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How Should Jews Respond to PETA’s Activities?

by Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.

Jews should be actively involved in ending the widespread abuses of animals on factory farms and in other settings, not because of anything PETA says or does, but because Judaism mandates it.

There is much to criticize PETA for in terms of its philosophy and actions. While PETA is properly committed to the elimination or at least major reduction of the mistreatment of animals, many of its actions are insensitive and turn people off to its cause. Its “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign, in comparing the brutal slaughter of 6 million Jews and millions of others to the horrible treatment of farmed animals, failed to consider the feelings of Holocaust survivors and others, the dignity of Holocaust victims, and human uniqueness and dignity, and its apology, while a welcome step forward, failed to consider some of the reasons for the widespread criticism.

The Jewish community should continue to try to make PETA more aware of why many Jews and others are extremely upset by its actions, and one way to do this is to make PETA aware of how changing their methods and working together with the Jewish community in addressing animal abuses is in their interest and that of the animals they are trying to help.

There are reasons to believe that PETA and Jewish groups can find common ground. Perhaps most important is a common desire to improve conditions for animals. Also, although it is not commonly known, PETA has made statements and taken actions that have been very positive re the Jewish community. They have indicated that shechita, when properly carried out, is a superior method of slaughter, and they have praised Jewish teachings on the proper treatment of animals. They have produced a “Judaism and Vegetarianism” DVD and a booklet, “A Jewish Case for Vegetarianism,” both of which are filled with positive Jewish teachings. They are giving out free copies of the booklet in quantity to all who request them. They also acted responsibly and sensitively in the Postville kosher slaughterhouse controversy by focusing on improving conditions at that facility, rather than attacking shechita or Judaism for the abuses of animals. These are actions that the Jewish community should appreciate and seek ways to build on.

It would be wonderful if somehow PETA would make the changes that would enable the Jewish community to work with PETA in improving conditions for farmed animals and other animals. But, no matter what, PETA’s statements and actions should not be used as a justification for not doing what the Torah mandates.

Even if shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter) is carried out perfectly and pain and distress during slaughter are minimized, can we ignore the many violations of Jewish teachings on compassion to animals as billions of animals on “factory farms” in the United States and worldwide experience pain, suffering, and agony for their entire lives? If we do, are we carrying out our mandate to be “rachmanim b’nei rachmanim” (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors)? Are we failing to properly imitate G-d, Whose “tender mercies are over all His creatures” (Psalms 145:9)?

If, as is recited at synagogue services every Sabbath and Yom tov morning, “the soul of every living creature shall bless God’s Name,” can we expect these cruelly treated animals to join in the praise?

If “the righteous person considers the life of his or her animal” (Proverbs 12:10), how will we be judged, based on our acceptance of the treatment of the animals raised, trucked and slaughtered for our tables?

And, can we ignore the many other ways that animal-based diets and modern livestock agriculture severely violate Jewish values:

* While Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives, numerous scientific studies have implicated the products of modern intensive livestock agriculture as significant risk factors for coronary heart disease, stroke, several forms of cancer, and other chronic degenerative diseases.

* While Judaism teaches that "the earth is the Lord's" (Psalm 24:1) and that we are to be God's partners and co-workers in preserving the world, modern intensive livestock agriculture is widely recognized by independent scientists, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, as an environmentally unsustainable enterprise that grossly accelerates soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rainforests and other habitats, global climate change, and other forms of environmental damage.

* While Judaism mandates bal tashchit, not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value, or use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, a diet based upon animal agriculture instead of plant agriculture (which provides protein from grains, beans, tubers, nuts and seeds) wastes many times more land, fresh water, fossil fuels, grain and other resources. It takes up to sixteen pounds of grain to produce just one pound of feedlot-finished beef.

While Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people, an estimated twenty million human beings worldwide die each year because of hunger and its effects, and nearly a billion are chronically malnourished. While the solution of widespread hunger is complex, it doesn't help that over 70 percent of the grain grown in the U.S. and almost 40 percent worldwide is produced to fatten food animals, not to feed the world's most impoverished human citizens, many of whom are displaced from their land by animal feed growers.

* While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence results from unjust conditions, the global expansion of Western-style animal-centered diets is increasing the gap between food security "haves" and "have nots," a chronic injustice that can lead to political unrest and violent conflict.

Clearly, Jewish values and meat consumption are in serious conflict. If Judaism is to remain relevant to many of the great problems of today, it is my heartfelt belief that all Jews should seriously consider adopting a sustainable vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based diet. In my view, it is a moral, social and ecological imperative.

While Jews are a small percent of the world’s people and thereby responsible for only a small part of the problems related to modern intensive livestock agriculture and other current practices, it is essential, in view of the many threats to humanity today, that we strive to fulfil our challenge to be a “light unto the nations,” and to work for “tikkun olam,” the healing, repair, and proper transformation of the world. Besides having great benefits for animals, such actions would greatly benefit the health of the Jewish people and others, move our precious, but imperiled planet to a more sustainable path, and Judaism’s relevance to the problems confronting the world today.