The Ethics of Factory Farming

May 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Does it matter how we treat others?

Our tradition says that it most certainly does matter. For example, let me cite a small but telling detail from this week’s portion: “no animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.”[1]

Why should it matter when we slaughter two animals? Why should it be that a day must separate these two events?

Maimonides argues in the Guide for the Perplexed that killing them in sight of one another will cause the mother great pain: “There is no difference,” he writes, “in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings.”[2]

We are taught by our tradition to care about the feelings of animals.

I do think, in fact, that Maimonides would be horrified at modern methods of factory farming, in which animals are treated as living meat rather than as sentient beings with feelings.

The laws of kashrut – the laws of kosher food – are supposed to prevent that kind of thing. But there are, of course, kosher factory farms as well – it is indeed possible to be a scoundrel within the boundaries of the law, and it is possible to find ways within the laws themselves to transcend their concerns.

Even so, I have no doubt that Maimonides would decry them. In his view, it would be the individual who is at fault here, not the law.

Maimonides makes the argument, in fact, that our traditions and our laws seek to train us to be better people. If you observe all the commandments, he argues, then you will perfect your soul. I think that he has a strong argument here. Our tradition provides a structure by which it might be possible to develop an ethical sensitivity to others.

But what happens when the laws themselves appear to be the problem? I will give you an example from this week’s portion: “If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it: life for life. If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death.”[3]

It sounds pretty violent, doesn’t it?

As the modern commentator Nehama Leibowitz writes, “Few are the verses of the Bible which have been so frequently and widely misunderstood by Jew and non-Jew as verse 24:20…This misconception has transformed our text into a symbol, the embodiment of vengeance at its cruelest level. One who wishes to express his opposition to forgiveness, concession, and compensation, insisting instead on his pound of flesh, on retaliation of the most brutal and painful kind, resorts to the phrase: ‘eye for eye,’ a formula which conjures up a vision of hacked limbs and gouged eyes.”[4]

But that’s not what it means. Whenever we read this text, in fact, I am quick to point out that the ancient rabbis believed that it meant monetary payment for damages rather than an actual maiming. Here’s one of many such statements:

“It was taught in the school of Hezekia: eye for eye, life for life, and not a life and an eye for an eye, for should you imagine that it is literally meant, it would sometimes happen that an eye and a life would be taken for an eye, for in the process of blinding him he might die.”[5] For the rabbis, an ‘eye for an eye’ means ‘the payment of money equivalent to the worth of an eye for the loss of an eye.’

Even so, Leibowitz notes, this argument “does not rule out the possibility of this being merely an apologetical explanation, a later toning down of ancient barbarity, humanization of the severity of the Torah by subsequent generations.”[6] It could be that the rabbis are trying to tame a vicious verse.

In her work, however, Leibowitz makes a strong argument on the basis of the verse itself for reading the verse as requiring monetary payment. I think that she is correct. Her proof takes several pages of her text to complete, so I will not address it here. But you’re welcome to look it up if you’d like to work through it yourself.

Instead, I’d like to address a larger issue: does it matter how we treat others?

I’d like to go back to our original example, the example of the herd animal and her young, in which our tradition asks us to care about the feelings of animals.

There’s a lot of wisdom in that; as those who have ever worked in the field of spousal abuse know, how you treat animals is predictive of how you will treat people.

In the human-animal relationship, the difference in power is magnified. If you use that power to be absolutely domineering over animals, it is likely – predictive even – that you will do the same to humans that you perceive are weaker than you. Adopting the habit of treating animals well means you are more likely to treat humans well.

And this point relates directly to my sermon from last week, when I suggested that our jokes matter quite a bit.

As I said then: Atrocities happen in places where it is acceptable to marginalize the other. If you can joke about a group as being stupid, foolish, or undeserving, they will be treated as such.

And, as I argued last week: yes, there is a major difference between naming your sports team after an ethnic slur and committing atrocities on the basis of that slur. But, as the German example shows, it’s nonetheless entirely too close for comfort.

So let me expand that argument this week: yes, there is a major difference between putting animals in pens no larger than their bodies and putting people in similarly-sized pens. But, as the German example shows, it’s nonetheless entirely too close for comfort.

The factory farms need to stop, for our own moral good.

What can we do, then, as individuals? What can you do, if you’re not about to start a national campaign against the maltreatment of animals?

Know where your meat comes from. And when you can’t find meat humanely slaughtered, eat vegetarian. Don’t eat fast food – and if you do, don’t order meat from the dollar menu. You know what they had to do to get it down to a dollar. It isn’t worth it.

In other words, what is needed in our day and age is a tenacious idealism: we should not let what ‘is’ eclipse the view of what ‘ought’ to be.






[1] JPS translation.

[2] As translated in Nehama Leibowitz, “Emor 2: It (The Mother) and Its Young,” in Studies in Vayikra, p. 389.

[3] JPS.

[4] Leibowitz, “Emor 11: Eye for Eye,” in Studies in Vayikra, p. 494.

[5] From the Babylonian Talumud, Bava Kamma 83b-84a, as quoted in Leibowitz, p. 497.

[6] Leibowitz, p. 494.

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