New year, new chance for animals

By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood

This article originally appeared on Chicago Jewish News Online on 17 August 2012.

Reproduced by kind permission of Pauline Dubkin Yearwood and the Chicago Jewish News.


Shortly after I became a vegan, around 20 years ago, I ordered my first “vegan option” at a Jewish organizational dinner.

It arrived: a plateful of raw celery and carrot sticks, arranged around a cup of something ranch dressing-ish that probably wasn’t even vegan.

Things have changed considerably since then.

Teenage servers at fast food places know what “vegan” means, even if they have to deliver the news that there is nothing there that fits the description.

At most Jewish organizational dinners today, the vegan option is so delicious that others at my table invariably cry, “Oh, I wish I had ordered that!” when they see it.

Things have changed. It’s just that they haven’t changed nearly enough for animals.

Just to run through it quickly: Animals raised for food, whether on factory farms or “free range,” live and die in unspeakably horrible conditions, treated not as living beings but as the commodities they are. Dairy cows are crammed into tiny stalls and kept impregnated so they will produce milk perpetually; their calves are taken away from them shortly after birth and raised as veal in crates too small for them to turn around in.

Chickens – as several recent undercover videos now available on YouTube have documented – are also kept in cages so small they can’t even raise a wing, and are debeaked without anesthesia so they don’t peck each other to death, as animals kept in such unnatural conditions are wont to do.

And on and on. And that’s not even mentioning animals in circuses, product testing labs, the fur trade and other forms of what writer I.B. Singer called “eternal Treblinka.” Nor does the list address other related issues such as human health and its connection to diet and the link between animal agriculture and climate change.

The so-called new Jewish food movement, laudable thought it may be, is more concerned with issues of locally grown produce, sustainable agriculture, healthy eating and social justice for workers than with the treatment of animals.

And yet animal cruelty is very much against Jewish teaching. As Richard Schwartz, president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America and a tireless crusader for animal rights and a plant-based diet, points out, tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, causing harm or sorrow to animals, is a Torah prohibition.

That’s evident in many ways, from the mandate that farmers not muzzle an animal while it is threshing in the field (so it can eat some of the grain) to the admiring way the Torah treats Moses’ and King David’s compassionate actions toward their sheep.

Yet today, as Schwartz writes, “with regard to animals, the primary focus of Jewish religious services, Torah readings and education are on the biblical sacrifices, animals that are kosher for eating, and laws about animal slaughter, with relatively little time devoted to Judaism’s more compassionate teachings related to animals.”

That’s why Schwartz and a coalition of Jewish groups have proposed a brand-new initiative to transform an ancient and largely forgotten holiday, Rosh Hashanah L’Ma’aser BeHeima, or New Year’s Day for Tithing Animals, into a New Year for Animals, a day devoted to considering how Jews can improve their relationships with animals. (Disclosure: I am a member of some of these groups.)

Schwartz explains that the holiday occurs on the first day of the month of Elul (this year, beginning erev Aug. 18) and was initially devoted to counting domestic animals intended to be used for sacrificial offerings.

This wouldn’t be the first time an ancient holiday has been reclaimed for a related but very different purpose. Tu B’Shevat was originally a day intended for tithing fruit trees for temple offerings. It was transformed in the 17th century into the holiday – beloved by environmentalists and religious school teachers – that it is today, a New Year for the Trees, devoted to appreciating and healing the natural world.

Schwartz, who along with Jewish Vegetarians of North America is leading the campaign to establish the new holiday, suggests that Jews use it to consider ways to apply traditional Jewish teachings on compassion toward animals to today’s issues, such as factory farms and moving toward a plant-based diet.

That seems particularly appropriate since Elul is considered a month of introspection as Jews examine their words and actions in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The first event of the new initiative is a seder at a vegetarian restaurant in New York City. Other events are planned for a few cities around the country; hopefully next year will be Chicago’s turn.

A number of other groups are supporting the initiative, including the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, Jews for Animal Rights, Concern for Helping Animals in Israel, Jewish Environmental Network and more.

Several prominent Jewish leaders have endorsed the idea of the new holiday. Modern Orthodox scholar and author Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes that “it is a beautiful idea to renew/revive a classic day … Your contemporary application … in the form of addressing humanity’s relationship to animal life and the widespread mistreatment of food animals and environmental abuse in today’s economy, marked by industrial farming and animal husbandry, is inspired.”

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles succinctly summarizes the idea of the holiday, writing that “the Jewish tradition mandates that we are stewards of all G-d’s creation. In our day we are increasingly sensitized to suffering of those living creatures in our care; this initiative helps us recognize our obligation to animals and so helps us be more fully human.”

Schwartz and others realize that restoring and reclaiming an ancient holiday can’t be done all at once. Some projects for the future include setting up a website and Facebook page that would include a collection of material on Jewish teachings about animals and creating a Haggadah for a seder, modeled on the now-widespread Tu B’Shevat seder.

For now, I’m hoping that awareness of these efforts leads to greater attentiveness to issues related to animals, issues that many of us would like push out of our consciousness, along with other “inconvenient truths,” as we buy our neatly wrapped and packaged meat.

To start things off in a modest way? Read more about the initiative and find links to related sites at www.JewishVeg.com.

And think about having a veggie burger for lunch today.

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