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Responsibility Toward Animals: The Jewish Way

An interview with Rabbi Adam J. Frank of Congregation Moreshet Yisrael

Rabbi Adam J. Frank of Congregation Moreshet Yisrael in Jerusalem posted a compelling video on YouTube about transforming his diet while living out his Jewish faith. The HSUS recently asked Rabbi Frank about his exploration into animal protection issues and the aspects of his faith that ultimately led him to change his diet. Watch the video he posted on YouTube, and read our conversation with him below.

In the video you say, “Judaism pioneered this concept of human responsibility toward animals.” Can you expand on this for our readers?

The Five Books of Moses are filled with instructions legislating how Jews are to interact with animals—resting beasts of burden on the sabbath; prohibition to muzzle an ox while it threshes grain; requirement to send away a mother bird from the nest before collecting her eggs; the command to relieve the load of an overburdened animal; proscription against coupling different sized animals together in one yoke ... these were the first laws attributed to Gd as requiring responsible care of animals by humans.

You say it was an exploration of scripture and your faith that led you to the path of giving up animal products in your diet. What did you find going down that road?

Jewish law is comprised of The Written Law and The Oral Law. The Written Law is those instructions found in the Hebrew Bible. The Oral Law, known as the Talmud, is a record of the discussion and debate of our Sages to decipher and interpret the meaning of the laws found in Hebrew Bible. Normative Jewish law—both Written and Oral—overwhelmingly regulate, instruct, and require the compassionate care of animals that are used for the benefit of humans. Since my lifestyle reflects fidelity to Jewish law, my obligation is to avoid activity that runs counter to Jewish law. Industrial farming practices do not reflect the Jewish requirement to treat animals with compassion.

You talk about how animals raised for kosher slaughter often come from factory-farmed systems. Do you think there is little knowledge about this? Is it generally believed animals raised for kosher slaughter have had better lives?

This question touches on the crux of my criticism of current Jewish complicity with industrial food processes: years ago one could honestly claim ignorance of industrial practices—today it is not a matter of ignorance but of indifference. I do not point an accusing finger on the general kosher consumer, rather, my disappointment and frustration is at Jewish leadership—rabbis of all movements and the supervisors and the purveyors of kosher foods—who know the law and the realities and remain silent. Yes, most observant Jews believe that kosher meat means the fulfillment of animal welfare laws throughout the entire process.

When you made the transformation to become vegan, was it difficult? Explain.

Practically and logistically, the move from omnivore to vegetarian was much simpler than the move from vegetarian to vegan—finding vegan fare is the greater challenge simply because of the more limited options. Conversely, the ideological move to vegan was simpler than that to vegetarian because the accompanying philosophy of ethics and values that motivated the move was much stronger and more consistent. There was nothing difficult about adopting a vegan lifestyle after seeing the overwhelming evidence of routine cruelty to animals in the food industry—to continue to eat food products laced with animal suffering would have been much more difficult.

Has this experience deepened your faith? If so how?

The experienced has deepened my faith in Gd's wisdom to legislate appropriate behavior, as opposed to demanding abstinence of behavior, as it shows Gd's recognition of human fallibility and inclination toward self-centeredness. My faith in humans to act justly has decremented.

Why did you decide to share your choice to become vegan on video?

The video was requested of me by an organization called Shamayim Va'Aretz that learned that my vegan diet is an expression of my observance of Jewish law.

What has some of the response been?

No one disputes or disagrees with the argument that factory farming does not treat animals in a compassionate and dignified manner. There are people who hold the view that Judaism permits factory farming on the grounds that supplying enough animal products to meet consumer demand requires current industrial practices—as such, because such a supply is not possible without factory farming, the mistreatment of animals is 'necessary' so it does not fall under the proscription of Judaism's requirement to treat an animal with compassion whenever possible.

I've received testimony from individuals who, as a result of viewing the video, are attempting to change their diets to reduce animal products. My father told me that for the first time he understands (agrees) with my decision to become vegan 9 years ago.... The responses have been all positive.

Have you engaged your synagogue on ethical eating issues? Is there discussion going on about factory farming, kosher slaughter, etc.?

A few times a year I speak from the pulpit on matters of animal welfare, but most of my activism and teaching on the subject occurs outside the synagogue arena.

What is your advice for the Jewish community or any faith community on getting involved in this issue?

Non-vegans/non-vegetarians get defensive when confronted with the messages that animal welfare activists raise regarding food choices. Our task as leaders and educators is to disarm the defensiveness by delivering a message that does not cause the listener to feel attacked or guilty. The message that all killing, consumption, or use of animals is immoral and unethical not only arouses defensiveness in the listener, but it encourages dismissiveness. The current culture and milieu of Western society is one that associates animal rights with extremism – and extremism is alienating and something to be shunned. The most effective message to sensitize the masses is one that affirms the use of animals but only in concert with compassionate treatment. Don't tell a meat eater she is wrong to eat meat – tell a meat eater that the meat we eat should be free of animal cruelty and suffering. The consumer will hear this message ... and agree.

Learn more about Rabbi Adam Frank: Rabbi Adam Frank Congregation Moreshet Yisrael Jerusalem, Israel 02-625-3539; www.moreshetyisrael.com; www.adamfrank.typepad.com

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