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Book Review: Man and Beast

Reviewed by Richard H. Schwartz

Man and Beast: Our Relationships with Animals in Jewish Law and Thought
ISBN 1-933143-06-1, 266 pages, $24.95
By Rabbi Natan Slifkin
Publisher: Zoo Torah (www.zootorah.com)
Distributor Yashar Books (www.yasharbooks.com)

I am always pleased when I find a book written by a Jewish scholar on Jewish teachings on animals. I started reading Man and Beast with especially great interest and enthusiasm since it was written by Rabbi Natan Slifkin, who is commonly known as the "Zoo Rabbi," because of his great knowledge of Jewish perspectives on all aspects of the animal kingdom. Unlike most rabbis to whom Jewish perspectives on animals is not a primary interest, Rabbi Slifkin makes his living by giving tours at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem and other zoos and by teaching, lecturing and writing about "Zoo Torah" and other aspects of nature.

While I have some serious reservations about the book that I will discuss later, I hope that it will be widely read because it is very comprehensive and discusses such a wide variety of Jewish teachings about animals that it can be considered a sourcebook on the topic. Among its many positive features, especially for Jewish vegetarians and animal rights activists, are the following:

  • There is a chapter on Jewish teachings on appreciating the natural world, with a discussion of blessings to be recited when seeing unusual animals and beautiful animals, and a chapter on the Jewish mandate to preserve all of the species that God has created, something especially important at a time when plant and animal species are disappearing at perhaps the fastest rate in history.

  • There are several chapters that discuss Jewish teachings on the proper treatment of animals, with many supporting quotations and a consideration of Jewish laws. Rabbi Slifkin stresses that Judaism places great importance on dealing sensitively with animals, and he discusses numerous Scriptural passages relating to this theme, including assisting with loading and unloading an animal, not harnessing an ox and a donkey together, seeing that one's animals rest on Shabbat, feeding one's animals before eating, and not muzzling a working animal.

  • While the author is critical of animal rights groups such as PETA that he properly thinks go too far in their philosophies and some actions, he urges Jews not to let this prevent them from applying Jewish values in improving the lot of animals. For example, he states: "... it is the responsibility of Orthodox Jews to strengthen sensitivity in [the area of the proper treatment of animals] rather than to simply mock people who take it too far. It is all too easy to put down others; we should primarily focus on rectifying our own problems." (page 160) This is consistent with my argument that Jews should be actively involved in improving conditions for animals, not because of anything that animal rights groups claim, but because the Torah demands it.

  • There is a chapter on Jewish teachings related to hunting which stresses that hunting in the Torah is always associated with evil people and that Judaism forbids hunting for recreation.

  • While Rabbi Slifkin is not a vegetarian (as he indicates in a footnote, page 162) and he does not promote vegetarianism, he has many statements that are positive from a Jewish vegetarian point of view, including the following: "...those who opt to personally be vegetarian have strong grounds for their case. There is a certain lack of sensitivity in eating meat, and modern factory methods are not consistent with the Torah's ideals of how to treat animals." (page 176) "... blanket opposition to vegetarianism [by Jews] is misplaced." (page 175) "... a vegetrarian society is the highest ideal." (page 166)

  • The book discusses Jewish laws relating to visiting zoos and properly treating pets.

  • The author states that fur coats worn for purposes of vanity are inappropriate.

  • Rabbi Slifkin discusses many animal-related questions that are not often considered in the Jewish community, including: How much do animals suffer? Do animals have a soul? Why is there so much violence in the animal kingdom, especially when carnivorous animals eat their prey? Why do relatively few religious Jews have pets?
Once again, because of these and other positive features in a well-written, comprehensive book, I hope that Man and Beast will be widely read and discussed. However, I must admit that overall I am disappointed in the book. Because of his knowledge and position, Rabbi Slifkin could have made a major difference by addressing some of the concerns that we have been trying to get onto the Jewish agenda, with very limited success, for almost 30 years. As indicated, Rabbi Slifkin is not a vegetarian, and, like most non-vegetarian rabbis, he points out that Jews can be vegetarians, but they should not do so for wrong reasons, such as: feeling that people have no "right" to take the life of an animal, or believing that it is basically wrong for an animal to suffer and die, no matter what the reason.

However, he generally gives very little attention to our arguments that animal-based diets and agriculture violate Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people and pursue a more peaceful, non-violent world.

Rabbi Slifkin does indicate several times that modern, intensive animal-based agriculture is not consistent with Jewish teachings. He quotes Israeli Rabbi Aryeh Carmell: "It seems doubtful …whether the Torah would sanction 'factory farming,' … which treats animals as machines with apparent insensitivity to their natural needs and instincts." However, Rabbi Slifkin generally fails to indicate how truly horrible conditions are for the animals that he knows so well and teaches about. While he reminds us that "God is good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works," (Psalms 145:9) and "the righteous person knows the soul of his animal...," (Proverbs 12:10), he does not discuss the debeaking of egg-laying hens, that these hens are in cages so small they can't raise even one wing, that over 250 million male chicks born at egg-laying hatcheries are killed immediately after birth because they can't lay eggs and they have not been genetically programmed to produce much meat, that calves are taken from their mothers (who are artificially impregnated annually on “rape racks” so that they will constantly be able to produce milk) to be raised to produce veal in small confined spaces where they can't even turn around, or other severe mistreatments of farmed animals. He does have a section on the force-feeding of ducks and geese to produce foie gras, and he concludes that "the reality today of foie gras production ... is not consistent with the Torah principles of how man should treat animals."(page 205)

Rabbi Slifkin does admit that "consideration of negative health effects and environmental problems … are legitimate issues," but then states that "since they are not unique to meat as opposed to other foods, we will not discuss them here."

While indicating that Jews who wish to be vegetarians can find justifications for their diets in Jewish sources, Rabbi Slifkin states: “There are also some Jewish vegetarians who inflate the importance of vegetarianism out of all proportion, thereby distorting Judaism.” Based on this statement, I assume that he is aware of Jewish vegetarian activities, although he does not adequately respond to the abundance of literature that we have assembled over the last 25 or more years. Evidently, the author has chosen to ignore the epidemic of diseases in the Jewish community and others that have been conclusively linked to animal-based diets and the fact that animal-based agriculture contributes significantly to global warming, rapid extinction of plants and animals, destruction of tropical rain forests and other valuable habitats and other environmental threats, and is very inefficient and wasteful of water, energy, land and other agricultural resources, at a time when they are becoming increasingly scarce. He fails to address the very negative impacts on the environment, on resources and on hunger of raising over 50 billion farmed animals worldwide annually (a number that is projected to double in the next 20 years).

I am truly sorry to be so critical of Rabbi Slifkin's book, since he is a very sincere, dedicated individual who is truly concerned about animals and nature. However, I believe, respectfully, that he has missed a great opportunity to do a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's Name) by helping Jews shift toward a diet that would greatly improve their health and that of our precious, but imperiled, planet and that would be far more consistent with basic Jewish values. Certainly any author is entitled to decide on the scope of his or her book, but at a time when the production and consumption of animal products contributes so much to widespread disease, global warming and other environmental problems, resource scarcity and other societal threats, I believe that a golden opportunity to educate many has been lost, especially in the Orthodox Jewish community that takes the many Torah teachings in the book seriously.

Unfortunately, my criticism of the book is not limited to dietary concerns. Rabbi Slifkin furthers the conventional wisdom of supporting animal experiments for seeking cures as the main medical approach to diseases. Although he carefully discusses similarities and differences between human beings and animals, he, like the vast majority of people, fails to recognize that animal experimentation is poor science since the differences between people and animals often produce misleading results, especially since the diseases are artificially induced for animals. He fails to consider that there are ways to gain medical knowledge without experimenting on animals (medical schools are increasingly shifting away from the use of animals in the training of future doctors) and that a shift to plant-based diets and other positive lifestyle changes would improve human health far more than animal experiments. He also dies not recognize that cosmetics can be tested without harming animals.

On another issue, while Rabbi Slifkin indicates that it is wrong to wear fur coats for reasons of vanity, he states that accounts that the methods by which fur-bearing animals are raised and killed is "done in an unnecessary cruel manner" is "something that requires investigation." (page 199) Because of the great respect that Rabbi Slifkin justifiably has in the religious Jewish community, an investigation and report by him on how animals are treated on fur farms, factory farms and other settings would be an extremely positive contribution.

For many years, Jewish Vegetarians have sought a respectful dialogue on vegetarianism and related issues. I hope that my reluctant criticism in this book review will result in Rabbi Slifkin, with his superb knowledge of Jewish teachings about animals, and other rabbis, taking our arguments seriously. If they investigate the realities behind the production and consumption of meat, experiments on animals and the production of fur, and then join us in a thoughtful dialogue, that would help revitalize Judaism and help produce healthier, more compassionate Jews and others and a sustainable world.