Ethics in Action
“You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Pirkei Avot 2:21 i
Judaism is an all-encompassing way of life. Jews are to strive to be holy, work to achieve God’s ends, and follow Jewish ethics and law. The prophets provide an example of (holy) activism, of striving to draw humanity back into line with core teachings.
“Shamayim” means “Heaven” in Hebrew. The goal of Jewish life is to bring heaven down to earth and to sanctify the world through all of our just and holy endeavours. The Midrash teaches that there is a temple located in the heavens that sits directly above the temple on earth (Genesis Rabbah 69:7). The same God who makes the heavens radiate also illuminates our earthly existence. We are the stewards of the earth seeking to ensure that heaven still has a place on earth by removing injustice, oppression, and suffering from our midst.
I. Judaism as a Way of Life
Halakha (Jewish law)iv stems from the Hebrew root “to go” or “walk.” A simple English translation for Halakha is “path” or “the way of walking.” Jewish law and ethics are centrally concerned with “life on earth,”v including mundane acts in our day-to-day lives. Ideally, Jewish law and ethics guide every step we take along the path of life—every action, every choice, every bite we take. Shear Yashuv Cohen, former Chief Rabbi of Haifa, writes of peace with anymals as “a special path of worship” and “a step forward toward the ‘Great Day,’ i.e., the coming of the Messiah, the day where ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore’ (Isaiah 2:4).”vi
Pirkei Avot, Avot 1:17
Study is not the most important thing, but actions.[vii]
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
In the Tanakh,viii Micah reminds that Judaism is lived and that we are to express justice and kindness and humility in our day-to-day lives. Justice does not admit of exploitation, goodness does not permit cruelty, and walking humbly with God does not allow a human-centered approach to creation—we are not entitled to use anymals as food production units, petri dishes, or clothing on the hoof: We have been told to serve and protect all that is God’s on behalf of God. (For more on divinely ordained duties to serve and protect, see 4.2.I.F “Duties Assigned by God.”)
We [pushed] the Israeli Supreme Court to rule that the force-feeding of ducks and geese violates the Animal Protection Act, and the entire industry was shut down.
We led a public campaign which brought about a ban on circuses using wild animals from entering Israel. In certain city jurisdictions all shows that involve animals of any kind were banned.
For years we have promoted legislation to stop the fur trade. Thanks to the fight we led, the Ministry of Environmental Protection has approved an amendment to wildlife protection regulations—banning wildlife fur trade in the fashion industry.
Our petitions, protests, letters and persistent action led the Ministry of
Education to ban animal dissection in biology classes.
[We helped bring about legislation] prohibiting veal crates, limiting confinement of sows in gestation crates, preventing dehorning of cows without anesthesia.
We guide hundreds of thousands of people worldwide to try a plant-based diet over a period of 22 days, accompanied by a team of experienced volunteers and professional clinical dietitians.[x]
Animals Now, list of accomplishments.
II. Being Holy
You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, thy God, am holy.
Israel is expected to be a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6), a shining example for all of humanity. This carries the expectation of a God-centered life, a life habitually aligned with Jewish laws and ethics (For more on scripture and ethics, see 4.2.III “Core Law/Ethics”), a life of serving and protecting creation on behalf of the Creator. This is the task assigned to us by God. This is rightly the guiding principle of our daily lives. (For more on divinely ordained duties for humanity, see 4.2.I.F “Duties Assigned by God.”)
Those working on behalf of God’s creatures exemplify the holy life, striving to uphold the law against causing “sorrow to living creatures” (tsa’ar ba’alei chaim),xii and working toward a return to earthly harmony.
I knew what "gestation crates" and "farrowing crates" were – but it is different visiting facilities, looking into the eyes of pigs, and watching them going wild in terror at the slaughterhouse. In 2015 the new “humane” regulations were passed: Gestation crates were banned; time in farrowing crates was limited to 14 days after the birth of piglets, a minimum space per-pig was set, some environmental enrichment was required. The Animal Protection Act grants anymal activists access to these facilities to witness (and enforce) “humane” regulations. I found the pigs in slightly bigger enclosures in an almost barren metal and concrete environment—thousands of oppressed beings, some were broken and had fallen into total apathy.
Yossi Wolfson, co-founder of Animals Now, writing of his work to bring change for pigs. xiii
III. Prophets Model Activism
It is difficult to change behaviors, let alone inspire deep, spiritual change—yet this is the hope and work of the prophets, particularly the latter prophets.xiv The prophets worked to turn minds, hearts, and lives back to God—they spoke on behalf of the downtrodden and beleaguered, stood against the powerful and irreligious, and fostered compassion and mercy.xv The prophets lived scriptural moral expectations and encouraged others to do the same.
Animals Now investigators go to poultry farms, cowsheds, meat processing plants and slaughterhouses to document what animals are going through within the industry. Our investigations are published on prime time television in Israel, and expose what these industries are trying to hide from us.
Animals Now: Undercover Investigations.xvi
Motivated by righteous anger, prophets used whatever means they deemed necessary to gain the attention of those caught up in unreflective, conventional lives and draw people back to God. With this difficult goal in mind, prophetic eccentricities were designed to draw attention, startle people out of their routine stupors, inspire awareness, and as a result, bring changexviii —for example, to return to a path that honors the Jewish forbiddance of actions that harm living beings (tsa’ar ba’alei chaim). Under divine instruction, Jeremiah harnessed himself to a yoke (Jeremiah 27:2)—and was considered a “madman” (Jeremiah 29:26). Though “nakedness was taboo in Judaism,”xix Isaiah wandered “naked and barefoot for three years” (Isaiah 20:3). Micah also vowed to “lament and wail” and “go stripped and naked” (Micah 1:8). The prophets used whatever means necessary to bring people back to God and a lifestyle that reflected religious ethics and practices.xx They “intuited that only outrage speaks to outrage. . . . Only shock gets through.”xxi For the prophets, breaking laws and norms became so common that, when Saul “stripped off his clothes,” and “lay naked” for a day and a night, people asked, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Samuel 19:24).xxxx
Secular law usually considers a dog property and requires returning a dog to their owner. Jewish ethics, however, do not. And so a holy man refused to surrender a terrified dog to an abusive man, defying secular law in favor of God’s law by allowing the dog to hide in his protective cloak.
Judah heHasid, Rabbi, in Schochet, Animal Life in Jewish Tradition.xxii
Today’s norms allow people to exploit without any regard for anymals or their creator—teaching/requiring children to dissecting anymals in school, wearing wool or furs, engaging in human sports that destroy the lives of anymals, and choosing diets that assure the continuance of a system of massive suffering and bloodshed, though other options are readily available and less expensive, such as, rice and beans, lentils and potatoes, pasta and vegetables, peanut butter/humus and bread—all of which are generally less expensive than flesh or dairy, despite heavy government subsidies for the latter. In contemporary times, in industrialized societies, standard behaviors suggest desperate means if we are to turn people back to God—to turn people back to respect and caring for creation.
Nina Natelson’s grandfathers were Orthodox Jews and immigrants to the United States, where her father attended a Conservative synagogue. When Natelson visited Israel, she was shocked to find a tremendous overpopulation of starving, diseased cats and dogs, and badly abused horses and donkeys, too often common sights on the streets of Israel.
On her return to the United States, Natelson. . . sought financial support for a program that would aid neglected and abused anymals in Israel . . . . Concern for Helping Animals in Israel (CHAI) was born.
CHAI has been active ever since, bringing the first anymal ambulance to Israel and the first mobile spay/neuter van, introducing humane education to schools, and sponsoring educational conferences for government ministries. CHAI has also been instrumental in establishing a group of legislators to help Israel’s anymals.
Nina Natelson, founder and director of Concern for Helping Animals in Israel (CHAI) and Hakol CHAI in Kemmerer,Animals and World Religions)xxiii
IV. Jewish Anymal Activism
Judaism fosters a way of understanding life and creation that encourages anymal activism. Lewis Gompertz is an important early figure among anymal activists—and he was Jewish. There is a continuing tradition of anymal activism in Judaism, including important contemporary activists such as Richard Schwartz.
A. Lewis Gompertz
Lewis Gompertz “devoted his life to the cause of kindness to animals.”xxv In 1824 he published “Moral Enquiries on the Situation of Men and Brutes,” which “attracted considerable notice, resulting in the foundation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals” (the RSPCA).xxvi Far ahead of his time, Gompertz “argued that there was no significant difference between ‘humans and other animals’” and “clearly wanted animals to be given a similar legal status to humans.”xxvii
Gompertz, commented that he would never “do anything that would cause suffering to animals.”xxviii It appears that, among those who came together to form the RSPCA, only Gompertz recognized the moral necessity of changing his diet: “as far as we know, he was the only one who objected to slaughtering and eating some of the animals they were trying to protect,”xxix namely farmed anymals. He renounced flesh, eggs, milk, leather, and silk, condemned vivisection, and would not ride in a horse-drawn coach.
Gompertz, sought to end anymal “sport,” including dog fighting, bull-fighting, and bull-baitingxxx and was especially concerned for horses, “the most abused animal in London at that time as they were the primary means of transport.”xxxi Recognizing that anymal liberation was not even on the horizon, he “devoted much of his life to improving the welfare conditions of the animals.”[xxxii Gompertz was an inventor with thirty-eight inventions to his name, many of which he designed to reduce animal suffering.
Excerpts from the writing of Gompertz:
The dreadful situation of the brute creation, particularly of those which have been domesticated, claims our strictest attention.
Moral Inquiries into the Situation of Man and of Brutes, published in 1824xxxiii
First, how do you prove that mankind is invested with the right of killing them, and that brutes have been created for the purpose you assert them to be? Secondly, it is to be observed that the flesh of man himself possesses the same nourishing and palatable qualities? And are we then to become cannibals for that reason?
Moral Inquiries into the Situation of Man and of Brutes, 1824xxxiv
B. Dr. Richard Schwartz
Richard Schwartz is professor emeritus of mathematics at the College of Staten Island, president emeritus and currently serving on the board of directors at Jewish Veg[xxxvi] (formerly Jewish Vegetarians of North America, or JVNA) for which he created “Judaism and Vegetarianism,” a free, ten-part, online course. Schwartz is co-founder and coordinator of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV) and the associate producer of the documentary, A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World. He has written more than 250 articles and several books, including Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism. Schwartz continues to write op-ed pieces, letters to editors, newsletters, press releases, and frequently speaks on behalf of anymals, whether at conferences, as an invited guest, for radio and television interviews, or on the streets—as a Jewish activist on behalf of anymals, people, and the planet.
We inspire and assist Jews to embrace plant-based diets as an expression of Jewish values.
Excerpts from the writings of Dr. Richard Schwartz are featured throughout the Judaism portion of this website, and in other traditions where Jewish scriptures are taken as sacred texts.
Judaism is a way of life. Jews are to strive to be holy in their daily lives, to work toward God’s ends and follow Jewish ethics and law as laid out in scriptures as part of our daily way of being. The prophets exemplified activism, working to draw humanity back to God, back in line with core Jewish teachings. The prophets modeled activism, and activists such as Lewis Gompertz and Richard Schwartz follow in their footsteps, as we all ought to do.
Jacobs, Jill (rabbi). “Pirkei Avot: Ethics of Our
Fathers.” My Jewish Learning: Talmud.
[ii] Shamayim: Jewish Animal Advocacy: About. https://www.shamayim.us/#!/page/about-us.
Photo courtesy of Surkes, Sue. “Stop Shipments of Live
Animals to Israel for Slaughter.” Times of Israel.
Jan. 31, 2017.
[iv] This includes the collective corpus of religious, biblical, later Talmudic, and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions.
[v] Berman, Louis A. Vegetarianism and the Jewish Tradition. New York: KTAV, 1982, 43.
[vi] Schwartz, Richard. Judaism and Vegetarianism. NY: Lantern, 2001. xix.
Avot 1:17. Pirkei Avot.
Sefaria: A Living Library of Jewish Texts.
[viii] When referencing and exploring core Jewish and Christian texts, this website uses the English translation generally preferred by scholars, the New Revised Standard Version, which can be accessed here: https://www.bible.com/bible/2016/GEN.1.NRSV
[x] Animals Now: About Us. https://animals-now.org/en/about/
[xi] Courtesy of Animals Now. https://animals-now.org/en/2019-recap/
[xii] Schwartz, Richard. “An Overlooked Mitzva: ‘Tsa’ar ba’alei chaim’.” The Jerusalem Post: Opinion: Op-Ed. Aug. 2012.
[xiii] Yossi Wolfson. Personal email.
[xiv] Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve/Minor Prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
[xv] Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992. 188.
Animals Now: Undercover Investigations.
[xviii] Maguire, Daniel C. “Population, Consumption, Ecology: The Triple Problematic.” In Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans, edited by Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether, 403–27. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000, 420.
[xix] Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992. 179.
[xx] Maguire, Daniel C. “Population, Consumption, Ecology: The Triple Problematic.” In Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans, edited by Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether, 403–27. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000, 420.
[xxi] Maguire, Daniel C. “Population, Consumption, Ecology: The Triple Problematic.” In Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans, edited by Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether, 403–27. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000, 420.
[xxii] Judah heHasid (Rabbi) in Schochet, Elijah Judah. Animal Life in Jewish Tradition: Attitudes and Relationships. NY: KTAV Publishing, 1984. 246.
[xxiii] Nina Natelson in Kemmerer, Lisa, Animals and World Religions. Oxford 2012.
Orbach, Michael. “Crying Foul Over Kaporos
.” The Jewish Star. Sept. 15, 2010.
[xxv] “Gompertz, Lewis.” JewishEncyclopedia. https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6798-gompertz-lewis
[xxvi] “Gompertz, Lewis.” JewishEncyclopedia. https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6798-gompertz-lewis
[xxvii] “Lewis Gompertz - Jewish 'vegan' and co-founder of the RSPCA in 1824.” International Vegetarian Union. https://ivu.org/index.php/blogs/john-davis/123-lewis-gompertz-jewish-vegan-and-co-founder-of-the-rspca-in-1824
[xxviii] “The History of the RSPCA.”Animal Legal and Historical Center. https://www.animallaw.info/article/history-rspca
[xxix] “Lewis Gompertz - Jewish 'vegan' and co-founder of the RSPCA in 1824.” International Vegetarian Union. https://ivu.org/index.php/blogs/john-davis/123-lewis-gompertz-jewish-vegan-and-co-founder-of-the-rspca-in-1824
[xxx] “The History of the RSPCA.” Animal Legal and Historical Center. https://www.animallaw.info/article/history-rspca
[xxxi] “Lewis Gompertz - Jewish 'vegan' and co-founder of the RSPCA in 1824.” International Vegetarian Union. https://ivu.org/index.php/blogs/john-davis/123-lewis-gompertz-jewish-vegan-and-co-founder-of-the-rspca-in-1824
[xxxii] “Lewis Gompertz - Jewish 'vegan' and co-founder of the RSPCA in 1824.” International Vegetarian Union. https://ivu.org/index.php/blogs/john-davis/123-lewis-gompertz-jewish-vegan-and-co-founder-of-the-rspca-in-1824
[xxxiii] Lewis Gompertz, Moral Inquiries into the Situation of Man and of Brutes (1824) in Kemmerer, Lisa. Animals and World Religions, 200. Also, “England: early 19th Century: Lewis Gompertz (1779-1865).” International Vegetarian Union. https://ivu.org/history/england19a/gompertz.html
[xxxiv] Gompertz, Lewis. Moral Inquiries on the Situation of Man and of Brutes. From “Lewis Gompertz Quotes.” LibQuotes. https://libquotes.com/lewis-gompertz
[xxxv] Lewis Gompertz, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
[xxxvi] For a history of the Jewish Vegetarian Society, see https://www.jvs.org.uk/2017/04/04/history-of-the-jvs/
[xxxvii] Schwartz’s articles are posted here: http://www.jewishveg.com/schwartz/
[xxxviii] Jewish Veg: Mission Statement. https://www.jewishveg.org/about
[xxxix] Courtesy of Frazin, Rachel. “How Israel Became the Global Center of Veganism.” The Tower. Sept. 2016. http://www.thetower.org/article/how-israel-became-the-global-center-of-veganism/
[xxxx] Some argue that “naked” in these passages means “torn clothes,” but Hebrew scholar Samantha Joo notes that “The Hebrew word, 'arom, means “naked” and not “torn clothes” (see Job 1:21—“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return” and also Ecclesiastes 5:15 “As they came from their mother's womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came”). She reminds that Isaiah is living out an exile in which people were dehumanized, clothes being a understood as synonymous with being a civilized human being.