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.