"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)


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."


  • At 12/21/2009 8:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 12/21/2009 2:31 PM, Anonymous veggie said…

    Thanks for this excellent, well thought out overview of options and approaches.


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