Rabbi Finds Vegetarianism to Be a Religious Ideal
Rabbi Finds Vegetarianism to Be a Religious Ideal
Rabbi Yossi Feintuch looked for biblical passages to support his decision to be a vegetarian
By Alyssa Appelman
Rabbi Yossi Feintuch says vegetarianism is a religious ideal.
“When you read about the abuse of animals in our own industrial meat production, then you cannot say that God’s idea about compassion for animals is achieved,” he says.
Feintuch blames the nature of modern-day factory farming. “When a shepherd slaughters his sheep, he has some personal sentiments for her, and he will do his best to make sure that she suffers the least, but that is not a value in the meat factory,” Feintuch says. “Judaism cannot be a part of that, as I see it.”
Born in Israel, Feintuch has been the rabbi of Columbia’s only synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom, for the past 11 years, where he often discusses vegetarianism as a Jewish ideal. He was ordained in 1994 by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati and spent three years at a congregation in the Caribbean, on the island of Curacao. He also holds a bachelor’s degree from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a master’s degree from New York University and a doctorate from Emory University.
Feintuch considers himself to be a vegetarian with a vegan ideology: no meat, limited eggs and limited dairy. Feintuch recalls his pre-vegetarian love for meat. He said he was living in Atlanta with his wife, Judy, when he heard a radio station offer a free dinner to anyone whose name the DJ couldn’t pronounce. “So they sent us actually to a restaurant because, of course, they mispronounced my last name,” Feintuch says. “The steaks that came, it just came as a steak, not even potatoes or french fries or a salad. This was an expensive restaurant, this was a gourmet restaurant, but the steak was so delicious you didn’t need anything but the steak.”
The vegetarian shift came to the Feintuch family through Yossi’s two sons.
“We weren’t as intense about it as we are now because we didn’t know as much as we do now about the meat industry,” says Zevi Feintuch, now 24. “I was 15, and my brother (Eran) was 13. It was originally his idea, and we basically just really loved animals, so we didn’t want them to be killed for us anymore.”
Feintuch says that once his children stopped eating meat, he and his wife decided to join them. Feintuch then decided to look for ideological and religious reasons that supported his new decision. “I wanted something more solid, and I went to investigate what the Jewish tradition has to say about it,” he says. “I saw that, actually, I have very solid ground to walk on.”
Now, at the mere mention of vegetarianism, Feintuch can quickly list biblical passages that speak to his cause. In Hillel’s student lounge at MU, he pauses only to look behind him for text to pull out and support his points. “I teach this stuff, and this is a part of the Torah,” he says, somewhat combatively. “This is not extrapolation. This is what you read in text, so you don’t need to stretch your mind too much to understand it. This is really the facts as they are.” He often mentions the biblical prohibition of “tsa’ar ba’alei chayim,” or inflicting unnecessary pain on animals.
Feintuch explains that in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Adam (“the two of them, the he and the she, the two were called Adam”) ate only fruit and vegetables. He says Noah brought only vegetarian food on the ark for himself and the animals.
“Not that I necessarily read it as a true, factual story, historical story, but it’s the messages that I derive from it, and so the message is that the animals on Noah’s ark did not eat meat.”
He says the Israelites wandered in the desert with flocks they didn’t want to eat but that when they cried out for meat, God sent them quail. He said this teaches that meat-eating should not be an everyday occurrence.
“The association is that you have to crave it, like you have to lust for meat,” he says. “It’s only when you really, really want it so badly, then ultimately secular slaughtering is permitted.”
Feintuch uses the term secular slaughtering to refer to killing done for a purpose other than sacrifice.
He adds that animal sacrifices were not originally a Jewish tradition but a pagan tradition that Jews used to imitate. Feintuch says Isaiah described the Messianic era as vegetarian.
“How do we know that this is not a redeemed world and that the Messiah has not come yet? We still eat meat.”
Zevi Feintuch is now a vegan – no meat, milk or eggs – and disagrees with his father’s emphasis on vegetarianism as a religious ideal. He says to his father: “The one thing about taking the religious aspect is that you can only affect people in your religion with that.”
Yossi Feintuch responded by saying that other religions, not just Judaism, place emphasis on animal welfare.
National organizations share Feintuch’s belief in religion-based vegetarianism. In an e-mail to religious leaders, Richard Schwartz, president of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America, writes: “This dietary change would be consistent with important Jewish mandates to preserve our health; treat animals with compassion; protect the environment; conserve natural resources; help hungry people; and pursue a more peaceful, less violent world.” His Web site, along with that of the Society for Ethical and Religious Vegetarians, offers statistics and text to support a commitment to spiritual vegetarianism.
While explaining his religious rationale, Feintuch pauses to admit that meat eating is, in fact, a big part of Jewish tradition. The laws of keeping kosher outline procedures for killing, preparing and eating animals. He reconciles this apparent disconnect by referring to Moses Maimonedes, a 12th-century Jewish philosopher. Feintuch says Maimonedes thought the complex dietary restrictions were meant to frustrate people enough to give up meat altogether. Feintuch says he agrees with this interpretation. “Animals are far and far from being an afterthought in the Torah,” he says. “We are to consider their existence as our core fellow creatures.”
Feintuch says that whether it outright encourages or enforces vegetarianism, the Jewish tradition clearly teaches God’s compassion for animals.
Noteworthy Posts From Teruah, The PETA Files, and Failed Messiah
In January, I mentioned abuses of animals used in experiments at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science. According to The PETA Files, 300 Israeli professors have now "signed a petition calling for greater accountability and transparency for animal experimentation." Click here to read more.
I was credited with the "hat tip" for two recent posts on Failed Messiah. The blog posted BangItOut.com's "Top 10 Slogans for the New and Improved Rubashkin's." Also, a New York Times blog removed a paragraph criticizing AgriProcessors altogether following reader feedback; see Failed Messiah's original post and follow-up post. (I should point out that while I think Failed Messiah does terrific work exposing Rubashkin's/AgriProcessors and on various other important issues, I don't reach the same conclusions about the Times that it does. My frustration was limited to this one specific incident. It is interesting to note that the paper printed a letter from PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk today, which included this paragraph: "Animal suffering and human suffering are undeniably interconnected. In 2004, for example, The New York Times broke the story about a PETA undercover investigation that found routine animal abuse at AgriProcessors kosher slaughterhouse. Since then, the paper has repeatedly reported on the abuse of migrant workers at AgriProcessors. It should come as no surprise that a facility that profits from tormenting and killing animals would also oppress and abuse humans.")
JPost: Cruelty to Animals Riles Jewish Leaders
Tomorrow's issue of The Jerusalem Post features an article about Jewish Vegetarians of North America's partnership with The Humane Society of the United States to spread information about cruelty to animals to religious audiences.
Cruelty to Animals Riles Jewish Leaders
A campaign to reduce cruelty toward animals, run by the Humane Society of the United States and the Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA), has received the backing of Jewish leaders.
On the basis of tza'ar ba'alei hayim - the Halacha that forbids causing any living creature to suffer - prominent religious figures including Haifa Chief Rabbi She'ar Yashuv Cohen have endorsed the campaign, which is called All Creatures Great and Small. It seeks to get all religious communities involved in reducing the mistreatment of animals, especially on factory farms.
"Jews have a choice, and it should be made on treating animals with compassion," said Richard Schwartz, president of JVNA, on Sunday.
Although human beings are considered superior to animals in Judaism, people can only kill animals for authorized purposes and with minimal suffering.
However, JVNA says that contrary to Jewish law, extensive mistreatment is taking place. The group cites cruelty toward chickens on factory farms, including debeaking of birds without anesthesia, and extreme crowding that causes stress leading to pecking and sometimes killing fellow birds.
Though the laws of kashrut require that animals be slaughtered humanely, this does not necessarily extend to the way they are treated while alive, and according to JVNA there are many months of mistreatment before they are killed.
The first part of the campaign encourages Jews to pledge to buy only cage-free eggs and to reduce their consumption of eggs in October 2008.
Eventually the campaign's Web site will be expanded to include extensive resources on these issues. It hopes to establish a strong link between religion and the compassionate treatment of animals. Linked to the Jewish section of the Web site is a documentary they filmed, titled A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.
The group's main goals are to raise awareness of both animal mistreatment and the fact that most religions consider it unethical.
Schwartz also explained that the water crisis in Israel could be traced in part to the huge amounts of water necessary for raising and feeding animals. He noted, too, that animals emit more methane and CO2 than vehicles do.
According to biblical tradition, the denizens of the Garden of Eden were vegetarians, and humanity will return to that state in the messianic period. Currently, however, Judaism does not mandate vegetarianism, and there is even a common practice of eating meat on Shabbat.
"We don't say that [now] they must be vegetarian. We argue that they should be," Schwartz said.
"Judaism is very consistent with vegetarianism," he said, adding that "the main mitzva [commandment] is to rejoice in the world [on Shabbat], and it is hard to rejoice if people are always aware that they are eating something bad for their health, are involved in the mistreatment of animals and [are doing something that] is bad for the environment."
More information about the campaign can be found at humanesociety.org/religion.
By Michael Croland
We were graced with the company of our dog Emily for nearly a dozen years. For as long as I can remember, we have also had a poster in our house headed: “All I need to know about life I learned from my dog.” The poster’s content features various simplistic quips. Nevertheless, I learned the most profound lesson of all from my dog.
Since I was 8 years old, she showed me her different but respectable take on how to live what we live: life. When I rubbed her too hard, she moaned in pain. When she smelled food, she belted out in alleged hunger. When she let you rub her belly, both you and she felt the mutual aura of love. When you taught her behavior or anything else, she could process it mentally, understand it, and act according to her conception of right and wrong. Through it all, she communicated in her own way, she acted through her mind, and she felt pain and emotions.
Looking at the big picture, why is she different from any other being with those capacities? Why is it that she became an integral member of our family, and another dog might be experimented on or even eaten in some countries? How could a beagle in vivisection facilities endure futile medical research when they feel pain and suffer as we do? If not a beagle, then why should a monkey? And if neither the beagle nor the monkey should suffer for the benefit of selfish humans, then why should the rat, the rabbit, or the famed guinea pig? They are all victims of a systematic ideology that takes animals and subjugates them as mere absent referents to eat, turn into clothing, and be test subjects. Should these sentient beings be victims of a species hierarchy that dismisses their rights and welfare? No. No. A thousand times, no.
Instead, if we can love a dog or another human being, we recognize in that bond a reverence for the qualities inherent to life itself. Dominion does not mean domination. It is the responsibility of the human species, the supposed animal of reason to whom G-d granted stewardship over the animal kingdom, to take such rights into active consideration.
We must assert tolerance and respect for all life and denounce prejudice and systematically oppressive neglect. Emily had at least equal capacity to feel pain as a pig, cow, or other victim of this system. Her intellectual capacity was perhaps comparable to a newborn child or a retarded member of our own species. Why should we then hold up the faulty barrier of “species” to only respect people? We understand upon meeting an individual animal why his or her life is sacred. It’s important that we extend this consideration to all animal species and recognize their suffering, as well. A cow is not a burger, a mink is not a coat, and a beagle is not a research tool. A beagle was a member, or is a potential member, of a family with whom to share a loving bond or appreciate life’s precious qualities. And if not that, she’s a citizen of the natural world with rights to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Emily never had much respect for the squirrels she’d chase or the chickens she’d eat, but I do not fault her. I was fortunate to live with Emily this long, and she did teach me a fundamental life lesson: Animals are not mere objects; they are sentient beings with capacities for pain and pleasure whose rights and welfare we must not neglect. Emily taught me this lesson better than any activist, philosopher, or religious authority.
Emily, you may have only lived about 14 years, but I’m still young and fighting. I tried to explain this to you in the wee hours of the morning on the day you died, but rest assured: I will honor your lesson in my personal conduct and spread it far and wide with my writing and activism until the day I die. Thank you for being my teacher and sister.
Interview About Undercover Investigations in the Kosher Meat Industry
"Unthinkable things are happening to animals all over the world, right now, because people are paying for them to happen. Our work helps open a window so that people can view these uncomfortable scenes and hopefully reconsider the necessity of their turkey bacon or fur-trimmed coat," say Hannah and Philip.
Click here to read the interview.
Article About My Fun Competitions
This Guy Enters More Contests Than Anyone in Hampton Roads
by Mike Gruss
Michael Croland has played in five air guitar contests, tried to write a novel in 72 hours, sculpted peanut butter twice (once into the shape of George W. Bush), competitively husked corn, written a one-page play, submitted an entry for a tanka poetry contest and been in the running for "Best Human" at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
He is a walking entry form. He has read, understood and agreed to accept the rules and regulations of some of the oddest contests on the East Coast. He begins each outing knowing his chances of going home with hardware are slim. But when the judges start announcing the winners, something inside Croland believes he may have won.
And of course, he hasn't.
Take last month for example. Croland, 24, of Norfolk, drove to the Fayetteville, N. C., area to enter the National Hollerin' Contest.
The contest is aimed at highlighting a skill set from our agricultural history, and Croland, dressed in a pair of oversized overalls loaned by a friend, made a noise that was a cross between a painful scream and out-of-tune yodel.
And somehow - probably because there were only 10 contestants - he finished in the top 10.
Shockingly, he had never hollered before.
As a society, we are focused on superlatives and showing the best in everything. Most people will settle for being the best at anything, no matter how small. (Heck, I spent a couple of summers in a pizza shop and am convinced I'd make some sort of Hall of Fame for my work at the oven.)
The adoration's fine. Niche is nice.
But there's no way to tell what we're good at until we know what we're absolutely horrible at.
Croland says that learning process plays out as "comic absurdity" in everyday life.
Now he's eyeing Weird Contest Week in Ocean City, N. J., where participants can sculpt french fries, mold taffy and toss wet T-shirts.
In the long term, he'd like to visit Finland, where people compete in swamp soccer, sauna endurance, wife carrying and the world air guitar championships. It is, in a way, a mecca.
Because he is a vegan ... don't look for him at the Roadkill Cook-off in West Virginia or the Wooly Worm race in North Carolina.
Has he learned any practical skills?
Probably not, he said. Well, maybe. But the more he thought about it... from a practical sense? Worthwhile skills?
Croland's purpose in all these shenanigans is twofold.
First, in a way, he's out to gain a superlative and identity for himself. I think he's already done it.
He's probably the dude who enters more weird contests than anyone else in Hampton Roads.
Second, Croland's aim is to show the humor in what the organizers are doing. Certainly, many of the contests are fun or, better yet, funny. Many of them have a history that is respectable. But it's easy to take them seriously and lose perspective, which actually happens, frighteningly enough.
"It's probably funny to an outsider. I've tried to bring a spirit of lightheartedness," he said. "When you're determined to win, it crosses the line of fun - and sanity."
He's right. The fun is not in winning. The fun's in playing the peanut-butter-carving, air-guitar-playing, cornhusking game.
A Post in the Key of Random
- In the lastest East Village Mamele column in the Forward, Marjorie Ingall talks about many important issues related to keeping kosher. Amusingly, she starts off, "I’m having a crisis of conscience about kashrut. (For some reason I want to write 'krisis of konscience about kashrut,' because it sounds vaguely like a hardcore band that would play headbanging songs about kale. But I suppose fans would want to call them by their initials, and that would really not be kool.)" Check it out.
- The Israeli Web site PetKaput.com features a rather gruesome animated video showing an animal skinning humans that's a takeoff of Chinese fur farmers' skinning of animals. Read more about it on The PETA Files.
- In May, the Jewish Exponent ran an article about Farm Sanctuary founder Gene Baur. Says Baur, "Farmers have lost their connection with the earth and small farmers, forced to get big or get out -- a mantra that began in the 1950s in the U.S. -- have been pushed out by corporate factory farming that is profitable in the short term, but harmful in the long term."
- I have a letter to the editor about the AgriProcessors scandal in this week's issue of the Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh:
It was gratifying to read that Giant Eagle has stopped selling Agriprocessors meat in the wake of a scandal that has revealed unethical labor practices. The world’s largest glatt kosher slaughterhouse has also come into the spotlight in recent years for environmental degradation and tsa’ar ba’alei chayim (unnecessary animal suffering), including ripping the tracheas out of the throats of still-conscious cows.
Giant Eagle has stopped selling Agriprocessors meat, and the Conservative movement has called on Jews to evaluate whether they want to support the corrupt business practices of Agriprocessors. Kosher consumers should take things one step further and decide if they really want to support the meat industry, which is inherently exploitative of animals. The cruel factory farms are the same in the kosher meat industry as for animals killed for non-kosher meat, and mass industrialized animal agriculture does not prioritize individual animals’ welfare.