Dear Rabbi Freeman:
There is a quote from Henry Beston
that lives in my heart. But so does G‑d, yet G‑d and Henry Beston seem to be at odds.
The quote is: "We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and
more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions
of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never
hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations,
caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the
splendour and travail of the earth."
Our Torah condones, indeed encourages, us to take the lives of animals and eat their flesh. It even mandates animal sacrifices to G‑d. If one believes Henry Beston's words to be truth, would it go against our faith?
Tzvi Freeman: There is much truth in that quote, but only when read in a very different context than the author originally intended. And you need to know that context very well in order to do that. You need to understand the Torah's view of life,
and life's purpose, and the place that each of G‑d's creations hold in that
Susan: How would the quote read in that different context you speak of?
We do patronize animals, no two ways about it. And too often are cruel to them. From man I expect good and bad. From G‑d I expected, past tense, only good. Until, way, way back, when I learned about the animal sacrifices. G‑d
actually wants them. He doesn't mind the innocent animal's fear, slaughter and
blood on His altar. I'm glad that temple is destroyed, and I dread the thought
that, one day, it will be built again. Imagine, a place set aside for fear, for
pain, for slaughter --and in a temple!
(I can't help but wonder, Rabbi, if you're smiling right now, the way an adult often smiles at a child when it takes things which are not serious to the
"grown ups" seriously. It's a smile I've been quite familiar with, and
one that doesn't exactly open me up to learning.
(Or maybe you're frowning because of the way I've talked about the Temple... I'm familiar with those frowns as well.)
And so I've been distant from G‑d for a very long time. At the same time, I've never lost my longing for Him. My longing for a G‑d who loves each of His creatures, and would not want pain inflicted upon them. Not even a moment's worth of pain (or fear), if it can be avoided.
Tzvi Freeman: Let's backtrack a minute: How is it that you were so enamored with G‑d until discovering the Temple sacrifices? Didn't you know that lions eat zebras, cheetahs eat antelope, tigers eat whatever they can kill? And most often, the killed are the helpless young, old and sickly. So who created these creatures
and this order of nature? What makes the temple sacrifice any more cruel?
In truth, the cruelty of the jungle is only in our eyes. To the animals, it
does not exist. As the frog told King David (Midrash, Perek Shira): "I have
a mitzvah greater than any of yours. For there is a bird that lives by the swamp
and hungers. And I sacrifice my life to feed it."
To the animals, to be eaten is only to be transformed, from one being to
another in an endless cycle of metamorphosis. The leaves become a deer, the deer
a cougar -- or a human being, the cougar or human returns to the dust and feeds the
trees that produce leaves. And that is their fulfillment, their mitzvah of life.
The Torah adds another dimension, a supernatural dimension to the order
of nature: The grass becomes a cow, the cow becomes a human and the human
performs a G‑dly act and is swallowed into the world of the Divine. Better yet,
the cow could enter directly the world of the Divine, swallowed by the fire of
the altar and consumed by the angels above that are fed, according to the
Kabbalah, by the sacrifices of the Temple. And then those angelic beings respond
by returning life and holiness to all cows below in this world.
Nevertheless, Susan, your outrage is appropriate. And this is part of the
paradox of being a Jew: We love G‑d and we are outraged by Him at once. And that
is what He expects of us.
This needs a story to explain:
Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 85a: Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi was a perfect
tzaddik, yet he suffered great pain. How did it begin? Through a deed of his. He
was walking through the marketplace when a calf being led to the slaughter ran
to him and hid under his cloak. He told the calf, "Go. For this you were
created." That is when his suffering began.
And it ended through another deed. His maid was sweeping the floor and found
the young of a weasel nested beneath the boards. She began to sweep them away,
when he stopped her. "It is written," he said, "that His compassion is upon all of His works." That is when his suffering ceased.
We are meant to not understand, because not understanding is what allows us
to have compassion.
The Baal Shem Tov, in the years that he was a hidden mystic, would make his
livelihood slaughtering chickens and beef for Jewish communities before a
festival. When he left this occupation, a new slaughterer took his place. One
day, the gentile helper of one of the Jewish villagers brought a chicken to the
new slaughterer. As the new man began to sharpen his knife, the gentile watched
and began to laugh. "You wet your knife with water before you sharpen
it!" he exclaimed, "And then you just start to cut?"
"And how else?" the slaughterer asked.
"Yisroelik (the Baal Shem Tov) would cry until he had tears enough to
wet the knife. Then he would cry as he sharpened the knife. Only then would he
The Torah commands us not to cause unnecessary pain to any living being. No
distinction is made whether that living being is a cow or a lizard or a fly.
Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch once chided his son for tearing up a leaf of a
tree, saying, "What makes you think that the 'I' of the leaf is the lesser
than your own 'I'?"
Even when it is deemed necessary to consume the life of another, there are
rules. An empty-minded person, the sages taught, has no right to eat meat. They
also said to never eat meat out of hunger-first satisfy the hunger with bread. A
person who eats meat solely for his palate and for his stomach degrades both
himself and the animal. But if it is "mindful eating" -- eating for the
sake of harnessing that animal's energies to do good; eating that lifts the
animal into a new realm of being; eating to give at least as much to the animal
as it gives to us -- then it becomes a way of connecting with the Divine and
elevating our universe.
As for the angels and their part in the deal, "Once the Temple was
destroyed," the Talmud tells, "the table of every man atones for
him." Your table is an altar. The angels are invited. Eat with humility and
with compassion and with mindfulness. Do your part in the Divine cycle of life.