripture therefore continues, ‘And in His Law doth He meditate day and night.’ – Avodah Zarah 18b

We don’t find any hunters [in our tradition] besides Nimrod and Esau, and this is not the way of the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. . . There is an unseemly element in it, namely cruelty, and also a measure of danger. . . Therefore, one who listens to me will dwell securely and placidly in his house and not waste his time with such things. –  Rabbi Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau, in Responsa Noda beYehuda II Yoreh Deah 10, 18th c.

Animals should be fed first, before the humans eat.

So says Rav Yehuda that Rav says: It is prohibited for a person to taste anything until he gives food to his animal, as it is stated in the verse: “And I will give grass in the field for your animals” (Deuteronomy 11:15), and only afterward is it written in that verse:“And you shall eat and be satisfied.” – Gittin 62a

 

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10 Ways to De-Militarize Your Holiday Table

Image:  Two people duel with table knives over a table and desserts. (Photo: lolostock/Shutterstock)

Dreading arguments at your holiday table? Jewish tradition teaches us that it is the responsibility of both the hosts and the guests to make such a gathering as pleasant as possible.

From an article on hospitality in the Virtual Jewish Library:

In Judaism, showing hospitality (hakhnasat orchim) to guests is considered a mitzvah. When one knows of strangers who are hungry or need a place to relax, it becomes a legal obligation. Some rabbis consider hakhnasat orchim (literally the “bringing in of strangers”) to be a part of gemilut hasadim (giving of loving kindness).

Guests also have responsibilities to the host. They are obligated to express gratitude for what the host has done for them:

Ben Zoma said: A good guest, what does he say? The host went to so much trouble on my behalf! He gave me so much food! How much wine did he bring before me! How many loaves [geluskaot] did he bring before me! All the effort that he expended, he expended only for me.

However, a bad guest, what does he say? What effort did the host expend? I ate only one piece of bread, I ate only one piece of meat and I drank only one cup of wine. All the effort that the host expended he only expended on behalf of his wife and children.

With regard to a good guest, what does Ben Zoma say? “Remember that you magnify his work, whereof men have sung” (Job 36:24); he praises and acknowledges those who helped him.  – Berakhot 58a

Here are some options for navigating contentious discussions at the holiday table:

  1. Focus on what you love about the people at the table. Challenge yourself to see the spark of the divine in every person at the table.
  2. If your family enjoys argument, by all means enjoy!
  3. If someone at the table finds argument terrifying, be gentle with them. Just accept that this is who they are, and offer them a hug, more pie, or the TV remote. Don’t be mad at them for not arguing; it just isn’t their game.
  4. If you are the person feeling terrified by arguments, remember: A person who seems angry may just be avoiding admitting (to themselves?) that they are afraid.
  5. If someone at the table expresses a feeling of existential threat (“It could mean nuclear war!” “We could wind up in the poorhouse!” etc) focus on their feelings rather than their logic. Saying, “You are being silly!” is actually quite cruel. They are scared.
  6. If someone at the table feels hope for the first time in a long time, respect their relief if only for the peace of the day, even if you think the thing that makes them feel hopeful is a sign of the coming apocalypse.
  7. Leave words like “bigot” or “idiot” out of the conversation. They never add value. The rabbis of Pirkei Avot tell us to “give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
  8. If someone says something you find bigoted, don’t feed the troll! Try, “Whew! I am sure you didn’t mean that the way it sounded! Let’s talk about something else.” Immediately offer a change of subject. Complimenting the food is always a safe change of subject: “This turkey is amazing, Aunt Ploni! What do you do to make it taste like this?”
  9. If someone is being a bully, don’t engage with them. Instead, turn to the person on the receiving end of the bullying and change the subject to something more pleasant. “The last time I saw you, you were excited about math club. How’s that going?” [The principle in both (8) and (9) is to give attention to people who are doing something beneficial, and to remove attention from people who are being jerks.]
  10. If all else fails, say “It’s Thanksgiving and I want to enjoy your company, not fight.” On Shabbat, I have been known to say, “Not on Shabbes. Next topic!” when a subject seemed likely to bring out the worst around the table.
  11. Remember: It’s only one day!

“Eating Kosher” for Beginners

Image: Entrance to Jay & Lloyd’s Kosher Deli, a pink and white building. Photo by Salim Virji, some rights reserved.

A question came in via a Google search string: “How to begin eating kosher?”

First of all, here’s an article from the Orthodox Union about what “kosher” means.

There are a couple of concepts here: there’s eating kosher, and there’s keeping a kosher kitchen. Those are really two different things.

  1. You can eat kosher by eating kosher foods that have been prepared for you, in a place like Jay & Lloyd’s in the photo above, or in foods marked with a kosher symbol called a hecksher. A hecksher is a mark certifying that the food was prepared and packaged under the supervision of a specially trained rabbi. Hebrew National Hot Dogs has a hecksher, for instance. If you eat other foods with the kosher food, all bets are off, though. And of course, pork and shellfish are both off the menu!
  2. Keeping kosher is more involved. To keep kosher, you will need to find someone to help you learn how to set up your kitchen, and how to maintain it once set up. Keeping kosher is really an art. Meat foods and dairy foods cannot ever come into contact. The dishes and dishpans that they touch cannot come into contact. Even counter tops and utensils have to be kept separate. If you are interested in learning how to keep kosher, I recommend that you contact your local Conservative or Orthodox synagogue and ask them to help you find a teacher. You can’t learn to do this properly from a book or website.

Why would anyone want to keep kosher? Lots of reasons!

  • A kosher kitchen is one expression of the holiness of the Jewish home. Since the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE, the home has been the center for Jewish holiness. Synagogues are important as places to meet, to worship, and to study, but the Jewish holy place is the home.
  • Some Jews keep kosher because their parents kept kosher. (Cue the song “Tradition!” here.)
  • Some Jews keep kosher because it is a way of making life holy, not only in the home but everywhere.
  • Some Jews keep kosher because it is commanded in the Torah.
  • Other Jews keep kosher as a matter of solidarity with Jews all over the world.

If you are interested in keeping kosher, follow these steps:

  1. First, cultivate an awareness of what you eat. Just notice your choices for a while. Become aware.
  2. Notice what products that you buy carry a hecksher. Good news: fruits and vegetables are naturally kosher! You need to wash them very well (bugs and bug fragments are not kosher.)
  3. Talk with other members of your household. How do they feel about this? Are they willing to try this with you? Are there ways to do this without making extra work for them?
  4. Then, drop the obvious no-nos from your diet: pork products like bacon and shellfish.
  5. Look for the less obvious sources of forbidden animal products and weed them from your diet. Read labels. Become aware.
  6. When you are ready to think about separating meat and milk, then it is time to find a teacher to help you with the planning and the kitchen.

 

 

The Cooking Gene – Book Review

The Cooking Gene is about food and about so much more than food. It is about history, and identity, and memory. It is about the complexity of the American present, about the hidden away memories in plain sight. Michael Twitty’s poetic prose is mesmerizing; my copy arrived one day and I sat down with it, intending to skim. The cream of the text slowed me down and forced me to read one delicious paragraph after another. Hours later I had devoured the whole thing.

In chapter 4, Mr. Twitty addresses the simplicities and complexities of Jewish identity and food. I have never seen such a wonderful description of the links among ethnicity, identity, and gastronomy. He also describes the phenomenon of the longing which brings many of us to Judaism via conversion. I look forward to recommending the book to my students.

As a Southerner, I felt this book returning a part of my soul to me. I grew up with certain erasures and with many things that must never be said. I did not realize what a weight they put on the heart until I began learning from Mr. Twitty and learning to appreciate the unsaid, the uncredited, and the secret aspects of Southern identity.

This book is about holy healing work; it is about the memory in the kitchen. I recommend it without reservation.

What Food Do You Choose?

What’s your food practice, and why?

Traditionally, Jews are The People Who Don’t Eat Pork. The Philistines, who were of Greek origin, commented upon it. Antiochus, a Greek king, thought it bizarre. The Romans thought it just one more bit of evidence that we were crazy. And after the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, a refusal to eat pork became the hallmark of “Judaizing” and became grounds for torture and execution.

Not Eating Pork became the hallmark Jewish food practice, even for Jews who did not embrace the full practice of kashrut. Kashrut is a complex topic but the short version is that only certain animals may be eaten, those animals must be slaughtered and cooked in an approved fashion, and meat and milk must be kept strictly separated. Observing kashrut is often referred to as “keeping kosher.”

Many 21st century Jews keep kosher. Some observe those commandments more stringently, some less. Some choose not to observe the traditional laws at all. Some choose to eat pork. Some do not. Some Jews only practice traditional dietary laws to some extent during Passover or holidays.

For many 21st century Jews, another pressing issue is food ethics:

  • Will I consume animal products?
  • If so, what are the minimum standards for how those animals are treated?
  • How do my food choices affect the human beings who produce food?
  • How do my food choices affect the ecosystems in which they grow and are processed?
  • What about food scarcity for others in my area?
  • What about food waste?
  • How do my choices about consumption affect my health and that of my family?

Any time we address a question of food ethics, we must recognize that much of our decision making is about trade-offs. For instance, food that is ethically sourced and ethically produced (and fresh, nutritious, etc.) is more expensive. So then we add to the questions:

  • What can I afford?
  • What am I willing to do for those who cannot afford this food?

A person might decide to forego the free-range eggs in order to donate those funds to the food bank. That’s their choice, and their way of addressing the trade-off. Someone with a lot of discretionary income may choose to do both. And someone who is trying to feed their family on very low income may get eggs from caged hens and that’s how it is. No one with more income has any right to pass judgment on the person for whom worry about ethical food choices is an unaffordable luxury.

There are a number of Jewish organizations exploring these issues and looking at ways to move towards a more ethical practice of Jewish eating. My Jewish Learning has provided a great article on the subject by Shmuly Yanklowitz.

Finally, what else am I willing to do to address ethical issues and food? Learn about the issues? Lobby elected officials for better regulations? Volunteer at the food bank? Join a Jewish group (maybe a congregation’s social action committee) to study up on these issues?

So, what are your food practices, and how to they stem from your reading of Torah? Do you keep some level of kashrut? Do you fast on Yom Kippur? What do you choose to eat, or not eat, out of ethical or ecological concerns? And most importantly: why???

 

Kashrut: A Spiritual Journey

Image: Shakshuka, an Israeli dish of eggs and tomatoes. Photo by calliopejen1, click for copyright notice.

This is an update of a post from a couple of years ago. Life changes, and the journey continues.

Knowing the basics of Jewish dietary law and keeping kosher in real life are two different things. The best way to learn how to keep kosher is to learn from someone who actually does it.

When I decided to learn how to keep kosher, my rabbi pointed me to a woman in our Reform congregation who had kept a kosher kitchen for many years. Ethelyn Simon gave me a tour of her kitchen, and then we sat and chatted about it over a nosh. She reassured me that I could indeed do it – and then when she heard that I was about to relocate to Jerusalem to start rabbinical studies, she recommended that I wait and begin in Jerusalem.

“You can start with an already-kosher kitchen in your rental,” she said, “Israel is the easiest place in the world to learn how to keep kosher.”

My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.
My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.

It didn’t work out exactly that way, but close enough. My apartment did not have a kosher kitchen. I needed a ground-level apartment, and what I found was a basement office with a countertop, sink, fridge and bathroom in it. My landlord was a secular Israeli who thought that my whole project was pretty silly: a woman? Reform? in Jerusalem to become a rabbi? My desire for a kosher kitchen was just icing on the silly cake.

Undeterred, I cleaned the fridge thoroughly. I acquired a hot plate, a skillet, and two saucepans (one meat, one dairy.) I acquired two dish pans (one red, one white,) and enough dishes to serve meat to two people and dairy to two people. I was horrified at what it all cost. Keeping kosher is not cheap, even if you buy the cheapest things you can find.

David, enjoying Peet's Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem
David, enjoying Peet’s Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem

I lucked out: a classmate who did kept kosher lived right around the corner. David, now Rabbi David Novak of Vermont, had kept kosher for years. My method of study was to have him over regularly, then he’d tell me where I was messing up. No cream in the coffee after a meat meal! Switch that dishpan, girl! After a year of this in Israel, setting up a more conventional kosher kitchen in Los Angeles was a snap.

I kept strict traditional kashrut for six years. When I moved back to the SF Bay Area, I set my kitchen up to be kosher and quickly realized that with my family back in the picture on a daily basis, it wasn’t practical. A kosher kitchen requires buy-in from every member of the household. Very soon I was manufacturing a drama of self-martyrdom: “Oh poor me, I have to do all the cooking and cleaning, because no one else cares to keep kosher!”

I decided that my attitude was (1) stupid and (2) bad for my family life. I backed off on the kosher kitchen, for reasons of shalom bayit, peace in the home. That seems to me to be an appropriate set of priorities.

I am glad that I learned about kashrut, and glad that I lived the lifestyle long enough that I can teach about it with authority. It’s an important part of the Jewish tradition, and an important part of life for many Jews. It taught me a sacred mindfulness about food that I would not have learned in any other way.

This past September a series of changes in my health moved me back toward kosher observance. I no longer eat meat, so my kitchen has only dairy to worry about. My kitchen is still not kosher by traditional standards, but it has been a comfort to me to be able to reframe a medical necessity with a spiritual nechemta (consolation.)

What’s next? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll bring in assistance to really kasher the kitchen. Or perhaps I’ll continue becoming more concerned about the sources of eggs and dairy products. For me, Jewish food practice is a spiritual journey.

 

Happy Earth Day: The Culture of Collards on Vimeo

It’s an honor to pass on this Earth Day post and video from Michael Twitty, food historian and peacemaker.

Afroculinaria

Enjoy this short film by my friend Aditi Desai featuring me, 3 Part Harmony Farm and City Blossoms DC in an exploration of the heritage of collards and culinary and food justice. I was privileged to see it screened at the DC Environmental Film Festival at American University, and in honor of Earth Day, you can see it tonight at my Alma mater Howard University!

Enjoy and happy Earth Day!

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