Noah and Animal Rights

Some people might think, and rightly so, that I’d have to be out of my mind to take issue with veganism.  After all, isn’t animal rights a Jewish value?  Who in their right mind could even think of criticizing someone who would be strict on this issue and go through the incredible discipline it takes to not eat most of the tasty things in this world, forgetting all of the other products such as leather and beauty supplies that are off limits?

Truth be told, I did the vegetarian thing for a time as well, partly for kosher issues but also for animal rights issues.  I told one of my rabbis in Israel who was quite upset.  He said while animal life also has sanctity, it’s not the same as human life and the use of animals was not only permissible but could be used to holy ends.  He gave over this  obscure story as an example:

The Taz, a great legal authority of the 17th century, was the son-in-law of the Bach, another Torah giant of the same time period.  Stated in the Taz’s marriage contract was that the Bach would support him in learning, which included a daily portion of meat.  One time the Bach gave his son-in-law chicken, and the Taz hauled him into Rabbinic court over the issue, which was obviously quite embarrassing for the Bach.  When the Bach asked the Taz to explain himself, he said that he saw in Heaven that there was a decree against the Bach for the drop in the level of the Taz’s learning that day, and the only way he could nullify it was by humiliating his father-in-law that way.

Eventually I did start eating meat because I kept offending my Shabbat hosts by not eating their food.  I assumed this is exactly what my rabbi meant by telling me this story.

Still, there are those who would say that I conducted myself inappropriately and should have kept up the vegetarian thing.  One of those people is R’ Shmuly Yanklowitz, the founder of Uri L’Tzedek and other social justice projects.  R’ Shmuly is a espoused vegan, and it would seem he’s encouraging others to follow suit.  He’s basing his heightened sensitivity based not on Jewish values, but rather on the neo-Aristotelian capabilities argument, something that he learned from a college professor.

The funny thing is that the example he uses as the Torah prototype is Noah.  On one hand, he’s correct that Noah in the sense that Noah is our prototype.  The months that he spent caring for the animals aboard the ark engendered within him a respect for animal life and life in general.  However, R’ Shmuley leaves off the end of the story where Noah goes and sacrifices animals to G-d, an inherently wasteful activity that prematurely ends the lives of these animals.  The conclusion from Noah’s activities are simple: we have a responsibility toward animals, but they don’t actually have rights of their own.

Think about it: we don’t speak of a lion depriving a zebra of its rights.  We accept as a matter of fact that there are predators and prey, and we don’t punish predators for being so.  Quite the opposite: tons of money is dedicated to saving predators such as the lion and tiger and no one accuses us of zebracide.  However, when it comes to a person engaging in harming these same animals, the moral objection kicks in.

Why? Human life is fundamentally higher than animal life because we unlike the animals were created “in the image of G-d” and Adam our ancestor, and later Noah, were appointed the guardians over the world including everything living in it.  The result of that is other living things are subservient to us and therefore within certain guidelines we can use them to advance the human condition as a function of divine mandate.  In other words, the G-d that gave us life and defined morality for us in the Torah said we can eat meat.

So you’ll ask me “Rabbi, what’s the problem?  He’s being extra-sensitive and good natured.”  This may be true, but there are unforeseen logical consequences to his belief system.   There are big problems boiling the value of life down to philosophical principles as opposed to recognizing the value of life inherently given to us by G-d.  The capabilities approach can be distorted to two extremes with some real ethical problems the Torah simply doesn’t have.

If you define functioning and capabilities narrowly, many less individuals are deserving of life. Even if you say that a cow has a right to live because it is fully capable of fulfilling all the functions a cow should, as R’ Shmuley points out several times that animals are in fact intelligent, certain categories of people won’t make the cut.  This approach to morality makes it much easier to justify euthanasia and abortion, both big no-nos in Judaism.  In fact, the standard for who is qualified for euthanasia can be quite liberal, and not just include comatose people but anyone whose functioning is designated as sufficiently impaired such as the severely developmentally disabled or anyone who lacks the ability to consent or deny their wishes to end their life.

If you define functioning broadly, well then you might as well just starve to death.  Since plants, fungi, and even amoeba fulfill their own capabilities, it would be immoral to end their lives just like it would be an animal.  Now I know you will tell me “Rabbi, that’s extreme.  No one would ever do that!”  Actually, that’s not true.  There is a religious sect called Jainism, which holds a very strict doctrine called Ahimsa.  Ahimsa means not to hurt and applies to all living things.   This means strict veganism, with restrictions such as on root vegetables since one might kill a bug pulling the vegetable out of the ground.  They wear face masks and sweep the ground in front of them for the same purpose.  Raid is definitely off limits.  Death by starvation is in fact their greatest ideal, one that was realized by their most important teacher, the Mahavira.

I hope I’ve clarified the problems inherent in a system which takes G-d and the uniqueness of humanity out of the picture.

Update: He decided to take the narrow view

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Noah and Animal Rights

  1. zach says:

    “When the Bach asked the Taz to explain himself, he said that he saw in Heaven that there was a decree against the Bach for the drop in the level of the Taz’s learning that day, and the only way he could nullify it was by humiliating his father-in-law that way.”

    If the story is true, then the Taz was delusional, thinking that somehow he had a direct line to heaven. And he was an asshole, thinking that somehow humiliating someone in public was recompense for getting served chicken.

    And these people are supposed to be Jewish heroes?

    • Right, so here you missed several points I appreciate you enabling me to address:
      1. If the story is true, then either the Taz was delusional OR he actually did have what we call ruah hakodesh, the holy spirit. Men, and women, of exceptional caliber have been documented over and over again to have demonstrated having special insights that just great knowledge alone doesn’t fully explain. Your statement assumes such a thing doesn’t exist, whether or not that really is the case. I invite you to discuss the issue with me here.
      2. The issue wasn’t that the Taz was served chicken. The issue is that the Bach was in breach of contract and that breach negatively impacted the Taz, even ever so slightly, and that already warrants punishment, serious punishment, for people of such high caliber. I think you too would agree that breach of contract is serious but you would only care if that breach involved monetary and not spiritual matters. Correct?
      3. The issue vis-a-vis this story is that according to R’ Yanklowitz if he was so great he should have just been eating beans and rice, yet we see that the drop of learning is more valuable than the animal’s life, in the sense that the animal is serving its purpose by enabling a person to achieve their maximum potential as food. It is incorrect to say we should hinder our productivity to spare an animal’s life since their purpose is to be food and we are not being cruel by consuming meat any more than if it was a lion that was eating that same cow.

      So yes these are supposed to be Jewish heroes. They hold themselves to the highest standards and demand the same from others, and they direct all of their efforts to the greater glory of G-d and man, not just toward selfish ends. I think it’s very sad what you managed to pull out of the story.

  2. H says:

    You have clearly not read any treatment of the animal rights issue. Not secular and not drum. In short, the response would be that animals don’t have rights but we have duties toward them. Second, we don’t learn morals from animals, so the fact that a lion kills zebras is irrelevant to moral human beings. Third, animals have higher life than plant life.

    • What was I writing about then and where do you think I got my information?
      I’m not quite sure where the idea comes from that we have duties toward animals. Do we owe them for something, a debt of gratitude of some type? If we decide to use only plant-derived substances and not own pets, does this obligation still exist? I understand that when we do interact with animals we are obligated to do so in a particular manner, but I already said that. I don’t see any obligation we have toward them other than those I already mentioned about humane treatment, but at what point does that end and how do you determine it? Should I not use Raid even if cockroaches bring diseases into the house? Should I deprive my children of the best nutrition for it? What about using medicines that were tested on animals?
      I agree with you we don’t learn morals from animals. That’s because I don’t believe there’s parity in the relationship. As you point out, we can be moral and they can’t. But if you use R’ Yanklowitz’s capabilities argument, then there is parity between humans and animals by virtue of the fact that we both fulfill our roles as sentient beings. So assuming he’s right, you can learn morals from animals. It’s basically a lose-lose proposition for him: if we stick to the Torah’s morals, the animal has no rights and we can eat it. If we assume the capabilities argument, then part of the understanding of the chain of life is that there are carnivores and herbivores, meaning some animals were meant to be eating while others were meant to do the eating. We would be such creatures.
      On what basis are you determining that animal life is higher than plant life?

  3. Joe Q. says:

    I find that treatment of vegetarianism in Jewish circles often comes to a black-and-white portrayal (such as pitting veganism vs. the status quo). In reality, people avoid meat for a number of reasons, not always or only because of “animal rights” (few vegetarians are PETA supporters). There is a vast middle ground that is rarely addressed but is implicitly rejected because of its real or perceived connections to non-Jewish or heterodox ideas.

    An example of this is the idea of reducing meat consumption, perhaps eating meat only a few times per week, or even only on Shabbos and Yom Tov. This would have environmental and economic benefits and is le-fi aniyus daati halachically permissible, (and was probably the way Chazal ate) but few in the frum world would seem to support it, perhaps because it is too “modern”.

    The frum world’s harsh reaction to the Hechsher Tzedek proposal of a few years back suggests to me that any suggestions for change in what or how Jews eat will be rejected unless it comes from the frum world itself, le-chumrah (e.g. expanding definitions of Kitniyot, increasing standards for produce, etc.).

    Just my thoughts.

    • The Gemara makes a number of references to the restriction of meat eating. For example, Rav would only eat meat at a seudat mitzvah (a meal that was for a religious purpose such as a wedding or festival) and that someone who isn’t learned shouldn’t eat meat because they aren’t sensitive to the fact that an animal died. The mekubbalim (mystics) also had certain tendencies in this direction. For example Rav Kaduri zt”l (whose 8th yartzeit was this New Year’s) only ate meat and fish on Yom Kippur Eve and Purim and that was it. So to say Orthodox Jews haven’t entertained or acted on such ideas, even in modern times, is inaccurate.
      What you are saying correctly is that we maintain innovation in Jewish thought and practice only comes from the Torah and not external sources. This isn’t a bad thing but rather a logical conclusion that Jewish ideas should stem from Jewish sources and should be consistent with the Mesorah (tradition). Does it happen more often than not that this leads to stringencies in behavior.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *