Jewish World Review March 12, 2003/ 8 Adar II, 5763

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Animal wrongs

It isn't only PETA that has it wrong about Jews, Judaism and animal rights. While obviously less hideous, some Members of the Tribe are acting disgracefully. A non-knee-jerk response to the morally misguided. | Just when it seemed that the denial of morality's essential premise, the uniqueness of humanity, had reached its nadir - with Princeton philosopher Peter Singer's ranking of healthy animals' happiness above the lives of hopelessly ill babies, and his urging that society accept human-animal domestic partnerships - along comes PETA and its new, none too delicately titled national campaign, "Holocaust on Your Plate."

Civilized people's wells of indignation are understandably depleted in these amoral times, but we must somehow summon a special sense of outrage for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' new exhibition, which is to be displayed in cities across the United States. It consists of eight 60-square-foot panels depicting photographs of farm and slaughterhouse scenes side-by-side with photographs of Nazi death camp victims. Naked, emaciated men are juxtaposed with a gaggle of chickens; pigs behind bars with starving children behind barbed wire; mounds of human corpses with mounds of cow carcasses. The unspoken but unmistakable message is the group 's long-time slogan "meat is murder."

Holocaust survivors, understandably, might be perplexed by PETA's campaign, and perhaps wonder if it is some sort of incredibly tasteless joke, or the work of people who are mentally disturbed. Unfortunately, though, one gets the sense that PETA and its supporters are neither jokesters nor crazy, that the illness from which they suffer is not mental but moral.

And, in their zeal for their cause, they are not beyond misrepresenting Jewish religious figures. Like Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz, an illustrious American Torah scholar and yeshiva dean who died in 1948. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, PETA invoked his memory in support of its position, describing him as "a vegetarian Torah scholar."

Rabbi Mendelovitz's example is in fact illustrative, though not in the way PETA imagines. According to both his biographer and his son, Rabbi Mendelovitz indeed stopped eating meat in the late 1930s --- but as an act of self-deprivation. When reports of the destruction of European Jewry first reached him, he felt a need to express his anguish, and chose to do so by denying himself the pleasure of meat. Human beings -- his fellow Jews -- were being slaughtered.

Does Judaism accept the mistreatment of animals?

The answer, of course, is an unqualified no. Two of the three forefathers of the Jewish people were shepherds, and the Torah forbids cruelty to animals or causing them gratuitous harm. But it most clearly sanctions their breeding, reasonable confinement and, at least since the Biblical Flood, slaughter for food. Halacha not only permits meat-eating, it encourages it on the Sabbath and holidays as a means of showing honor to holy times.

Were cruelty to animals PETA's sole concern, Judaism could have no complaint with it. But, as the current campaign graphically shows, the PETA Principle runs dangerously close to -- if it doesn't entirely fall into -- the Singerian abyss of effectively equating animal and human life.

And so, while the outrageousness of PETA's invocation of the Holocaust creates a fortuitous focus on the organization, the group's more basic, more harrowing conviction is its seeming denial of humanity's uniqueness.

Thus, Roberta Kalechofsky, the founder of Jews for Animal Rights, drifts off-target by suggesting that the reason the "Holocaust on Your Plate" campaign is wrong is because the Nazis "didn't just want to extinguish Jewish flesh; they wanted to extinguish Jewish civilization." Had the Nazis only targeted half the world's Jews for extinction -- or, for that matter, random humans -- would they not have been evil? More evil, even, than those who kill animals or eat meat?

Mathematician-author-Jewish vegetarian Professor Richard Schwartz follows Ms. Kalechofsky into the intellectual wilderness. Though he retreated from his initial gratification with the PETA campaign -- "I have found," he said, "that other approaches do not get people's attention" -- his subsequent change of heart was due only to sensing the "rage" from some Jewish groups, to a realization of the "deep pain" PETA had caused Holocaust survivors.

That pain is real, and inexcusable, to be sure. But, the Professor notwithstanding, PETA's most elemental sin lies not in its abuse, ugly as it is, of the Holocaust's victims, but rather in its apparent equation of human beings with animals. According to Jewish religious tradition, there was a time in history when humans were forbidden to eat animals. Until the time of Noah, animals were allowed to be used as beasts of burden but not as food. After the Flood, however, the eating of meat became permissible to mankind. One reason that has been suggested for that change is based on another rabbinic tradition, that the generation of the Flood had lost its essential moral bearings, going so far as to sanction official 'marriage'-unions between men and men, and between humans and animals.

The divine sanction of meat-eating, that approach contends, was thus a means of ensuring that humanity recognize beyond question that human beings are special, possessive of a spark of holiness that does not inhere in animals.

Animals are part of G-d's creation and, as the Psalmist sings, "His mercy in on all of His creatures." Our own mercy should be similarly placed. But animals are still not humans.

If we choose to forget that fact, or act to obscure it, we sow the seeds of moral disaster.

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Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. Comment by clicking here.

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