A campaign to reduce cruelty toward animals, run by the Humane Society of the United States and the Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA), has received the backing of Jewish leaders. On the basis of tza'ar ba'alei hayim - the Halacha that forbids causing any living creature to suffer - prominent religious figures including Haifa Chief Rabbi She'ar Yashuv Cohen have endorsed the campaign, which is called All Creatures Great and Small. It seeks to get all religious communities involved in reducing the mistreatment of animals, especially on factory farms. "Jews have a choice, and it should be made on treating animals with compassion," said Richard Schwartz, president of JVNA, on Sunday. Although human beings are considered superior to animals in Judaism, people can only kill animals for authorized purposes and with minimal suffering. However, JVNA says that contrary to Jewish law, extensive mistreatment is taking place. The group cites cruelty toward chickens on factory farms, including debeaking of birds without anesthesia, and extreme crowding that causes stress leading to pecking and sometimes killing fellow birds. Though the laws of kashrut require that animals be slaughtered humanely, this does not necessarily extend to the way they are treated while alive, and according to JVNA there are many months of mistreatment before they are killed. The first part of the campaign encourages Jews to pledge to buy only cage-free eggs and to reduce their consumption of eggs in October 2008. Eventually the campaign's Web site will be expanded to include extensive resources on these issues. It hopes to establish a strong link between religion and the compassionate treatment of animals. Linked to the Jewish section of the Web site is a documentary they filmed, titled A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World. The group's main goals are to raise awareness of both animal mistreatment and the fact that most religions consider it unethical. Schwartz also explained that the water crisis in Israel could be traced in part to the huge amounts of water necessary for raising and feeding animals. He noted, too, that animals emit more methane and CO2 than vehicles do. According to biblical tradition, the denizens of the Garden of Eden were vegetarians, and humanity will return to that state in the messianic period. Currently, however, Judaism does not mandate vegetarianism, and there is even a common practice of eating meat on Shabbat. "We don't say that [now] they must be vegetarian. We argue that they should be," Schwartz said. "Judaism is very consistent with vegetarianism," he said, adding that "the main mitzva [commandment] is to rejoice in the world [on Shabbat], and it is hard to rejoice if people are always aware that they are eating something bad for their health, are involved in the mistreatment of animals and [are doing something that] is bad for the environment." More information about the campaign can be found at humanesociety.org/religion.