Jews say no to animal suffering

Rabbis don't forbid killing animals for human consumption, but rulings paint a nuanced picture.

colorful birds 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
colorful birds 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The recent High Court ban on force-feeding of geese and ducks to produce foie gras means that for many of Israel's fowl farmers their proverbial goose is cooked. No one can deny that forcing a long metal tube down a goose's neck and shoving two kilos of food directly into its stomach using compressed air is cruel and inhumane. The liver swells up to seven to 10 times normal size causing breathing difficulties and other health problems. But goose livers are not chicken-feed. Foie gras (literally "fat liver") is a lucrative item - Israel was, until now, the world's third biggest exporter - bringing in some NIS 180 million per year. The farmers who have now lost their livelihood intend to claim NIS 450m. in compensation from the government. The High Court in 2003 gave the Agriculture Ministry 18 months to come up with a more humane method for feeding, otherwise the practice would be outlawed. That time is up, and the Ministers' Committee for Legislative Affairs has now rejected Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz's plea for a respite of an additional three years. Like many other issues in Israel, things always seem to be more complicated here. The farmers are now considering transferring their operations to Jordan, replacing the cheap foreign labor they used here with local Jordanian workers. As well as deliberating over the animal welfare issues like in any other open, modern, Western democracy, and calculating fair damages to the farmers, we have a Jewish facet to take into account. The welfare of animals has been a Jewish concern since biblical times, and it can be a source of pride to Jews that the issue of the prevention of cruelty to animals (tza'ar ba'alei haim) has been addressed, discussed and ruled on by rabbis for many centuries. Biblical sources not only forbid cruelty, but demand compassion and mercy toward animals. Animal owners are required to rest their animals, as they themselves rest, on Shabbat (Exodus 20:10). Acts usually forbidden on Shabbat were permitted to avoid animals' pain because of the precedence of biblical injunctions. Modern halachic technological solutions have been developed to allow milking cows on Shabbat, avoiding the cows' discomfort, while not contravening the prohibition of work. A talmudic imperative forbids an animal owner from eating before feeding his livestock. THE RABBIS do not forbid the killing of animals for human consumption, but the exacting regulations governing the method of slaughter, such as the use of an extremely sharp knife which is repeatedly checked for the slightest nick, are interpreted as being the most painless and humane technique. Although these principles set the tone for our attitude to animals they don't give us all the answers. We are required to unload an ass struggling under its burden (Exodus 23:5). It is clear that Judaism sanctions the use of animals for man's benefit; however, the decision of what constitutes suffering is left with us. To load up a donkey with 50 kilos is OK, but is 55 kilos too much? Where do we set the limits? I'm sure the poor donkey would rather be left alone not to carry anything at all. Although not discussing force-feeding geese specifically, one of the most renowned contemporary halachic authorities, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, ruled on raising calves for veal. Feinstein (Even Ha'ezer IV, 92) forbade the method of raising the calves in miserable conditions in small cages which produced a very light-colored meat. However, animal activists might not be so happy with his line of reasoning (he may have even approved force feeding geese). He would have sanctioned this method of raising calves if it really led to better quality meat, but he ruled that it only improved its light appearance and this alone did not justify the animals' suffering. Is the current concern for animal rights in modern Western society just a fad? The general issue of the appropriateness of using contemporary moral yardsticks compared with the Jewish ethical system which has been developing for thousands of years is too heavy a subject to be dealt with adequately in one op-ed article. One is tempted to say that like the wearing of fur coats and stoles in their time, foie gras is on its way out, never to be seen again, and that we have progressed in our humanity. Yet wearing leather shoes and the eating of meat is all but universally accepted. It seems that the ultimate yardstick, in both Jewish and Western ethics (although the distinction is blurred as Western ethics are largely influenced by Jewish values), is whether the animal suffers excessively. This criterion bans force feeding but doesn't force us into feeding as vegetarians. The High Court's approach, to allow time to develop humane feeding methods, seems to have been level headed. However, the demand remains, and customers are willing to pay top prices for this luxury kosher gourmet item. We are left with the question: Has the High Court killed a goose that laid golden eggs? Or should we just treat it like water off a duck's back? The writer, a member of Kibbutz Alumim, is senior educator in Melitz Centers for Jewish-Zionist Education.