"I've noticed that quite a lot of people who are prominent in the animal liberation movement are Jews. Maybe we are simply not prepared to see the powerful hurting the weak." --Peter Singer (Author, Animal Liberation)



Israeli Fur Ban Moving Forward
On December 16, IsraelNationalNews.com reported, "After a stormy session on Wednesday, the Knesset Education Committee approved the first reading of a bill that would prohibit the import, sale and trade of the fur of cats and dogs. The draft legislation was pared down so as not to include a wider ban on the kinds of pelts used in the traditional fur hats (shtreimel) worn by Hassidic Jews on joyous occasions." According to a recent survey, 86 percent of Israelis believe killing animals for fur is immoral and 79 percent favor the ban.

Gogol Bordello's Oren Kaplan
On Monday I saw Gogol Bordello for the second time, and once again, the Gypsy-punk band had an explosive live show. I tried to set up an interview with guitarist Oren Kaplan, a vegetarian from Israel, but I never heard back from the band's PR team. Gogol Bordello performed in Tel Aviv earlier this month, and The Jerusalem Post ran an article discussing Kaplan's Israeli background. Click here to read the blurb about Gogol Bordello in my "The Music Issue" post from 2007.

Update on Proposed Monkey-Breeding Facility
Last week, I noted that a proposed monkey-breeding facility in Puerto Rico had been the target of criticism from both animal protection advocates and anti-Semites. Yesterday, The PETA Files announced, "We have just learned that in response to a lawsuit filed by local citizens and PETA, a Superior Court judge in Puerto Rico has ruled in activists' favor and halted all further construction of the Bioculture facility."

Hazon Food Conference
The fourth Hazon Food Conference took place this past weekend in California. Last month Hazon's blog, The Jew & The Carrot, posted about meat and vegetarianism at the conference, and as of today, a debate is still raging on in the comments section. That post has garnered 52 comments so far, which is quite a lot considering that The Jew & The Carrot's 2007 post about shechting a goat at that year's conference got 60 comments, the most of any post that year. Earlier this week, The Jew & The Carrot featured a post about how the debate came up at this year's conference.

Recent Articles in the Forward
  • In an article published yesterday, Leah Koenig wrote, "Perhaps more important, kosher agencies overstep their bounds by beginning to hechsher fresh produce. From the industry’s perspective, any expansion of business is understandably a good thing. But these agencies were developed to take the guesswork out of kosher consumption, not to discourage the use of inherently kosher fruits and vegetables, or to profit by creating a new need for inspection DVDs, light boxes and the like. The lesson to be learned here is to not give up common sense. The halachic prohibition against insects is not the issue; kosher caterers and consumers alike should certainly check for, and remove, bugs. But when this honest concern turns grocery shopping and dinner preparation into battle scenes, we can only lose."
  • An article last week reflected on vegetarianism and being a guest at a Friday night dinner in Tel Aviv.
  • Yesterday, the Forward reported:

The shuttering of a New York kosher poultry slaughterhouse for serious sanitary violations is once again putting the spotlight on a Hasidic sect, some of whose members have repeatedly defied the law.

A federal judge imposed a temporary restraining order and injunction December 29 against further slaughtering and processing at the plant, which serves the ultra-Orthodox enclave of New Square, home to members of the Skver Hasidic sect. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York had requested these measures after numerous attempts by federal officials since 2002 to get the slaughterhouse to comply with the guidelines of the Poultry Products Inspection Act.

The plant had been found by federal authorities to have numerous violations. As reported in a local newspaper, The Journal News, poultry residue was found on the plant’s walls and in the manager’s office; there was no sanitizer in the bathrooms; a chiller tank full of processed birds had no running water, and pools of stagnant water and piles of trash surrounded the plant.

More than 355,000 birds were slaughtered there in 2008, with almost all the meat going to Oneg Poultry, a grocery store in New Square, according to The Journal News.


Jews Adopt Blessing of the Animals Ceremonies and Make Them Their Own

The following is a revised version of my final article for "The R Word: Writing About Religion," a class I took at NYU this past semester.

On a cold, windy day during the holiday of Passover this past April, about 20 dogs and their human family members gathered outside the JCC in Bridgewater, N.J. Robin Nafshi, a Reform rabbi, led a blessing of the animals ceremony that focused on compassionate Jewish teachings about animals.

At least 21 synagogues or other Jewish groups in 10 states have held blessing of the animals ceremonies, with rabbis (and at least one cantor) coming face to muzzle with a wide swath of the animal kingdom, including many animals that Jews do not consider kosher to eat. Although dogs and cats are the most common attendees, clergy have also recited blessings for livestock (goats and sheep), small mammals (hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, rabbits, and ferrets), birds (parrots, ducks, and geese), reptiles (snakes and turtles), amphibians (frogs), fish (goldfish), shellfish (hermit crabs), and insects (at least one cricket and one millipede). Some organizers of these events have based their practices on Christian blessing of the animals ceremonies.

Rabbi Nafshi created her service, which featured lessons about animals from the Jewish tradition, responsive readings, and prayers in behalf of the animals. The program noted how Jews should not keep animals for whom they cannot provide proper care, must relieve animals of burdens that are too heavy, and must break the laws of Shabbat if an animal needs to be saved. Rabbi Nafshi’s sentiments were largely captured in the following prayer, which she read aloud: “Blessed are You, Holy Source, Maker of all living creatures. On the fifth and sixth days of creation, You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. We ask You to bless these animals; enable them to live fully in praise to Your Name. May we always praise You for all Your beauty in creation. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, for all of your creatures!”

Rabbi Nafshi prepared specific blessings for dogs, cats, and goats, but the goats’ owner thought the event was on a different day and no cats showed up either. “May God make you like Caleb, the loyal one,” said Rabbi Nafshi to the dogs in Hebrew. She also blessed the goats and cats in absentia, praying for them to be “like the goats of Jacob, the prosperous ones,” and “like the lion of Judah, the strong one.”

Irene Lieberman attended the ceremony with her 14-year-old “beagle baby,” Laces. Laces has battled cancer and slowed down in the last year, and Lieberman welcomed Rabbi Nafshi’s blessing amid Laces’ late-life struggle.

“The timing of the blessing was perfect,” said Lieberman. “I’m not sure if she understood or benefited from the prayer. But I felt more hopeful about being able to love my dog as long as she is with me.”

No one can be certain that animals fully grasp the meaning of blessing of the animals ceremonies. Some animal guardians, however, see the ceremonies as opportunities to connect to their faith.

Eileen Schwalb, a vegetarian and the proud mother of 5-year-old dachshund Max, has read everything she could find about Jewish teachings regarding compassion for animals. She said that Rabbi Nafshi’s blessing of the animals was a unique opportunity to bring her studies “alive” and combine her love for animals with her love for Judaism.

“It was powerful to include Max in my Jewish life,” said Schwalb. “He is very much part of my Jewish life at home. Max responds to the name Rabbi Kerry Olitzky [the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute]. When I say that name, he knows to get in our special spot for quiet reading of meditations.”

Schwalb said that she and Max are part of a “strong dog community,” but it was nice to have a “Jewish dog community.” She noted that many members of her synagogue bring their dogs to tashlich, an outdoor ceremony that takes place on Rosh Hashanah, but Rabbi Nafshi’s blessing of the animals was “specifically for animals.” She added, “Max and I attend many dog-friendly events, but it was incredible to attend a Jewish ceremony. I felt more connected to my Judaism.”

* * *

In 1998, Michael Rosen, a National Jewish Book Award–winning author, set out to research Jews’ responses to Christian blessing of the animals ceremonies. The result was the 2000 young adult novel The Blessing of the Animals, in which a Jewish boy named Jared debated whether to get his dog, Shayna, blessed at a nearby church. Jewish perspectives included in the book, which Rosen said were based entirely on his library research and consultations with four rabbis, included urging Jared not to participate in the Christian ceremony, suggesting he get as many blessings as he could, and telling him to think about how dogs are blessings in and of themselves. Ultimately, Jared affirmed his Jewish identity by skipping the church’s religious ceremony but attending the community potluck afterward. At its core, The Blessing of the Animals is a poignant tale about growing up Jewish in melting-pot America and reacting to a popular Christian custom.

In Rosen’s thorough, moving, and compelling story of varied Jewish perspectives, there is only one angle missing: a Jewish blessing of the animals ceremony.

When contacted for this article, Rosen said that he had never heard of such a thing. “This is news to me,” said Rosen, who frequently meets with Jewish educators and uses his blessing of the animals story in his presentations. “None of the rabbis to whom I spoke suggested that Jews had such a ceremony. … All that I understand I honestly expressed in the book.”

Indeed, Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies are new, obscure, and fairly unknown. Jewish Vegetarians of North America president Richard Schwartz, who has written widely about animal issues in Judaism, said he had never heard of a Jewish blessing of the animals. Christine Gutleben, director of Faith Outreach for The Humane Society of the United States, said that in her nearly three years on the job, she had not heard of a single one either.

Rather than deal with Jared’s struggle over whether Jews should go to Christian blessing of the animals ceremonies, various synagogues and other Jewish organizations have borrowed from Christian practice and created their own blessing ceremonies.

* * *

Many Catholic and Episcopalian churches celebrate the compassionate teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment, by blessing animals on or near October 4, a feast day in his honor. Christian blessing of the animals ceremonies have likely taken place throughout Christian history, according to the 2008 book Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition, by Laura Hobgood-Oster. She estimated that “hundreds, if not thousands” of blessing ceremonies in at least 40 states occur each year. Hobgood-Oster wrote that the number of Christian blessing of the animals ceremonies has increased “dramatically” in the last two decades. She suggested that this boom was “most likely inspired” by the highly publicized annual spectacle at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an Episcopalian church in New York City.

In 1996, Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom witnessed the ceremony at St. John the Divine. The following year, at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pa., the Conservative rabbi conducted the first documented Jewish blessing of the animals. “Some 75 synagogue members … turned out to seek the rabbi’s blessing on their winged, finned, four-legged, or no-legged pets (this last a snake),” noted a 1997 article in The Jerusalem Post. Rabbi Rosenbloom declined to comment for this article.

While all Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies appear to be at least indirectly influenced by their Christian predecessors, Jewish organizers of blessing ceremonies differ on how directly Christianity has shaped Jewish practice.

“The blessings ceremony is entirely borrowed from Christian practices,” said Rabbi Michael Resnick of Temple Emanu-El in Palm Beach, Fla. Rabbi Resnick, who was ordained as a Conservative rabbi, has never attended a Christian blessing of the animals. In preparing his first blessing ceremony in October, he relied on “a few services online,” such as “God, Bless the Animals,” a Christian-oriented “nondenominational Internet prayer ministry.” He simply eliminated New Testament references and added Jewish teachings.

“Jews have regularly borrowed from others. I feel no shame!” Rabbi Resnick said. “I think attracting people to religious [services] is a shared goal for all faiths in our country. If someone has found something that works, why recreate the wheel? As the Mishnah says, ‘Who is wise? One who learns from everybody.’”

Rabbi Lawrence Silverman denied that the four blessing of the animals ceremonies he has conducted at a Reform synagogue in Plymouth, Mass., were founded in Christian practice. “I base our ceremony on Jewish sources,” he said. “I am not acquainted with any ‘Christian blessing’ that might be an equivalent.”

Other rabbis tried to distance themselves from the Christian ceremonies while acknowledging that they came first. Rabbi Nafshi said that she attended a Christian blessing ceremony many years ago, but she did not remember specific content and did not base her ceremony on Christian practice.

Rabbi Peter Berg first organized a blessing of the animals at a Reform synagogue in Dallas in 2000. He explained, “Yes, [it is] influenced from Christianity in that churches do it. However, the precedent for caring for animals and offering blessings dates back to the Hebrew Scriptures.”

Although these rabbis may disagree on a conceptual level, Christian practice certainly gave the idea to them or their congregants. “A group of parents were talking about how much they loved their dogs. One joked that the church down the street blesses dogs and wished we did it. So, we did,” said Rabbi Berg. Three other rabbis, including Rabbi Silverman, and a cantor also noted that they started having blessing of the animals ceremonies following requests from congregants.

* * *

All sources interviewed for this article agreed that there was no organized movement calling for Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies. All but two agreed that Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies are not taking place on a significantly larger scale than the 21 examples found in research for this article. (See Sidebar.) Although some rabbis, like Rosenbloom, based their ceremonies directly on Christian practice, others relied on word of mouth to follow Jewish precedent.

Rosenbloom’s ceremony inspired his friend Rabbi Charles Sherman to start an annual tradition at a Conservative synagogue in Syracuse, N.Y., shortly afterward. When he hosted blessing of the animals ceremonies in Dallas, Rabbi Berg worked with Rabbi Mark Kaiserman. When Rabbi Kaiserman transferred to a Reform synagogue in New Jersey, he initiated a blessing of the animals there. Rabbi Nafshi was familiar with Rabbi Kaiserman’s ceremony and consulted him in preparing her own, but she denied that his ceremony was a determining factor in her decision to organize a blessing of the animals.

While he was in Philadelphia studying at the Reconstructionist movement’s seminary, Rabbi Josh Snyder inspired Rabbi Leonard Gordon to have a blessing of the animals at his nearby Conservative synagogue. Rabbi Snyder now works as the director of Hillel at Goucher College in Baltimore, where he has helped lead an interfaith blessing of the animals. Rabbi Gordon has continued the tradition in Rabbi Snyder’s absence, and he credited Rabbi Snyder for “teaching [him] the importance of animal companions in people’s lives.”

Rabbi Snyder’s influence has been felt on a larger level. At least three rabbis interviewed for this article based their blessing of the animals prayers on articles Rabbi Snyder wrote for the Web site Ritualwell.org. Rabbi Snyder’s main article reflected on various time frames when the ceremony could occur and offered specific prayers that could be used. Rabbi Snyder said that the Internet has enabled people to connect with each other in new ways, facilitating the growth of the ritual as a Jewish practice.

* * *

As one might expect from a ritual lacking a coherent movement or origin, not all blessing of the animals ceremonies were created equal.

At least 10 Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies took place around Shabbat Noach in the fall, when the Torah story of Noah is read. “This [Torah portion] is the first example of how important it is to treat animals with respect and love. A key Jewish value is tza’ar ba’alei chayim, not causing pain to any living creature,” explained Rabbi Ellen Wolintz-Fields, who hosted a blessing of the animals at her Conservative synagogue in New Jersey in October. Rabbi Sherman, of Syracuse, dresses up as Noah to add a fun, Purim-like flair to the ceremony.

Rabbi Nafshi chose to hold her ceremony on the Sunday of the eight-day Passover holiday in April. “During Passover, we remember the paschal lamb that was sacrificed in order for the Israelites to be freed from Egypt,” she explained. “We chose that time of year to express our love and appreciation for all the animals in our lives who give us so much.”

This year, Rabbi Linda Holtzman led a blessing of the animals on October 4, the feast day of St. Francis, because it was a joint event with a church group that leases space from her Reconstructionist synagogue in Philadelphia. In past years, she had had it on the Sunday in between the Shabbat when the story of creation is read and Shabbat Noach.

Rabbi Kaiserman chose to have his ceremony on a random spring day so that the weather would be nice.

Of course, the content of each ceremony varies as well. At least two ceremonies included readings from Perek Shirah (A Chapter of Song), an ancient Jewish text praising different elements of the natural world. At least two featured a kaddish (mourner’s prayer) for deceased companion animals, and at least two included a misheberach (prayer for healing). One officiating rabbi gave animals Hebrew names. One synagogue hosted a parade with animals as well as an animal trivia contest. Guardians at one ceremony were asked to state their companion animals’ age, gender, and talents. And although Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York City has invited animals to attend its ceremony in past years, on Shabbat Noach this year, guardians were instead encouraged to take ribbons to tie to their companion animals’ cages or collars when they got home.

Some blessing of the animals events also had what Rabbi Kaiserman called a “social justice” dimension. He said, “We’ve promoted adoption of pets from area shelters. We had guide dogs for the blind come one year to educate—and maybe inspire someone to join in.” At least two events featured collection of pet food for a local animal shelter or pet food pantry.

* * *

Creating a new Jewish practice has not gone without some hooting and howling.

Perhaps the most obvious objection is that the ceremony is “a creative Jewish spin on what otherwise sounds like a decidedly goyishe shtik,” in the words of a 1997 Jerusalem Post opinion piece criticizing Rabbi Rosenbloom’s first blessing of the animals.

“[Our cantor] had wanted to do this ceremony for many years to coincide with the reading of [the Torah portion of] Noah, but the former senior rabbi felt the ceremony felt too Christian somehow,” said Rabbi Zoë Klein of Temple Isaiah, a Reform synagogue in Los Angeles. “When I became senior [rabbi], we started it.”

In a syndicated column earlier this month, Rabbi Marc Gellman explained that Jews do not bless animals because they do not have souls. “Faith is about boundaries as much as openness,” Gellman, a Reform rabbi, wrote. He did not mention that any Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies have taken place, and he did not respond to requests to comment for this article.

However, several rabbis explained their blessing ceremonies in a manner consistent with Rabbi Gellman’s view of animals. Rabbi Janet Offel, who led a blessing of the animals on Shabbat Noach at a Reform synagogue in Woodland Hills, Calif., created her own kaddish for animals rather than using the traditional mourning prayer for humans. In introducing the prayer, she said, “It is important that we remain cognizant of the boundaries that do exist as a part of the natural world—raising up and honoring our creature companions without debasing the responsibilities, benefits, and privileges that come with being human.”

Whereas animals at Christian ceremonies are the recipients of blessings in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Jewish blessings serve a different function, said Rabbi Kaiserman. He explained, “In Judaism we never bless a thing (a mezuzah, a shofar, challah, or a pet). We offer the blessing to God in appreciation for the animals.”

Bill Speidel, an active member of Temple Israel in Norfolk, Va., advocated for a blessing of the animals at his Conservative synagogue, but it never came to fruition. “Synagogue leaders were concerned that if an animal had an accident and if so, according to Jewish law, it couldn’t be cleaned on Shabbat, so the mess would have to sit an entire day until the cleaning staff came in,” he said. Synagogues that hold their ceremonies on Sundays do not face this problem.

“We did not have an animal blessing. … Mostly this is to keep those allergens out of the building as much as possible but also for the risks to people and other pets from improperly restrained animals,” added Leslie Bradner, Temple Israel’s executive director.

* * *

Throughout Western history, humans have used animals for food, labor, and other uses. Humans’ close relationships with some animals as “pets,” at least on a large scale, are a relatively recent phenomenon. Although Judaism has a longstanding tradition of compassion for animals, dogs and cats have typically been mentioned in terms of their usefulness for specific tasks. Sixty-two percent of U.S. households have companion animals, according to the American Pet Products Association’s 2009/2010 National Pet Owners Survey. For some non-Orthodox Jews, effectively reaching out to a nation of animal lovers means going beyond ancient Jewish texts.

“When you think that at another age and time, the only animals going into the temple were those that were left on the altar—we have really come a long way!” said Barbara Schulman, who attended Rabbi Wolintz-Fields’ blessing of the animals with her mixed-breed dog, Brindle.

Rabbi Snyder said that creating rituals catering to American Jews’ love for companion animals is part of a larger context of changing religious practice, at least in the Reconstructionist movement. He noted that Reconstructionists have created new rituals for having a miscarriage, voting for the first time, and losing one’s virginity. While he is not sure whether blessing of the animals ceremonies are growing significantly, he does think there is a rising trend in recognizing the relationship between people and companion animals.

For Rabbi Snyder, who was a veterinary student prior to going to rabbinical school, animals and religion are related. He said that working at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem might have been the most spiritual experience he had in Israel. “I found my own spirituality connection through my connection to animals,” he said.

Rabbi Resnick said he “was surprised at the amount of pastoral care” he did at his blessing of the animals. The event provided a unique opportunity to console a woman who felt guilty after her dog died while she was away and another attendee whose dog was nearing death. “The pets were simply a vehicle to reach the emotional core of some of the people,” he said.

Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies represent these sentiments and should be viewed in a larger context. In her 2007 book Blessing of the Animals, Diana Guerrero devoted a chapter to obscure species-specific Jewish blessing ceremonies, such as “bark mitzvahs” and “meow mitzvahs.” These ceremonies are not always led by religious leaders and do not necessarily take place in religious settings. Guerrero explained that the species-specific blessings, which apparently began in the early 1980s, are often cheeky affairs that have been controversial in the Jewish community. Rabbi Resnick and Rabbi Berg explicitly noted that their blessing of the animals ceremonies were not “bark mitzvahs,” which they called “ridiculous” and “offensive,” respectively.

Guerrero did not know of many non-species-specific blessing of the animals in Judaism, although her book and her blog mention one each. Nevertheless, whether with “bark mitzvahs” or blessing of the animals ceremonies, in Judaism or otherwise, Guerrero believes that people of faith are viewing animals in new ways that differ from the working dog, hunting dog, and guard dog roles that they were limited to previously. “Animals are moving from those utilitarian roles into family member roles,” she said.

“Animals touch people at a very deep place … just like spirituality touches people at a very deep place,” she added. “When you combine the two, it’s even stronger.”

On How Large a Scale Are These Ceremonies Taking Place?

The following sidebar is meant to accompany "Jews Adopt Blessing of the Animals Ceremonies and Make Them Their Own."

Below is a list of 21 synagogues and other Jewish groups that have had blessing of the animals ceremonies. While it is likely that there have been more than the ones listed here, all but two sources interviewed for this article agreed that Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies are not taking place on a significantly larger scale.

Rabbi Ellen Wolintz-Fields of Congregation B’nai Israel (Toms River, N.J.) believes the ceremonies are happening “on a great level,” noting that “many colleagues do do it.” She declined to elaborate or give names. At least four groups in New Jersey and four more in the Philadelphia area—plus one in New York City—have performed this ceremony.

Cantor Rob Jury of Anshe Tikvah Jewish Congregation (Northbrook, Ill.) said, “The pet blessing is becoming popular in our area with a number of congregations holding pet blessings. Although other congregations have held pet blessings in the past, the only congregation I can personally confirm held this year around Shabbat Noach was Congregation B’nai Torah in Highland Park.” He added, “Unfortunately, I am not well versed in other pet blessings outside of the Chicagoland area.”
Anshe Tikvah Jewish Congregation (Northbrook, Ill.)
Congregation Adath Jeshurun (Elkins Park, Pa.)
Congregation Beth Ahavah (Philadelphia, Pa.)
Congregation Beth Jacob (Plymouth, Mass.)
Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (New York, N.Y.)
Congregation B’nai Israel (Toms River, N.J.)
Congregation B’nai Torah (Highland Park, Ill.)
Germantown Jewish Centre (Philadelphia, Pa.)
Goucher College Hillel (Baltimore, Md.)
Mishkan Shalom Synagogue (Philadelphia, Pa.)
Ohr Tikvah Jewish Healing Center of Somerset, Hunterdon, and Warren Counties (New Jersey)
The Shul (Cleveland, Ohio)
Temple Adath Yeshurun (Syracuse, N.Y.)
Temple Akiba (Culver City, Calif.)
Temple Beth Am (Pinecrest, Fla.)
Temple Emanuel (Cherry Hill, N.J.)
Temple Emanu-El (Dallas, Texas)
Temple Emanu-El of Palm Beach (Palm Beach, Fla.)
Temple Emanu-El of West Essex (Livingston, N.J.)
Temple Isaiah (Los Angeles, Calif.)
Temple Kol Tikvah (Woodland Hills, Calif.)


One Foot in the Realm of Fantasy and One Foot in the Realm of Reality

Try not to take this review too seriously.

Last year's peculiar J-blog sensation has turned into a blook, The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals! I just received an advance reader copy (the book won't be out until March), and I tried to approach it with both the critical eye I bring to real-world issues, like tsa'ar ba'alei chayim, and the absurdity I appreciate in imaginary matters, like air guitar.

Promotional materials
set out lofty goals for the blook:
Once and for all burning questions passed down through the ages will be addressed, such as: Is a vegetable-lamb a vegetable or a lamb? Does licking the Pope make you trayf? What exactly is a Pollo Maligno?
Not one of these questions was satisfactorily answered.

1. Is a vegetable-lamb a vegetable or a lamb?
The blook explains that the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary is "either a plant that grows an animal or an animal that grows from a seed in the ground" and that "no expert has yet ascribed any characteristics to the vegetable lamb other than that it is born, it lives, and it dies." Determining whether the vegetable lamb is a vegetable or a lamb is crucial for assessing whether a vegan blog can endorse its consumption. However, co-author Ann VanderMeer takes the easy way out by noting that the dish is "absolutely kosher" because both vegetables and lambs are kosher.

There is only one variety of plant-based non-animal included in the blook. Jotai are described as spirits that are "Japanese in origin" and are "created from a folding-screen cloth used to separate areas in a room." VanderMeer says that jotai are kosher "[s]o long as it's made from plant fibers, not a treyf animal." heebnvegan does not condone believing in jotai but issues no condemnation against eating them.

2. Does licking the Pope make you trayf?
This inquiry refers to the passage on the Pope Lick Monster, which allegedly hails from "Pope Lick Creek" in Kentucky. VanderMeer's co-author, "Evil Monkey" (her husband, Jeff), speculates that "it's a monster that licks the Pope, and then the Pope's magic kung fu banishes it to Pope Lick Creek." VanderMeer responds, "If it's licking the Pope, it's probably not kosher, that's for sure." Saying something is "probably" trayf "for sure" does not definitively render it trayf.

3. What exactly is a Pollo Maligno?
Much as the aitvaras is compared to a rooster, the pollo maligno is said to resemble a chicken. As such, heebnvegan recommends against consuming both. The commentary digs deeper, though, describing the pollo maligno as an "evil cannibalistic chicken" of "Col[o]mbian origins." VanderMeer questions whether the bird's cannibalistic tendencies refer to eating humans or other chickens. As the main portion of the book ends, this matter is left unresolved.

An epilogue features a dialogue between VanderMeer and Duff Goldman, the star of the Food Network's Ace of Cakes. Goldman enters the fray, perhaps too late, as a much-needed voice of reason who strives to "keep one foot in the realm of fantasy and one foot in the realm of reality." VanderMeer notes to Goldman that she doesn't know whether the pollo maligno eats people or chickens. Goldman says the pollo maligno is kosher by taking a stab at the conditions under which chickens raised for kosher (and nonkosher) meat are raised:
You ever seen an industrial chicken farm? ... If [chickens] can be butchered and served glatt kosher, hormone-injected, subjected to the worst kind of animal cruelty, then saying that a cannibalistic chicken wouldn't be kosher would be straight-up hypocrisy. So Pollo Maligno is definitely kosher.
Goldman might not have a clear understanding of what "glatt" means with regard to chickens, but he makes an excellent point in suggesting that it's hypocritical that kosher meat can be sold despite conditions that cause animals unnecessary suffering. The blog Homegrown Evolution explains:
Cannibalism is common amongst chickens and there are a number of theories as to why it happens including dietary inadequacies, genetics and simple chicken boredom. The most plausible theory in our opinion is that cannibalism results from insufficient opportunity to forage. . . . Most commercial poultry farms take care of cannibalism by cutting off beaks when the chicks are around 4 to 6 weeks old.
Don't let Goldman's hard-hitting point about the pollo maligno fool you, though. The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals is not exactly a treatise on practical approaches to kashrut vis-à-vis industrialized animal agriculture.


Alicia Silverstone Connects Her Judaism and Veganism

I've noted on multiple occasions that Alicia Silverstone is one of the world's most famous Jewish vegans. Until I read an article in the Jewish Journal earlier this month, though, I'd never seen her make any explicit connection between her faith and her diet. (Click here to read my October review of her new book, The Kind Diet.)

The entire article is worth reading, but here are some relevant highlights:

“I’m not the person who ever stopped loving the taste of meat,” she added as she tucked into her salad. “I’m a foodie. But I knew I had to give meat up to be able to look at myself in the mirror, to know that I’m a good person and a good Jew. How could I continue seeing myself as a person who cares about the world and yet be responsible for suffering?”

Silverstone is one of the best-known among a growing circle of outspoken Hollywood vegetarians; Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman declared recently that after reading “Eating Animals” (Little, Brown), the latest book by the Jewish wunderkind Jonathan Safran Foer (“Everything Is Illuminated”), she may no longer keep silent when dinner hosts present her with a meat meal. She virtually equated eating meat to rape, prompting some scathing stories about her remarks on the Web.

Silverstone is aware of the effect of such rhetoric and so treads lightly when asked, in the course of discussing her Judaism, about Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer’s statement that factory animals live in “an eternal Treblinka.”

“I’m always hesitant to go there, because I don’t want to alienate people,” she said. “We all know that the Holocaust was devastating; one of my oldest, closest family friends was a survivor. But for me, it’s the truth. The production of animals is the greatest holocaust that is happening now, because it’s allowed.

“When I drive by a car on the road that has animals in it, it literally makes me crazy,” she continued. “I feel like I want to yell at the driver, flip him off — which, of course, would be ridiculous, and I just have a moment of absolute sadness. So then I just remember that I’m doing everything I can to change things, and the book is part of that.”

“The Kind Diet” points out that in the Bible, God gives humans dominion over the animals, which, the book suggests, means “stewardship,” not slaughter. “Spiritual people don’t want to cause suffering to any creature, which is why a lot of synagogues are going vegetarian, and there is a huge vegetarian movement in the Jewish community,” Silverstone said. She cites Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, who is vegetarian and encourages the lifestyle for others.

“If you believe you are just one small part of a big picture, and that something greater than you created the world, you’re not going to want to stomp on it,” Silverstone said.

Her father, Monty, is an English-born Jew whose forbears came from Eastern Europe; her mother, Didi, a former Pan Am flight attendant, is from Scotland and converted to Judaism before Alicia was born. Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City was like a second home to her as a child: “I loved it; it was a very special place for me,” she said. She attended Hebrew school three times a week; became bat mitzvah and enjoyed the congregation’s monthly Shabbat dinners. This was the pre-vegan Silverstone. “I freakin’ loved gefilte fish,” she said. “And charoset and matzah ball soup.”

Religious school was another matter. “I wasn’t very good at Hebrew; I never learned to speak it,” she said. “Maybe I was too artistic to be doing so much school. What I loved was the singing, the cantor with his guitar, and the debates and discussions. Even as a young girl I was always asking questions like, ‘If this is going on right now, what are we doing about it?’ And I wanted to know why we were talking about how bad it was for the Jews, and not looking at how bad it was for the rest of the world.”. . .

And while Silverstone continues to identify as a cultural Jew, she said she currently finds spirituality outside the synagogue. “I have found my peace in living in the world as kindly as I can,” she said. “Going to yoga and meditation, and eating well — that’s how I feel my connection to God.



Daniel Kliman's Mother Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit
heebnvegan readers may recall that Jewish vegetarian activist Dr. Daniel Kliman passed away last year and was apparently found dead in an elevator shaft. (Click here to read my obituary post.) According to J., Kliman's mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit earlier this month seeking "damages from the building owner, manager and elevator company."

I never met Kliman, but our correspondence and his e-mails to VeggieJews continue to play a major role in how I view "the contradictions in [people's] lives" and strive to "to pursue every one of those paths with total integrity," as one person eulogized about Kliman at his funeral. This is evident in my "The Use of Animal Products in Jewish Ritual Objects" speech, which I posted on heebnvegan on Sunday. If you read that speech as well as the obituary and eulogy posts I just linked to, it's obvious how Kliman's example continues to inspire and guide me.

Natalie Portman and Brothers
Natalie Portman's new film, Brothers, came out earlier this month. In 2008, I noted that Portman had gone vegan while making the movie with vegan co-star Tobey Maguire. My best guess is that it didn't last because, more recently, she credited Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals with getting her to go vegan.

Nevertheless, earlier this month, The PETA Files noted that Maguire brought his own vegan chef to the set and made it easy for Portman to eat vegan food there. PETA's blog quoted Portman as saying, "I was like, 'Um, could you make two of those?' And I'd make a cute face, and they'd roll their eyes and give me another falafel." As much as I'm trying to cut back on fried food, I must say that it appears Portman and I share a fondness for falafel.

Monkey Breeding and Anti-Semitism in Puerto Rico
Earlier this month YNet reported, "Anti-Semitism has been injected into a public debate over a proposed monkey-breeding facility in Puerto Rico, with some opponents accusing 'Jewish economic interests' of attempting to destroy the island’s environment, the Anti-Defamation League said last week." I have concerns about the facility, but it's unfortunate that anti-Semitism has become part of this debate. An alert on PETA's Web site explains:
PETA is joining animal protection groups around the world in opposing the construction of a monkey-breeding facility in Puerto Rico. Bioculture, a company that sells primates to laboratories, reportedly wants to capture monkeys from their natural homes in Mauritius, imprison them in Puerto Rico, and sell their babies for use in experiments.

The U.S., which uses more monkeys for research than any other nation, imprisons tens of thousands of imported monkeys in laboratories, where they lead lives of deprivation, loneliness, pain, and misery.

Recommended Reading


Text/Context: Animals and Jewish Tradition

Each month, The Jewish Week and Nextbook team up for a supplement called Text/Context. This isn't exactly breaking news, but October's edition was on the topic of "Animals and Jewish Tradition."

In her editor's note, Sandee Brawarsky introduced the 12-page special section:
One day in the fall of 1939, llamas, camels, ostriches, antelopes and foxes scrambled down the alleyways and cobblestone streets of Warsaw’s Old Town. These animals were fleeing, after Nazi bombs devastated the Warsaw Zoo. As Diane Ackerman tells the story in her remarkable book, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski put the broken cages and burnt-out buildings to use again, risking their own lives, as they hid more than 300 Jews in the animal habitats and in their villa, along with animals. Some referred to their effort as Noah’s Ark. For Antonina, human beings and animals all deserved respect, love and compassion.

Our contributors this month also look at animals sympathetically, as part of God’s creation; they search out animals in unusual places and place them in a Jewish context.

Below are excerpts from some of the articles.

'Kosher Equals Vegetarian'
Meylekh Viswanath wrote:
Are my feelings Jewish in any way? Should Jews be vegetarians? Does the Jewish God care about animals and their suffering? . . .

Is there perhaps a mitzvah to actually refrain from eating meat? Although there is no explicit commandment requiring that Jews abstain from eating meat, there are lots of places in the Torah that would lead a person to the conclusion that it would be preferable to abstain from meat. The consumption of meat and fish are inextricably linked with the killing and hurting of a living creature. Should we, as Jews, participate in such infliction of pain?

Jerome A. Chanes wrote:
The Jewish tradition of animal welfare and ecology is a theme in a number of scholarly articles. JournalWatcher notes some specifics: In the Hebrew Bible, those who care for animals (Moses, David) are heroes, while those who hunt animals (Nimrod) are villains. Further, humans are given dominion over animals, but dominion does not give us the right to cause indiscriminate pain and destruction. We are permitted to use animals in this way only when there is a genuine, legitimate need, and we must do so in the manner that causes the animal the least suffering. Whilst animal rights do not inhere in Judaism, animal welfare certainly does.

Several commandments demonstrate concern for the physical or psychological suffering of animals. We are forbidden to muzzle an ox while it is working in the field. We may not plow a field using animals of different species, because this would be a hardship to the animals. And the use of animals for sport? Listen to Josephus, on Herod’s gladiatorial spectacles with lions and other beasts: “To the Jews this was no less than a palpable destruction of those customs for which they had so great a veneration.”

'Words From the Wild'
Beth Kissileff wrote:
Repeatedly, in the Bible, humans seem to need animals to express what might otherwise be unsaid. . . .

We know animals can't speak, and still we remain fascinated by the possibility. Biblical animals, both in language and action, when behaving realistically as well as impossibly, guide humans to new knowledge and expression.

'A German Shepherd in Eretz Israel'
Stuart Schoffman, who now lives in Israel, explained that in his youth, "Dogs were for gentiles, Cossacks, Nazis." There has been a shift in how dogs are viewed in his thinking and indeed on a much larger level in the Jewish community. Schoffman wrote:
Where I come from, people don’t like dogs much. I grew up in Flatbush in the 1950s, in an Orthodox home. My parents were both from Crown Heights, a generation removed from the shtetl. I was raised to be terrified of dogs. . . .

Dog love is a variety of intermarriage. Man’s best friend is much maligned in Jewish religious sources. The Mishna (Bava Kamma 7:7) states: “One should not rear a dog unless it is kept on a chain.” Rabbi Eliezer the Great comments (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 83a): “He who rears dogs is like one who rears swine.” An elegant Midrashic parable about religious doubt and divine kindness (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 43) compares a dog to Amalek, archetypal foe of the Jewish people. Do you want Amalek in your house?


The Use of Animal Products in Jewish Ritual Objects

On December 9, I was the guest speaker for an undergraduate "Food and Religion" class at NYU. Yesterday, I posted an edited version of the speech I gave to the class regarding vegetarianism and kosher meat. Below is an edited, expanded version of a speech I prepared, per the professor's suggestion, regarding the use of animal products in Jewish ritual objects. I ran out of time and was not able to talk about this topic. The introduction to yesterday's post, which defined such terms as "animal rights," "animal welfare," "vegetarian," and "vegan," might be helpful in understanding what's posted below.

I was asked to speak about whether there is a conflict between being Jewish and being vegan. As a vegan advocate, I generally tell people that there is no problem being both. There is somewhat of a conflict, but I don't see it as a prohibitive problem.

Some ritual objects in Judaism require the use of animal products. The shofar blown on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a ram's horn. The scrolls of the Torah as well as the parchment inside mezuzot and tefillin are made from animal skin. The straps of tefillin are made of leather. If someone is 100 percent vegan in diet and other areas, particularly for animal rights reasons, this poses a conflict.

First, we must recognize that veganism is an ideal that individuals can strive toward but is impossible to achieve fully in the modern world. If my goal as a vegan is not to contribute to animal suffering, I should focus on avoiding animal products in food and clothing and not worry about minutiae outside my control. PETA explains on its Web site, "We believe that animals are not here for human use, and we promote a vegan lifestyle. We also recognize that, unfortunately, it is impossible to be entirely vegan. Although changes are taking place with almost everything, there are animal products and/or animal tests wrapped up in everything from our wallboard, paints, and car tires to the asphalt we drive on." My car's interior is fabric rather than leather, but my tires contain an animal-derived acid. There's nothing I can do about it, and I still choose to drive a car. I accept that as a realistic, pragmatic solution.

In a statement on its Web site, Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) applies this pragmatic approach to Jewish ritual objects:
The number of animals slaughtered for [ritual object] purposes is minute compared to the billions killed annually for food. The fact that there would still be some animal slaughter to meet Jewish ritual needs shouldn't stop us from doing all we can to end the horrible abuses of animals. Also, most problems related to flesh-centered diets -- poor human health, waste of food and other resources, and ecological threats -- would not occur if animals were slaughtered only to meet Jewish ritual needs. Our emphasis should be on doing a minimum amount of harm to other people, the environment, and animals. The fact that some animal products are required for sacred uses (a very small amount) should not prevent a person from becoming a vegetarian.
In theory, I think it's perfectly reasonable for an observant Jew to call himself or herself vegan if he or she refrains from animal products except for their required ritual use. There is a Jewish ideal of not causing animals any unnecessary suffering (tza'ar ba'alei chayim), so if the use of animals for certain ritual objects is deemed necessary, then animals can be used but in as humane a manner as possible. For example, goose feathers are typically used in Torah scribes' quill pens, and there has been a small movement to use cruelty-free goose feathers for this purpose. I think that's a very reasonable compromise.

To the best of my knowledge, there has not been any movement to use humanely obtained animal products for Torah scrolls, the parchment found in mezuzot and tefillin, and shofarim. I choose to look the other way and just accept this necessary evil. I cringe when I hear the sound of the ram's horn on Rosh Hashanah (and am too dazed from fasting to analyze it at the end of Yom Kippur), but I don't avoid services that use a ram's horn. That simply wouldn't be practical, and this extreme version of veganism wouldn't accomplish anything to help animals. Furthermore, I don't buy shofarim or Torah scrolls, so I make no direct monetary contribution to their use. I have purchased animal-skin parchment for mezuzot, but they are hidden within the mezuzot themselves and they are out of sight and out of mind. These examples point to a conflict, but in my mind, there is no problem.

Case Study: Tefillin
The conflict I've struggled with most is tefillin. The commandment to don tefillin comes from a prayer called the Sh'ma (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). The Sh'ma instructs Jews to teach the prayer to their children, and I intend to do so when I have children. The Sh'ma instructs Jews to recite the prayer when they rise in the morning and lie down at night, and I do so at both times every day. The Sh'ma instructs Jews to post the prayer on the gates and door-posts of their homes, which is why I have mezuzot with the prayer inside them on the door-post of the front entrance to my apartment as well as the door-post of my bedroom. And the Sh'ma commands Jews to place the prayer upon their hands and between their eyes, which is practically achieved by donning tefillin. This is a holy prayer I have recited daily since I learned it in Hebrew school. I say it in my head when I am walking down a dark street at night, am afraid, and want G-d to protect me. A few years ago, I said it immediately following a car accident when I realized that I had survived and was mostly OK. This prayer, which instructs me to wear tefillin, is one I do not take lightly.

I have heard for as long as I can remember that tefillin must be made of leather. I don't buy, wear, or use leather for anything else. My wallet, belts, car interior, guitar strap, boots, work shoes, dress shoes, and sneakers are all nonleather. Leather is not a byproduct of the meat industry but rather a coproduct. Cattle killed for leather are the same animals raised by the beef and dairy industries. They are subject to the same routine branding, dehorning, tail-docking, and castrationall without any painkillers. Cows in the dairy industry are forced to give 10 times as much milk as they did a mere half-century ago, and many suffer from mastitis, a disease in which their udders become so swollen that they hang toward the ground. Annually in the U.S., more than 41 million cows are slaughteredusually by being stunned, hung upside-down, bled to death, and skinned. The idea of putting leather on my body is disgusting to me.

I received a set of tefillin from my grandparents as a bar mitzvah present. The only time I've ever worn my tefillin was a few days before my bar mitzvah ceremony, when my rabbi showed me how to do so in his office. Several years ago, as I explored my faith more seriously than ever before, I considered whether I should wear my already purchased tefillin. I came up with four possible options for vegans who wanted to wear tefillin, which I posted on my blog last year:
  • You can refrain from donning tefillin altogether. I expect that no rabbi would recommend this.
  • You can use nonleather tefillin, which is not considered kosher. For example, artist Ayana Friedman made "Women's Tefillin." Friedman explains, "I wanted to create a ritual object that would be different from men's, made of synthetic fabric, not dead animal's skin, and would elevate women's craft and abilities which have been pushed aside throughout history." In a 2006 e-mail to the Veggie Jews Yahoo group, Dan Kliman wrote, "Someone very honestly said on this list some time ago that he indeed understood that non-leather tefillin were not the mitzva in its purest form, but he felt something is better than nothing. . . . The Hebrew word 'Chet,' which we often define as 'sin,' is actually a 'missing of the mark.' Due to some people's convictions, they are willing to 'miss the mark' on tefillin being made completely from leather in order that they should at least pick up the mitzva of binding of the arms with the proper words. The only caveat is that you should not fool yourself into thinking you are getting the full mitzva."
  • You can use so-called "vegetarian tefillin" from Rabbi Shmuel Rosenberg of Tzefat, Israel. Says Rabbi Rosenberg, "I make the Batim out of the sh'lil (baby calves that weren't born yet). Either they die by a miscarriage (stillbirth), or the mother gets injuried or otherwise dies of natural causes, and they find the calves inside. However, they DON'T kill the mother for the babies." Adds The Vision of Eden author Rabbi Dovid Sears, "Anyone who hesitates to fulfill this fundamental mitzvah of the Torah to don Tefillin every weekday due to apprehension that the animals used may have been subject to cruel handling may rest assured that Rabbi Rosenberg's 'vegetarian Tefillin' reflect the utmost effort to eliminate this problem as far as humanly possible."
  • You can use conventional leather tefillin under the assumption that it's impossible to be 100 percent vegan in every facet of life. If the tefillin is already purchased (e.g., you've had it since your bar or bat mitzvah, it was passed down through your family) or you buy used tefillin, one could argue that the use of this tefillin would not contribute to the overall demand for leather. In February [2008], Half-Jew in Granite featured a great post about one vegan's struggle with the tefillin issue; the following month, blogger Andrea Eshelman concluded, "I'm going to get myself some animal skin tefillin. . . . I'm so drawn toward the practice that I feel as though I can't ignore it. I feel like my Jewish prayer is incomplete without it."
In March 2008, I thought that the last optionusing my already purchased leather tefillinsounded like the best solution for me. I didn't remember how to put on my tefillin, so I attended a workshop hosted by my synagogue's rabbi and men's club that was intended to be a beginner's guide for morning minyan. I had my tefillin with me. The rabbi did not demonstrate how to don tefillin as part of his presentation, and he said I should approach him at the end. When I did, he referred me to the cantor, who took me into his office and tried to schedule another time when he would show me how to put on tefillin. I showed up at the designated time, with my tefillin in hand, but the cantor was not there. After two failed attempts to learn how to put on tefillin, I felt like an omen was telling me not to rush to decide my personal tefillin debate. I'm not saying that G-d was telling me not to wear tefillin, but my failed attempts made me take a step back once again.

Several times this year, I've spoken to JVNA vice president Noam Mohr about the third option: tefillin marketed as having humanely obtained leather. Mohr told me that the so-called "vegetarian tefillin" are not as wonderful as they're cracked up to be. He claimed:
These products are made from the skin of fetuses founded in slaughtered cows. While the fetuses themselves did not suffer, never having been born, the skin is still taken from mothers raised on standard farms and killed in standard slaughterhouses. Whether you use the skin on the outside of their bodies, or the skin of the fetuses inside of their bodies, is a fine distinction. Either way, the cruel farms profit identically from their killing and abuse.

I hope that people do produce "humane" tefillin at some point, but that is currently unavailable.
In a separate message, Mohr added, "I certainly am not accusing anyone of fraud! I've spoken with [Rabbi Rosenberg] and he told me this himself. It is not a secret. He is genuinely looking for ways to be more humane. In my view, this solution doesn't really do it." Mohr has looked into getting the skin of supposedly humanely slaughtered cattle for tefillin, but he said he lacks the business sense to make his complicated vision a reality.

Of course, the one avenue left unexplored was whether I should just go ahead and wear nonleather tefillin. Why was that prohibited? In my preparation for this presentation, I sought to clarify once and for all why tefillin must be made of leather. I figured that if I could find a verse in the Torah or another authoritative Jewish text explicitly saying that tefillin must be made of leather, I would feel more comfortable accepting this requirement. Simply put, there is a requirement in Jewish law for tefillin to be made of leather, but there is no one original source that lays it out in an explicit and personally satisfying manner.

Rabbi Sears pointed me in the direction of Menachos 42b, which I found in the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library last month. The text reads:
This, however, is a matter of dispute between Tannaim, for it has been taught: If a man overlaid [the tefillin] with gold or covered them with the skin of an unclean animal, they are invalid; if with the skin of a clean animal, they are valid, even though he did not prepare it for this specific purpose. Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel says, Even if he covered them with the skin of a clean animal they are invalid, unless it has been prepared for this specific purpose.
To me, this did not seem like an original source. It appeared to presuppose an earlier requirement for tefillin to be made of leather, and it did not give me any kind of "Aha!" moment. When I ran my doubts by Rabbi Sears, he said, "Menachos is a tractate of the Talmud. So it IS the original source." He later added, "The 'original source' is that discussion in Menachos, which is again cited by the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah and then in halakhic codes such as the Tur and Shulchan Arukh."

Before I heard back from Rabbi Sears, a rabbinical student helped me pore through various texts in the Jewish Theological Seminary's beit midrash. Of course, we didn't come up with a "more original" source. She noted to Rabbi Joel Roth that the requirement of leather tefillin appeared to be "a given," "at least from Tanaitic times," and asked if he knew where it originated. He replied:
You are correct that it was a given, and according to the Gemara it is halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai [law that was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai]. The accepted norm (and I know of no dispute about it) is that tefillin that are not leather cannot fulfill the halakhic obligation for tefillin.
At this point, I've accepted that I will not find an earlier source that clearly spells out that tefillin must be made of leather. I also accept that there is a requirement in Jewish law for tefillin to be made of leather, regardless of whether it hits me over the head with clarity or purpose. There is much in Judaism that we do simply because it is required, and we needn't understand why.

At this time, I still have not worn tefillin since the first time in the days before my bar mitzvah ceremony. I think that I should wear tefillin. I do not know whether I will any time soon. It might be hard to reach a definitive conclusion, but that's OK. As Rabbi Steve Greenberg (the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi) has said about such conflicts, "Often, the holiest place to be in is the place of being stuck and not knowing what to do."


Speech for "Religion and Food" Class at NYU

On December 9, I was the guest speaker for an undergraduate "Religion and Food" class at NYU. Below is an edited, abbreviated version of the speech I gave to the class.

Today I'm going to talk about vegetarianism in general, use the case of AgriProcessors as an example of how the kosher meat industry isn't all it's cracked up to be, and discuss how kosher-keeping Jews can avoid supporting the cruelty to animals documented at AgriProcessors.

Before we focus on kosher meat, I think it's important to define some of the terms that we'll be using:
  • "Animal rights" means that animals have their own rights; imagine that animals have giant "No Trespass" signs over their bodies and that humans can't violate their bodies for the sake of their own desires. It's been said that the truth of animal rights is not larger cages for animals but rather empty cages. This notion has been popularized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), whose mission is "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment."
  • "Animal welfare" means that it's OK to use animals for humans' use like food and clothing, but we should treat them as well as possible along the way. We recognize that animals feel pain (e.g., there's a difference between mowing grass and setting a cat's tail on fire), and we should try to minimize that pain as much as possible.
  • Philosopher Peter Singer wrote a book in the '70s called Animal Liberation, in which he promoted a utilitarian outlook that doesn't neatly fit into either the animal rights or the animal welfare camps. Essentially, Singer said that animals are capable of suffering and humans must consider that suffering as part of a moral equation. The immense suffering experienced by veal calves outweighs the fleeting pleasure gained from eating veal, and therefore eating veal is wrong. Hypothetically, though, the benefit gained from a medical experiment that saved many humans (or other animals) would outweigh the suffering of animals (or, for that matter, humans) in the experiment.
  • Tsa'ar ba'alei chayim is a Hebrew term that translates to "unnecessary animal suffering." Much as we discussed with animal welfare, the notion is that if humans do use animals, they should strive to avoid causing any suffering that isn't necessary.
  • "Vegetarian" means that a person doesn't eat any kind of animal, including mammals, birds, and fish.
  • "Vegan" is a type of vegetarian who, in addition to avoiding all animals, doesn't eat animal byproducts like eggs and dairy products. Many vegans also avoid the use of animal products in areas outside their diet, such as by not wearing fur, leather, wool, or down.
  • "Factory farms" are large-scale industrialized farms that try to cram as many animals as possible into as small a space as possible in order to make the highest profit. Animals' welfare is not a priority. More than 99 percent of meat in this country comes from factory farms.
More than 10 billion land animals each year are slaughtered for meat in the U.S. For the vast, vast majority of these 10 billion animalswhether they'll be slaughtered for kosher meat or nonkosher meatthe abuses are horrendous. Calves raised for veal, pregnant and nursing pigs, and egg-laying hens are confined to spaces so tiny that they can hardly move. Chickens and turkeys, who in nature would establish a pecking order rather civilly, would peck each other to death in the close confinement of sheds with literally thousands of animals, so their sensitive beaks are cut off with a hot iron blade. Cows are branded and dehorned as well, and the males of many species are castratedall these bodily mutilations are done without any painkillers.

So why am I vegan? I'm vegan because I oppose the cruel way that factory-farmed animals are treated. Animals are given so little space they can hardly move, are taken away from their mothers shortly after birth, and are denied everything that's natural and important to them. The best way not to support all that unnecessary animal suffering is by boycotting meat and other animal products altogether.

Case Study: AgriProcessors
"Kosher" means that food is "fit" and "proper" to eat. Pork and shellfish are off limits. You can't mix meat and dairy. And kosher slaughter (shechita) means the slaughterer slits a living, conscious, healthy animal's throat with a knife and severs the jugular vein and the carotid artery in one fell swoop. When shechita is performed correctly, the animal is supposed to die instantly without feeling any pain. Kosher slaughter is regulated by both religious and government authorities, so in kosher slaughterhouses, there'll be representatives of both a kosher certification agency (such as the Orthodox Union) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Although the federal Humane Slaughter Act otherwise requires animals to be rendered insensible to pain prior to slaughter (i.e., stunned), the law exempts kosher (and halal) slaughter so that the animals can be fully healthy and conscious, per the technicalities of kosher laws, at the time of slaughter.

You saw the video of AgriProcessors. In 2004, PETA went undercover at a leading kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. I know that the content of the video was graphic and unpleasant to watch, but it's important to have a clear idea of what happened rather than talking abstractly. In the video, cattle had their tracheas ripped out of their throats and suffered prolonged agony following shechita. Part of the problem is that the animal is dead according to the religious concept once the initial cut of shechita has been made, even though they're scientifically still alive, conscious, and able to feel pain for at least a short while. The undercover investigator said, "Many cows were still alive and conscious when they came out of the tube and were slammed onto the floor. Their heads often hit the concrete with a sickening crack. The USDA told the plant to stop the throat-ripping procedure and determined that AgriProcessors employees "had engaged in acts of inhumane slaughter."

Most of the controversy focused on cattle, but the investigator also saw problems with chickens and turkeys. In his words:
  • "Some birds fell after being placed into bucketsthese birds flopped around on the ground violently, and once stopped, they were thrown into the garbage."
  • "I took footage of chickens in trailers where the vents/fans were not running. It's August 11 and really hot. I also took footage of the dumping of chickens onto the conveyor system to be killed. I noticed that one chicken had her foot caught between the conveyor and the wall, and she was unable to pull her foot out."
  • "I filmed another chicken who was caught in the conveyor system of the poultry line. This time, the chicken's head and wing were caught between the retaining wall and the conveyor. I did my best to free her, but access to the conveyor itself was blocked."
These problems point to a larger issue than what the video footage showed. In a commercial, industrialized slaughterhouse, even one with the best of intentions, animals are not seen as individuals. Their welfare is not prioritized. The institution operates on such a large scale that the well-being of animals cannot possibly be ensured. The kill line runs too fast, and the entire system is dependent on keeping this assembly-line production moving, no matter what is happening to the animals involved. When we talk later about supposedly humane alternatives, ask yourself whether it's possible for a slaughterhouse to operate on a large enough scale to be a successful business while still looking out for the unnecessary suffering of individual animals. Inherently, these large-scale slaughter facilities (and many smaller-scale ones) simply can't attend to individual animals' welfare.

Here were the investigator's take-away points:
  • "The suffering and cruelty I witnessed didn't phase anyone on that killing floor."
  • "I just wish that people who eat meat could stand where I did for a day and see cows whose eyes are wide with fright have their throats slit and their tracheas gouged out."
  • "There is no justification for the cruelty I documented in that slaughterhouse. The presence of the USDA didn't have any effect, nor did the presence of the rabbis. These animals were failed by both religion and regulations."
The story broke in November 2004. Scientists and animal welfare experts unanimously agreed that the cows shown in the video were still alive, conscious, and suffering when their tracheas were ripped out. Rabbis from numerous Jewish movements condemned the cruelty in the PETA video. For example, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement stated: "When a company purporting to be kosher violates the prohibition against tza'ar ba'alei hayyim, causing pain to one of God's living creatures, that company must answer to the Jewish community, and ultimately, to God."

Yet you had some (certainly not all) within the Orthodox community (e.g., Agudath Israel of America) and the kosher meat industry (e.g., AgriProcessors attorney Nathan Lewin) claiming that everything was fine. Why? Because according to the letter of the law, religiously speaking, the animals were dead once they had been subjected to shechita. Some people with this view saw the scandal as an attack on the Jewish community that PETA had no place in. A year ago, at a Yeshiva University panel discussion about whether ethics played a role in determining whether food is kosher, three bigwig, establishment Orthodox rabbis (including representatives from the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America) all said no. A representative from the Orthodox social justice group Uri L'Tzedek was the lone dissenting voice, and even he discussed the spirit of the law rather than arguing about the letter of the law.

As much as I'm trying to focus on animal issues, it's impossible not to talk about some related matters. In 2006, the Forward (the nation's leading Jewish newspaper) exposed major labor problems at AgriProcessors. AgriProcessors employeesmany of whom were illegal immigrants who were desperate for employmentreceived some of the lowest wages in the industry, were not given adequate training to operate deadly machinery, did not have easy access to health insurance, and were viewed as second-class citizens compared to the Jewish staff. The paper also included a transcript of an undercover investigator's failed attempt to receive worker's compensation after contracting a bacteria infection while on the job. The Forward has also reported about labor problems at Alle Processing, which became the leading kosher slaughterer in the U.S. in the wake of AgriProcessors' demise.

In 2007, PETA did an undercover investigation at Local Pride in Gordon, Nebraska, which, like AgriProcessors, was owned by the Rubashkin family. In 2008, PETA conducted another undercover investigation at AgriProcessors. Both these investigations showed that workers were ripping at the throats of animals immediately following shechita, when the animals were still conscious, alive, and able to feel pain. The slaughterhouses had not done so during tours given to rabbis, the media, and animal welfare experts, but when they thought nobody was looking, animals were still being mistreated.

In 2008, about a dozen government agencies raided AgriProcessors and arrested 389 illegal immigrant workers. Problems ranged from employment of illegal imigrants to child labor to a meth lab. AgriProcessors went bankrupt in the wake of the raid. The AgriProcessors slaughterhouse was bought by a new company and renamed.

Last month, the head of AgriProcessors, Sholom Rubashkin, was found guilty on 86 of 91 financial charges. He faces more than 1,000 years in jail, so as a practical matter, the 72 immigration-related charges he faced in a separate trial were dropped. That was all on the federal level. He still faces more than 9,000 Iowa state charges for child labor violations.

What Does This Mean for Kosher-Keeping Jews?
The kosher meat industry's controversial practices have been a hot topic in the Jewish community over the last five years. In the wake of such eye-opening horrors, kosher-keeping Jews essentially have three choices on how to react. They can go on as if nothing happened; after all, kosher certification agencies say that the meat was still kosher according to the letter of law of what's required for shechita. They can go vegetarian, which I maintain is the most consistent and surefire way to avoid causing animals unnecessary suffering. Or as was discussed in the article you read for class, "Kosher Wars," they can try to find some middle ground. I don't particularly endorse any of the middle-ground solutions, but especially for the sake of class discussion, they are worth exploring.

One idea is to cut back on the amount of meat consumed. At the 2007 Hazon Food Conference, Rabbi Seth Mandel, head of meat supervision for the Orthodox Union (which has a vested interest in promoting kosher meat), conceded that American Jews these days eat much more meat than they traditionally have. He said, "You have to understand, the Torah did not envision us to eat as much meat as we do. Rambam in the Mishneh Torah says that Jews should eat meat at most two times a week, and if Jews decided to do that, all the problems of kosher slaughter would be solved." I don't think all the problems would be solved, but making the kosher meat industry run on a smaller scale would be a step in the right direction. I'm not holding my breath for this to happen.

The Conservative movement is developing a Magen Tzedek, or shield of justice, that would ensure that approved products were acceptable from the standpoints of animal welfare, treatment of employees, environmental impact, and corporate transparency. Regarding the latest draft of the animal welfare guidelines, I'm holding out judgment until I hear back from a much more knowledgeable expert, who will likely write a guest post on this topic for heebnvegan next month.

There have been initiatives in Israel, Los Angeles, and New York to certify that restaurants and other businesses treat workers well. In New York City, Uri L'Tzedek, the aforementioned Orthodox social justice group, has given its Tav HaYosher (ethical seal) to about 20 restaurants that give their employees fair pay, fair time, and a safe work environment.

And of course, as "Kosher Wars" noted, there have been several efforts to start small-scale operations with humane intentions, including Simon Feil's work, KOL Foods, and Mitzvah Meat. I can't speak to the specifics of those three operations, but consider the following points about other supposedly humane, smaller-scale operations:
  • In his new book, Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer explains how almost all commercially farmed turkeys must be artificially inseminated, even if they're on supposedly humane farms. The variety of turkeys typically raised for meat in the U.S. have been genetically engineered to have their bodies produce more meat in the desired spots, and they physically are not capable of natural reproduction anymore. In almost all cases, this is true of factory-farmed turkey meat and the rare turkey meat from small-scale, humane farms too. Perhaps this isn't an example of suffering, but it does seem to me that relying on birds who can't even mate naturally is an example of interfering with nature and it just isn't right.
  • In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan held up Joel Salatin's Polyface Farms as the pinnacle of ecologically sound practices for a commercial farm, and the animals were supposed to be treated well too. Pollan spent time on the farm and slaughtered "a dozen or so" chickens there, but he noted that the manner in which the chickens were grabbed for slaughter seemed "unduly rough." He didn't know "if there is a more humane way to catch three hundred chickens." Surely the animals could be treated more humanely if several hundred weren't slaughtered in one "as fast and as surely as possible" session. But of course, slaughtering birds on a significantly smaller scaleand treating animals as individualsisn't a viable option for a commercial farm. "Scale makes all the difference," noted Salatin. In order for a farm to use fewer animals and attend to animals' individual welfare, the farm would compromise its commercial viability, which is not an option for many profit-driven businesses. If this is the best we can do in trying to find a middle-ground compromise, I say it's not good enough.
My personal feeling is that while these small farms are better than factory farms and the like from a welfare perspective, they're far from perfect. They inherently can't operate on a large enough scale for their meat to be a viable alternative in the kosher market. Also, if all unnecessary animal suffering should be avoided, it's hard to see how any animal suffering is necessary if humans don't need meat (and tend to be healthier without it).

If we say that there must be kosher meat, then there will be some solutions that aren't perfect but are better than others. But if we accept vegetarianism as a healthier, ethically sound alternative, for kosher-keeping Jews and indeed everyone, we can consistently avoid the problems inherent to commercial animal agriculture.