"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)


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?


  • At 12/25/2009 9:02 AM, Anonymous Richard Schwartz said…

    As president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, I am very happy to see this message. Judaism certainly has powerful teachings on the proper treatment of animals. For more information, please see my articles in the section on animals at JewishVeg.com/schwartz and please see our award-winning documentary "A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help heal the World" at ASacredDuty.com.


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