Category Archives: Animal Rights

A purpose-driven life? Not so fast…

I read an article today in The Conversation that started me thinking. It talked about a demonstrable psychological link between those who believe in “creationism” and those who believe in conspiracy theories. The article reports that “The new study takes the role of conspiratorial thought in creationism a step further. It suggests that creationism itself could be seen as a belief system involving the ultimate conspiracy theory: the purposeful creation of all things.”

Yet rejecting the teleological idea of “the purposeful creation of all things” is hardly “a step further.” Koheleth (The Preacher of Ecclesiastes) begins:

הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃

Utter futility!—said Koheleth— Utter futility! All is futile! (Ecc. 1:2)

He proceeds to observe the workings of nature and to test out each thing a person might do with his or her life and decides all is purposeless and futile. Koheleth goes so far (Ecc. 3:18-21) as to counter what I see as a bedrock biblical belief, the sanctity and uniqueness of human life in relation to other animals with whom we share the planet:

אָמַ֤רְתִּֽי אֲנִי֙ בְּלִבִּ֔י עַל־דִּבְרַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י הָאָדָ֔ם לְבָרָ֖ם הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְלִרְא֕וֹת שְׁהֶם־בְּהֵמָ֥ה הֵ֖מָּה לָהֶֽם׃

So I decided, as regards men, to dissociate them [from] the divine beings and to face the fact that they are beasts.

כִּי֩ מִקְרֶ֨ה בְֽנֵי־הָאָדָ֜ם וּמִקְרֶ֣ה הַבְּהֵמָ֗ה וּמִקְרֶ֤ה אֶחָד֙ לָהֶ֔ם כְּמ֥וֹת זֶה֙ כֵּ֣ן מ֣וֹת זֶ֔ה וְר֥וּחַ אֶחָ֖ד לַכֹּ֑ל וּמוֹתַ֨ר הָאָדָ֤ם מִן־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ אָ֔יִן כִּ֥י הַכֹּ֖ל הָֽבֶל׃

For in respect of the fate of man and the fate of beast, they have one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other, and both have the same life breath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing.

הַכֹּ֥ל הוֹלֵ֖ךְ אֶל־מָק֣וֹם אֶחָ֑ד הַכֹּל֙ הָיָ֣ה מִן־הֶֽעָפָ֔ר וְהַכֹּ֖ל שָׁ֥ב אֶל־הֶעָפָֽר׃

Both go to the same place; both came from dust and both return to dust.

מִ֣י יוֹדֵ֗עַ ר֚וּחַ בְּנֵ֣י הָאָדָ֔ם הָעֹלָ֥ה הִ֖יא לְמָ֑עְלָה וְר֙וּחַ֙ הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה הַיֹּרֶ֥דֶת הִ֖יא לְמַ֥טָּה לָאָֽרֶץ׃

Who knows if a man’s life breath does rise upward and if a beast’s breath does sink down into the earth?

Yet the book concludes with:

ס֥וֹף דָּבָ֖ר הַכֹּ֣ל נִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֤ים יְרָא֙ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתָ֣יו שְׁמ֔וֹר כִּי־זֶ֖ה כָּל־הָאָדָֽם׃

The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind:

כִּ֤י אֶת־כָּל־מַֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה הָאֱלֹהִ֛ים יָבִ֥א בְמִשְׁפָּ֖ט עַ֣ל כָּל־נֶעְלָ֑ם אִם־ט֖וֹב וְאִם־רָֽע׃
[סוף דבר הכל נשמע את־האלהים ירא ואת־מצותיו שמור כי־זה כל־האדם]

that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad. The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all humankind. (Ecc. 12:13-14)

After an entire book devoted to demonstrating the utter purposelessness of life, Koheleth exhorts us to revere G-d and observe His commandments. What does this mean?

It means that in the final analysis, all a person can do is make choices, and one of those choices is how will you live your life? On the basis of what belief, what worldview? Yet there is no objective basis for making this choice and no argument to be made to support your choice.

As I wrote in a post a couple of days ago, this is basically my own position. Admittedly this is not a comfortable place to be in relation to my life. I’ve often admired and even envied people like my grandmother who had a deep and very specific religious faith and sense of purpose.

But it’s the only place I can be. Once I say with Steven Hawkings that there is no G-d, or with Neil deGrasse Tyson, that we come from the same material as the stars, and it is an incredible series of coincidences and accidents that resulted in human life, or with Yuval Noah Harari that our human genius is creating fictions that we persuade others to believe and that it’s all fiction, or with Charles Eisenstein that it’s all stories . . . it’s a short step to say we cannot demonstrate that any system of belief or morality is objectively superior to any other. And it is one more short step to say there is no intrinsic purpose to anything. But that’s not the end of the world. It might even be the beginning of one.

Yes, we are left with stark basic choices: will we continue to live knowing there is no objective evidence for purpose in it? And if yes, how will we live? Read the message behind Koheleth’s words: “Revere G-d and observe his commandments!” Recognize and be humbled by what is greater than yourself, the impossible-to-conceive stretch of time and beyond-time, of space and beyond-space. Live according to a set of norms that teaches and guides you to experience your connection to all being because that is all you have. And it turns out, it’s more than sufficient.

Job discovers the same truth: the comforters with their reasoned arguments and judgments are no comfort. Experiencing the unimaginable vastness and beauty of creation in a profound moment of connection is the only thing that touches his pain and heals him.

As I read the article from The Conversation, I thought two things: I understood a little better, perhaps had a little more compassion for, a group of people that I have had great difficulty understanding: anti-science, climate-denying, religious literalists. Existentialism is a scary branch of the tree to sit on. It’s actually not even a branch. It’s more like floating alone in space utterly disconnected and without knowledge of how you got there or where you’re going. Consciousness in this place can be terrifying. I understand how attractive the alternative of certainty is, how attractive it is to imagine that the joy and the suffering we experience in life has purpose and meaning and we know, with utter certainty, what that is.

I also understood a little better the source of my own faith which is both faith and, I think, science. I believe everything is interconnected. Science tells us that every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. It tells us we came from the same substance as the stars. It tells us that what we are connected to our planet and that our actions affect the planet.

It is also a belief expressed in the Bible, a text I grew up reading sitting in my Dad’s lap and continue to read today as I approach the eighth decade of my life. The Bible reminds us in every page of our connection to each other, to other animals, and to the planet. When we fail in our responsibility in the social realm, all of creation rises against us.

As I view the world through the prism of that observation and belief, I choose a set of practices and experiences that reinforce it and repeatedly demonstrate its truth. I experience connection and nurture the experience. The experience is self-affirming. It provides me with certainty and encourages me to open the circle of connection wider and wider, to resist or seek to overcome experiences of disconnection.

Here, on the other hand, is an image that contrasts so sharply with that experience of connection. Instead it expresses isolation, loneliness and anger in the midst of a sea of connection between people on the right and the left, throughout a divided nation, and among nations.

The image shows so clearly that this choice for science-denial and creationism doesn’t present an easy or comfortable path either. What are the sources of strength that might carry this person through personal suffering?

And here I return to Koheleth’s final message: recognize and be humbled by what is greater than yourself, the impossible-to-conceive stretch of time and beyond-time, of space and beyond-space. Live according to a set of norms that teaches and guides you to experience your connection to all being because that is all you have. Continually stretch the boundaries of compassion. The truth reveals itself and provides its own evidence.

And so after all, I can see that my belief is evidence-based. To the extent that I experience connection to my world, to family, friends, community, other animals, the planet and even, possibly, beyond, not only does scientific observation support me in that, my life just works better. It is more fulfilling, more beautiful, and I experience purpose. In other words, the experience of faith through connection is true because it works at the simplest levels: I have only to put my hands in the soil, prepare a meal from real foods, or walk with my dog in the snow, an experience of connection because we both love being outdoors, we are both happy, and it’s better together.

“At the end of the world, turn left.” Sof ha-olam smola.  Just be sure you have a friend of any species with you.

The day is short, and the work is much . . .

Yuval Noah Harari says there is no objective evidence to support any moral system much less one system over another. He also says the unique feature of human beings, Sapiens, is our ability to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. And it’s all fiction. I agree with these thoughts, and it keeps me humble.

But I also believe there is purpose in our lives on this planet, as contradictory as that may seem, and it is and has always been to expand the circle of our compassion even as we tend to our own survival needs. That also keeps me humble. It’s hard and constant work. 

My belief in this purpose is what keeps me connected to my religion of choice. The primary purpose of every religion is to provide a framework to guide us toward that objective, expanding our circle of compassion, restraining our less generous instincts and standing against the less generous trends of the society in which we live.

In some ways those less generous instincts are grounded in a perception of the world outside ourselves as “the other” whom we need to defeat or around whom we at least need to be cautious and suspicious. That’s probably a necessary evolutionary characteristic — but we are at our best as humans when we find a balance between self-survival and other- awareness and empathy. Every religion “knows” this.

So I decided to do my work of expanding my circle of compassion, which requires removing some boundaries of perception, by  rethinking my relationship with other animals on the planet. I grew up in a time and culture when meat-eating was taken for granted, and a mental boundary was put in place early on between what was on my plate and where it came from. I find that as I remove those boundaries and blinders, it makes me more aware of other ways I need to widen the circle of compassion and try to see things through the eyes of others. 

Peeking under the curtain to see “the other,” reducing the mental boundaries between myself and “them,” is a task I will never complete and one at which I frequently fail. And often it’s just too painful to lift the curtain. But it’s also a task and purpose I want to remind myself to work on every day.

I think the major obstacle to experiencing and living our lives to the full is our perception of the world outside ourselves as “the other.” Each time we remove a boundary and experience a moment of connection, we realize our potential, meaning and purpose. The interesting thing is, we give that moment to the “other” at the same time.

“The day is short, the work is much, and the laborers are slothful. It is not incumbent upon you to finish the job, however, neither are you free from doing all you can to complete it.” – Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:2)

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. 

Torah Ecology: Beshallach 2018 (Ex. 13:17 – 17:16)

Beshallach focuses on food and water, essentials for life, and how these necessities shape and define relationships. Last year I explored these themes and how structural elements in the story reveal them. This year I will examine the Animals’ Story subtext, how it adds density to the themes and illuminates the relationship between human beings and other animals.

Following are the animal references in the portion:

Ex. 14:9 – “…the Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea, near Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-zephon.”

Ex. 14:23 – “The Egyptians came in pursuit after them into the sea, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and horsemen.”

Ex.15:1b – “Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”

Ex. 15:20b – “And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”

Ex. 16:3 – “The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.'”

Ex. 16:8 – “‘Since it is the Lord,’ Moses continued, ‘who will give you flesh to eat in the evening and bread in the morning to the full, because the Lord has heard the grumblings you utter against Him, what is our part? Your grumbling is not against us, but against the Lord!'”

Ex. 16:11 – “The Lord spoke to Moses: ‘I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Speak to them and say: By evening you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; and you shall know that I the Lord am your G-d.'”

Ex. 16:13 – “In the evening quail appeared and covered the camp; in the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp.”

Ex. 16:20 – “But they paid no attention to Moses; some of them left of it until morning, and it became infested with maggots and stank. And Moses was angry with them.”

Ex. 17:3 – “But the people thirsted there for water; and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

As we have seen in these portions, the fate of the animals follows that of their humans and augments the main narrative.

There was a time when I had to memorize the song in chapter 15. It’s cadence and imagery always stayed with me, especially the refrain, סוּס  וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם (soos v’rochvo ramah va-yam) – “The horse and its driver He hurled into the sea.” And thus the Egyptians’ horses suffer the same fate as their drivers although they bore no guilt for the sins of their society.

In Ex. 16:3, 8 and 11, we hear about the barely concealed grumblings of the hungry Israelites, longing for the “fleshpots” (סִיר הַבָּשָׂר – seer ha-basar) of Egypt. There are two interesting points here:

  1. Is it likely the Israelites as slaves in Egypt would have been “sitting by” the fleshpots, eating their fill?
  2. In Ex. 12:32, when Pharaoh orders the Israelites to go, he finally tells them to take their flocks and herds. In 12:38, we learn, “Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.” What was the purpose of the livestock if not to provide milk and meat? Nahum Sarna suggests (JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, p. 86) “livestock is the most valuable possession of the pastoralist, who can seldom be induced to part with an animal. Besides, the people had probably already suffered losses for lack of adequate pasturage.” Maybe. But they seem to sacrifice a lot of animals without those same worries.

Two thoughts occur to me as alternatives to Sarna’s explanation for the Israelite complaint when they were surrounded by their own herds. The first is, the fact that they are not killing their animals for food offers a parallel similar to the horses being hurled into the sea along with their riders: the Israelite herds, like the Israelites themselves, are saved from death. The animals’ story corresponds to their humans’ story.

My second thought is related to the word “flesh” (basar – בָּשָׂר). It refers to a dead carcass. It is the word used in the Flood story when G-d says He will destroy “all flesh.” In the Flood story, there is a negative connotation to the word as humans and animals are referred to as merely basar, carcasses, not nefesh, that part of creatures animated by the breath of G-d. Here it is associated with Israelite gluttony and their distrust and ingratitude. The fleshpots were Egypt. Now, on the path to freedom, it is time for something else.

The negative association to basar is amplified in the verses about the quail, Ex. 13:16 and 20. Gluttony and distrust results in environmental distress, maggots and a stench.

In Numbers 11, there is a similar story about Israelite complaints at Taberah and their nostalgia for the food in Egypt. In this story, the negative association between basar, “flesh”-eating and gluttony and ingratitude is even more explicit: “‘Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you; because that ye have rejected the LORD who is among you, and have troubled Him with weeping, saying: Why, now, came we forth out of Egypt?'”

Finally, in Ex. 17:3, the themes come together in these words: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” From the vantage point of the complaining Israelites, the livestock may end up dying — not as food but rather from thirst. The fate of the livestock is bound up with how the Israelites perceive their own fate, brought out of Egypt to be killed from lack of food and water.

Yet the animals, like the Israelites, are destined for another future. G-d brought the Israelites and their livestock out of Egypt to save them, and water will come. As the Egyptians’ animals went down into the sea with the Egyptians and their chariots, the Israelites’ animals are going up to the Land of Israel with their humans, fed and watered by the hand of G-d.

Animals in the Bible

One of the things I have noticed and commented about as I have read the Torah story about animals is that they progressively lose stature in relation to human beings: “Gone are the days in the Garden when animals, as much as humans, speak and act in the unfolding story of creation. Now humans are the only actors, and animals are either “beasts of the field” or domesticated, mutely serving humans in a variety of ways…” This is the animals’ story in Genesis — a loss of status in creation.

As I try to understand how we came to use, kill, eat, even abuse animals so thoughtlessly, one answer as I read the text is that we regard ourselves superior to them. Better to kill and sacrifice an animal as payment for a sin we commit than a human being. But how did we arrive at this idea? Was it more than mere anthropocentrism?

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari talks about the evolution of religions from animism to polytheism to monotheism. Of animism, he says, “When animism was the dominant belief system, human norms and values had to take into consideration the outlook and interests of a multitude of other beings, such as animals, plants, fairies and ghosts…Hunter-gatherers picked and pursued wild plants and animals, which could be seen as equal in status to Homo sapiens. The fact that man hunted sheep did not make sheep inferior to man, just as the fact that tigers hunted man did not make man inferior to tigers. Beings communicated with one another directly and negotiated the rules governing their shared habitat.”

Conversely, “farmers owned and manipulated plants and animals, and could hardly degrade themselves by negotiating with their possessions. Hence the first religious effect of the Agricultural Revolution was to turn plants and animals from equal members of a spiritual round table into property.”

This thought and the contrast Harari presents fascinate me from several directions. Possibly the first chapters of Genesis do more than merely preserve elements of a folkloristic past, subdued because it was rejected. Perhaps these chapters are not only visionary but preserve the memory of a transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society and with it the memory of a time when humans didn’t see themselves superior to other living beings. This thought helps me begin to understand how a text that brings us the extraordinary vision of Genesis 1-3 also presents us with a system of sacrificing animals in our stead and eating them.

Once humans make the full transition to a world in which “plants and animals are no longer equal members of a spiritual round table” but are mere property, “commodities,” as I call them, it is an easy step to succumb to another evolutionary trait Harari identifies, our sense of us vs. them: “Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’. We are people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for them. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely even human.“ — or in the present conversation, “they” (animals) are not human and so have less value.

Granted, the Torah never presents the idea that animals are commodities explicitly or comprehensively. It is clear in various stories I have discussed in the course of my study that veganism is a preferred, if unrealistic, ideal. Torah vocabulary signifies profound similarity between humans and other creatures while leaving the difference somewhat vague: both animals and humans are “basar” (flesh, meat, carcass, material substance) and “nefesh” (soul, flesh animated by the breath of G-d). Only humans are Tzelem Elokim, “in the image of G-d,” but it’s not entirely clear to me what that means or how it differs from nefesh. Rabbinic interpretation tells us it refers to moral discernment, and I’m comfortable with that for the most part — yet it’s a precarious difference. Any moment in which human beings fail to exercise moral discernment is a moment in which they are fully animal and in no way superior to other creatures.

Why is it important how we came to the view that humans are superior to animals and the environment and on what basis? Because that worldview led in contemporary times to our crimes against other life on the planet and our environment. Only by seeing other life and the planet as commodities can we breed animals solely for the purpose of short lives of suffering so we can kill them to satisfy our appetites. Only by seeing the environment as a commodity can we take from it whatever we want without thought for its well-being — unless we simply exclude this activity from view and consciousness, as manufacturers strategically do. Ultimately, though, that separation from the reality of factory farms and environmental destruction doesn’t relieve us of either responsibility or consequences.

The possibility that the biblical text presents as vision a memory of an animistic world view suggests so many possibilities to me in terms of how we heal our world today. Here are some of my thoughts:

  • I like the idea of animism, that other life is included at “the spiritual round table,” that we communicate with each other directly and negotiate the rules of our shared habitat.
  • I appreciate a biblical text that includes another world view, namely animism, alongside the one presented in most of its following pages. It gives that other worldview priority of position in its first three chapters (although with a nuanced reference to domesticating animals).

Taking from those models, perhaps we can begin to deconstruct our us-them mentality and our superiority complexes. We can, as in the first chapters of the biblical text, learn from others, including from other creatures on the planet and from our environment as we let them speak to us. We can learn from the wisdom of ancient traditions, no view perfect but each with a glimpse of “truth.”

No creature left behind

For some reason today, I thought about Zlateh the Goat, a beautiful story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Of this book, including the story of Zlateh, the New York Times says, “beautiful stories for children, written by a master.” But they are not just for children. This is a powerful story of love and compassion and communication at the most profound level between species, different animals, human and goat.

Zlateh the Goat struggles with the challenges of reality as does another child’s story, “Carp in the Bathtub” by Barbara Cohen, a story in which two young children “learn some very grownup lessons when they try to save the fish their mother bought to make into gefilte fish” for the Passover Seder.  One writer calls the story “an early lesson in mortality and heartbreak.” The kidnapped fish ultimately ends up where it is destined to be, fulfilling its purpose on the Seder table. The children’s father teaches them a lesson about the purpose of each life on earth, and the youngsters receive a “real” pet, a cat, after Passover.

Many of us, myself included, experienced the lessons of both books consciously or unconsciously at some time in our lives. We learned that animals are living beings with souls and compassion and an ability to communicate — and we learned that in our culture, they have a purpose, which is to entertain us or to end up on our plates or in our clothing.

But as we get older and explore the realities of life and death on factory farms and question the messages of culture, some of us wonder: Can any creature possibly be born with its purpose to be systematically slaughtered after a short, constricted and unnatural life separated from its home, family, friends and natural habitat? The answer of “Carp in the Bathtub” isn’t sufficient for our world today just as the message of kashrut is only the beginning of an answer left for us to update for this moment in which we live.

One lesson the Torah teaches is that but for the grace of G-d and not our own merits, we too could be prey. Perhaps it’s time to remember and reimagine our place in creation along the lines of the first chapters of Genesis.

Torah Ecology: Noach (Gen 6:9 – 11:32)

“Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the LORD your God gives you.” (צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ) – Deut. 16:20

Religions begin with looking at the world and seeing a problem, then imagining solutions. For the Torah and later Judaism, that problem is injustice. Since injustice is a problem in relationship, the solution the Torah imagines is a body of laws to guide first humanity, then a subset of humanity, the Israelites, in establishing right relationships.

The justice issue informs the overarching thematic structure of the Torah, set out in Genesis 1-9: creation, moral failure, roll-back of creation, a new creation. When morality fails and relationships are out of balance, catastrophe follows. When justice fails, worlds return to pre-creation emptiness and void. All of creation interconnects and depends on each part, and each part connects to and depends on others. Moral failures in any area of life affect everything.

My primary purpose in Torah Ecology is to explore what the Torah envisions as correct relationships. From my study so far, I believe the parameters are much wider than the human realm, embracing other creatures and the whole earth.

Ethical consciousness and responsibility pervade all of creation, human beings, non-human animals, the earth itself. Not only human beings but non-human animals fail to fulfill G-d’s plan for creation, and both are morally accountable. The earth is G-d’s instrument in ensuring justice. From this week’s portion:

“The earth became corrupt before G-d; the earth was filled with lawlessness. When G-d saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh (בָּשָׂר – basar) had corrupted its ways on earth, G-d said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh (בָּשָׂר – basar), for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Gen. 6:11-13).

Our assumption is that G-d intends to wipe out humanity because of its “lawlessness,” because it “corrupted” its ways, but the text doesn’t say humanity — it says “all flesh” (בָּשָׂר – basar). The word signifies the substance or flesh of a being, most often without life in it, a carcass suitable for food or for sacrifice on the altar. It refers to any kind of creature.

The word בָּשָׂר – basar, meaning flesh, contrasts with נֶּפֶשׁ – nefesh, often translated “soul” — yet Gen. 12:5 reports that “Abram left Haran with his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the נֶּפֶשׁ (nefesh) – persons that they had acquired in Haran…”  The story of Noah and the flood suggests that נֶּפֶשׁ (nefesh) has an even more comprehensive meaning than “persons,” that like basar, it doesn’t only refer to human beings. Perhaps a better translation, then, is living being, substance given life by the breath of G-d.

Along these lines, Gen. 1:29-30 reads, “G-d said, “See I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land (חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ – hayyat ha-aretz), to all the birds of the sky (עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם – of ha-shamayim), and to everything that creeps on earth (רוֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ – romes al ha-aretz), in which there is the breath of life (אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – asher bo nefesh hayyah), [I give] all the green plants for food.”

In Gen. 2:20, we learn of a further division of land animals into domesticated and wild: “And the man gave names to all the cattle (בְּהֵמָה – behemah) and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts (חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה – hayyat ha-sadeh)…”

Once again, in Gen. 2:19, all creatures are living beings: “…and whatever the man called each living creature (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – nefesh hayyah), that would be its name.” All creatures are livings beings (נֶפֶשׁ – nefesh) brought to life with the breath of G-d. Ha-Adam, humanity, is but one genus in the family of living beings.

The word ”flesh” (בָּשָׂר – basar), then, in this context means all creatures were lawless and corrupted their ways on earth. The text emphasizes this point in the phrase, “The earth became corrupt before G-d” (וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ – va-tishaket ha-aretz). It also implies that all living beings were already dead, that the breath of life wasn’t within them. They were not נֶּפֶשׁ – nefesh. They were “basar,” carcasses, devoid of the breath of life.

Certainly this theme isn’t presented in a one-to-one correspondence, life vs. lifeless flesh. The creatures who enter the ark are “all flesh in which there is the breath of life” (מִכָּל-הַבָּשָׂר, אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ רוּחַ חַיִּים – mi-lol ha-basar asher bo ruach hayyim) – Gen. 7:17. But it is the ongoing and repeated association of flesh with the beings on earth before the flood that focuses attention on the material and therefore transient aspect of life on earth, dependent on the breath of G-d for life.

More than that, skillful and repeated use of flesh, בָּשָׂר – basar, and נֶפֶשׁ – living being, points to the equality of all creation in this respect: all creatures, not only humans, depend on G-d for life, and their life is the breath of G-d. At the same time, all creatures, including humans, without the breath of life from G-d are merely meat, dead carcasses.

The emphasis on the equality of all being on earth finds another expression in Gen. 7:23: “All existence (כָּל-הַיְקוּם – lol ha-y’kum) on earth was blotted out — man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth.” An alternate translation of “existence” is “substance,” again a reference to the material aspect of all creatures on earth, human and otherwise. And those who leave the ark are all “living things of all flesh” (כָּל-הַחַיָּה… מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר – kol hayyah … mi-kol basar) – Gen. 8:17.

What Noach describes is a world in which all living beings became lawless and corrupt and all, therefore, suffered the consequence of their moral failure. Creation rolls back to watery emptiness and void but for the tiny remnant, human and non-human, who still have G-d’s breath of life in them, כָּל-הַחַיָּה (all living beings), floating on the vast, dark water in a tiny ark.

The story of the flood reverses the imagery of the creation story in Gen. 1 and is rich with allusions to that creation narrative as creation rolls back. But it is the reference to corruption in the flood story that makes me wonder what, exactly, brought on this roll back to pre-creation darkness and emptiness. Significant differences between the first creation and the new one that follows the flood suggest an answer.

The key Hebrew stem sh-h-t, “corrupt,” appears seven times in the flood narrative, according to Nahum Sarna in the JPS Torah Commentary. These further comments are telling: “The universal corruption is further defined as hamas. This term parallels “no justice” in Job 19:7 and is elsewhere the synonym of “falsehood,” “deceit,” or “bloodshed.” It means, in general, the flagrant subversion of the ordered processes of law.”

This helps us understand the nature of the lawlessness and corruption permeating all of creation that brought on the flood. A comparison of Gen. 1:29-30, quoted above, and Gen. 9:2-5 tells that story, once again including non-human creatures with humanity in both moral failure and consequence. Gen. 1:29-30 provides “every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit” to human beings for food and “all the green plants for food” to every kind of creature. In other words, both humans and animals are offered a vegan diet. Everything changes in the post-flood world:

Gen. 9:2-5: “The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it. But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man (brother).”

The new creation of Gen. 9:2-5 differs profoundly from the creation of Gen. 1-3 that it mirrors. G-d specifically allows meat-eating to humans, generating fear throughout the animal kingdom. Immediately this reluctant permission is ringed with prohibition: not to eat flesh with its life-blood in it. Further, human beings are not to kill their “brothers,” their fellow humans, an allusion to the story of Cain and Abel, suggesting that every homicide is fratricide.

The passage also, however, pre-supposes meat-eating among animals and cautions they will now be held accountable if their prey is human. Both animals and humans, in taking life that was not permitted to them in the original order of creation, acted lawlessly and corruptly. For both animals and humans, there were consequences for moral failures tied to unjustly taking life that returned the world to watery emptiness and void. In the new creation, while G-d gives humans and animals permission to continue their practice of eating meat, restrictions surround the practice and they are warned of their accountability.

Humans killed their own family, and animals killed humans for food in the pre-flood world. This is the lawlessness and corruption that subverted G-d’s plan and brought down the first creation. In the brave new world post-flood, G-d recognizes and accepts the reality of human and animal natures and recluctantly, and I have to imagine sadly, allows meat-eating with restrictions to humans and animals according to their natures.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

A new practice for Yom Kippur

Jewish tradition teaches that G-d can only forgive transgressions bein Adam l’Makom, those transgressions we commit against G-d. G-d cannot forgive transgressions bein Adam l’havero, between us and our fellow human beings.  Therefore, before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we apologize for ways in which we may have hurt others, intentionally or unintentionally. In this way we enter the Day of Atonement ready to engage in the process of teshuva, or “return” to the path of fulfillment and joy.

Teshuva is about renewing a relationship that has been sundered, not simply curing one party’s guilt. It is about curing a hurt that has caused a rift between parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister, friend and friend. As much as is possible, it returns things to the way they used to be.

If there is a section of the Torah that comes immediately to my mind when I hear the phrase, “the way they used to be,” it is the first three chapters of Bereishit, Genesis. I am reading those chapters this week, very carefully, as I prepare to begin the cycle of Torah readings once again on another holiday coming soon, Simchat Torah, rejoicing in the Torah. This section comes to my mind because it describes an ideal world, a beautiful, lush, creative, harmonious world…a world in which no creature kills another for food or any other purpose.

The key word is “harmonious.” The world in the first three chapters of Bereishit is not one in which there is no violence because everything is the same. In fact, this is a world rich with difference. Creation is all about differentiating one thing from another, and as creation proliferates, so does difference — and G-d sees that it is all good.

This vision has always led me to think that the path to a world of beauty, joy and fulfillment is not involved in reducing differences, whether they are religious or cultural or political or racial…but in rejoicing in them, seeing them as good, and respecting the wisdom that makes us all experience and see the world in different ways. At the same time, I believe our greatest ethical challenge as human beings is to overcome our fear of and sense of superiority toward “the other.”

In recent years, I have begun to extend that appreciation for difference beyond the human realm. Increasingly I see that human superiority (whether in intelligence or emotion or compassion) is nothing more than a construct — one created by those who place themselves at the top of that pyramid. In reality, other creatures on the planet have different ways of being intelligent or emotional or compassionate, perfectly suited to their environment and survival requirements.

And yet, as Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli professor of history and the author of the international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, says of factory farm animals: “The disappearance of wildlife is a calamity of unprecedented magnitude, but the plight of the planet’s majority population—the farm animals—is cause for equal concern.  In recent years there is growing awareness of the conditions under which these animals live and die, and their fate may well turn out to be the greatest crime in human history. If you measure crimes by the sheer amount of pain and misery they inflict on sentient beings, this radical claim is not implausible.”

This utter disregard and disdain for other life on the planet is worth contemplating as we enter Yom Kippur. This year I want to include in my own apology to all those whom I have knowingly or unknowingly wronged an apology to all creatures I have knowingly or unknowingly and thoughtlessly used.

As I find ways every day to expand my own consciousness of the times my awareness of and appreciation for “the other” fails me, my hope is to do my part in tikkun, repairing the world, “curing a hurt that has caused a rift” in creation. As I return to that extraordinary vision in the first chapters of Bereishit, I want to be part of returning or bringing our world closer to powerful potentiality.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Two Models to Feed the World: IFS & Torah

“Much have I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most from my students.” – Rav Hanina ( Talmud: Taanit, 7a)

I finished teaching a class at McHenry County Community College this past week called “Conscious Choices: Thinking About Food.” I taught the class last year, but each year it’s different as our food situation evolves (or devolves) and my own knowledge base grows.

My formal coursework has been in religion and Bible. I have enjoyed taking and teaching many classes. Informally, I read widely about food, the environment, sustainability and agriculture, in particular animal agriculture. I maintain a Twitter feed primarily for the purpose of following trends and picking up leads to interesting reading. This year I also enjoyed an online class in “The Ethics of Eating” from Cornell University. I fed myself and my family and friends for 50 years, operated a large organic garden, worked in the food industry, and now I work (very part-time) on a farm.

Finally, though, what most encourages me to constantly reshape these classes is student input. An aha moment for a student is an aha moment for me. In the last series I taught, that aha moment was hearing Alex Hershaft, Holocaust survivor and animal activist, speak. This time it was a comment from Michael Pollan’s 2008 “An Open Letter to the Farmer in Chief,” “But if taking the animals off farms made a certain kind of economic sense, it made no ecological sense whatever: their waste, formerly regarded as a precious source of fertility on the farm, became a pollutant — factory farms are now one of America’s biggest sources of pollution.”

He continues, “As Wendell Berry has tartly observed, to take animals off farms and put them on feedlots is to take an elegant solution — animals replenishing the fertility that crops deplete — and neatly divide it into two problems: a fertility problem on the farm and a pollution problem on the feed lot. The former problem is remedied with fossil-fuel fertilizer; the latter is remedied not at all.”

There is a lot of talk these days about 2050 and the need to feed a predicted world population of 10 billion. How will we accomplish that? Are there enough land and water resources? How do we bring true food security to the “food insecure?” As our world continues to change, will we perhaps all become food insecure? Can our current path make us healthier and happier?

As the class evolved, I realized that I was teaching two models for “feeding the world.” The first model is the one offered up by our American culture: the Industrial Food System (or IFS). The second is what I will call the biblical model. Each of these models utilizes different strategies to produce food, and each produces different results.

What I understood as I taught this year is that not only is each of these models a “system” in every sense of the word, but like any good system, each has a purpose or mission that defines its objectives, strategies and results.

Michael Pollan introduces his Open Letter this way: “The food and agriculture policies you’ve inherited — designed to maximize production at all costs and relying on cheap energy to do so — are in shambles, and the need to address the problems they have caused is acute.”

But if the IFS mission of maximizing production at all costs has failed, so has the biblical mission of expanding the realm of ethical consciousness. This mission has failed not so much because of a problem in the message but more from the dismissive attitude of a secular world toward sacred texts and wise teachers in human history.

We are not the first generation to sit on the edge of catastrophe, yet we reject ancient teachings before we even take time to know what they are. Their wisdom barely enters our consciousness as we struggle with problems that threaten our continued existence on the planet.

Yet just as there may be things of value to glean from the Industrial Food System before we reform it or throw it out, there are things of value to take from the Torah and other ancient teachings.

When I began my Torah Ecology project, my intention was to focus on food, animal rights and the environment. In this first year of my project, my interest isn’t so much on specifics like what people ate but more on what it meant to them — or at least what it was supposed to have meant to them according to the “Author”/authors of the Torah. Understanding this takes me on some thought journeys that seem far afield, but ultimately each week of close study contributes something to my ability to get inside the biblical worldview.

When I redesign the class for next year, I will organize it very specifically around these two models, the IFS and the biblical model, maximum production vs. maximum ethical consciousness. How does each of these models relate to human health, other species on the planet and the planet itself? What does each model say about our relationship to other species and to the planet? Specifically, what does each model say about animal agriculture, agricultural workers, health, waste and human consciousness?

One thing I know about our current food culture is that it encourages a total disconnect from the sources of our food. That disconnect in turn generates distortions in our relationship to transcendence, our environment, other human beings, other creatures, even our own bodies. Working in the fields planting and harvesting, sharing the fields with other animals and cooking with real food break down that disconnect, restoring satisfying, beneficial and meaningful relationships. The biblical model expresses that understanding of interconnectedness.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Sapiens means “wise,” but are we?

This morning, as so often happens, I was alerted by @JewishVeg, to an excellent book by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian and a tenured professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  The book is Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind, companion volume to his more recent Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Because I’m preparing to teach a class and suspected it might provide some good background material, I downloaded a summary of Sapiens to read this morning.

This is a book I recommend for anyone interested in the development of humanity and in particular, our relationship with our planet and other life on it. This relationship is my focus in my own study project as I work my way through the Torah this year and probably for a number of years to come as I begin to add in interpretive traditions.

The statement that first drew my eye was in the image with the @JewishVeg post (please visit the JewishVeg website at jewishveg.org for lots of great information and resources:

In reading the summary version of the book this morning, I discovered other thoughts and ideas that I’m excited to explore further with Prof. Harari, among them:

  • His thought that wheat domesticated humans and not vice versa, reminiscent of Michael Pollan’s idea about apples in his book In Defense of Food.
  • His statement that religion is a fundamental feature in the development of humanity and that it unifies, not the reverse. He says that the ability to imagine a reality is what creates and binds social groups. This corresponds to my own thought that everything is a construct including language itself, and our existential reality is that to become fully human, we must choose what will shape our perception  or risk being shaped willy nilly without our participation.
  • His statements about capitalism, based on the idea that the future will be better than today, and that capitalism is a “religion,” positing that economic growth is essential because freedom, justice and happiness need growth in the economy. As I challenge assumptions and constructs in other areas of my life, I’m inspired to challenge this one.

Most of all, I was drawn back to the quote @JewishVeg highlighted, and I went to read more. These two articles focused on Prof. Harari’s idea that human beings are catastrophically destructive to life on the planet, utterly contrary to what the Torah prescribes for us:

http://www.ynharari.com/topic/ecology/

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/25/industrial-farming-one-worst-crimes-history-ethical-question

If time is short, read the summary, but consider the important information and perspectives Prof. Harari brings to the decisions you make every day.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

There’s The Ideal…And Then There’s The Real

Sometimes when I study Torah these days I get a little lost in the details of animal sacrifice and numbering and valuing people and animals.

My original purpose in this study was to  try to understand what the Torah says comprehensively, pervasively, about our relationship to the planet and every other creature on it. Certainly there are verses here and there that I can draw on to make the argument for ecological sensitivity and veganism, but I wanted something more pronounced, something woven systematically through this carefully constructed, nuanced text.

The more I study the Torah, the more I regard it as the product of a unified consciousness. Its extraordinary construction, the parallelisms, the chiasms, the repeating themes and images, the nuanced vocabulary…all come together in an impressive architecture that makes an inspired and compelling set of statements about the meaning and purpose of our existence.

I still believe the comprehensive message I seek is there. I see tantalizing hints of it constantly as I study. And of course there are those strong, clear verses here and there, just the things my spirit needs to hear. The comprehensive message, though, seems ultimately to elude me as I read about things like the princes of Israel bringing hundreds of animals to the Tabernacle for slaughter. My imagination springs into life, and I lose my connection to the big meaning behind and under and throughout, as I try to understand the particular meaning within this bloody, terrifying spectacle.

Terrifying, at least, from the animal’s perspective. Was it terrifying for the priests and Levites? The Israelites in attendance? Was there supposed to be an aspect of terror? Of awe? Because certainly there is that dimension to life itself. Even in our modern, secular era, the existentialists identified that.

And what about responsibility, guilt, atonement, gratitude? Aren’t these all fully human experiences and emotions? If we are fully open to our human experience, if we are fully human in that experience, is it possible that experience can be without overwhelming moments of gratitude or of realizing the stark limits on living without causing harm?

Finally, at least at this point in my progress, I come back to the idea that a harmonious, beautiful vision is put before us, an ideal world in which there is no bloodshed and no violence in creation. Harmony reigns, not hierarchy, and there is a continuity between transcendence, creation and human beings. Ethical consciousness pervades everything.

And then there is the real world, the world in which we live, the only world we know. It is a world in which ethical dilemmas are almost always Gordian knots. There is no escape from the reality of life, no deus ex machina, no magic. G-d’s compassion in the Torah is to teach us how to navigate through that real world, how to keep that picture of an ideal world in our sights, but at the same time stay focused on what is and find joy in it.

Even if the surface language of blood sacrifice seems contradictory to the deep language of the Torah, I still believe the message is consistent throughout, although I cannot yet detail how that works. It’s like holding two ideas simultaneously in my consciousness, an extraordinary beautiful ideal and a real world where good enough is our best hope.

As a former employer liked to say to me of our plans for the organization, “there is the ideal…and then there is the real.” The Torah gives us an ideal to keep in our hearts and imagination as we live in the moment, striving to extend holiness in a very real world. There is a message in the sacrifices that still escapes me, although from time to time I grasp pieces of it, like torn bits of brightly colored fabric floating over the abyss.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.