Thursday, April 15, 2010

Baby Animals and Jewish Law

By Sherry Colb

In my column this week, I discuss a Ninth Circuit decision finding that the district court was wrong to grant a preliminary injunction to the National Meat Association, blocking the State of California from enforcing its Downed Animal Law (which prohibits slaughter and requires immediate euthanasia of non-ambulatory animals).  This case raises, among other things, the issue of when "humane" legislation simply condones the infliction of suffering and death on farmed animals and when when it represents a break with the "animals are here for our use" paradigm.  I suggest that one could read the Downed Animal Law as recognizing -- in a negligible but perhaps symbolically significant way -- the non-instrumental worth of nonhuman animals.  In my discussion, I briefly mention a hypothetical law that might ban the slaughter of baby animals and what the impact of such a law would be on the experience of farmed beings.  This brief mention made me think about a series of three verses repeated in the Hebrew Bible/Torah/Old Testament, (depending on one's religious orientation).

The verses say, according to the King James Version of the Bible, "Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk."  The Hebrew word for which "seethe" is here a translation might more readily be translated as "cook" or "boil."  This verse forms the basis for the rabbinic prohibition against the consumption of dairy together with some kinds of flesh (not including the flesh of fishes) along with the various rules that regulate the treatment of dishes that have touched either dairy or flesh products.

I want to propose here an alternative reading of the phrase.  There have been various interpretations through which assorted commentators have said that actually, it is fine to eat dairy and flesh together, consistent with these verses, but that is not the direction in which I choose to go.  I want to propose that we interpret "do not cook a kid in his mother's milk" to mean that we should not be consuming baby animals and, ultimately, any animals at all.  Of course, much in the Bible seems to condone the use of animals for flesh and their products, so the Bible is probably not an ideal source for animal rights material.  On the other hand, the Bible also explicitly condones human slavery and the intentional killing (and enslavement) of defenseless civilians captured during war, so anyone who relies for moral guidance on the Bible (but who also believes that genocide and human slavery are morally repellent) is necessarily committed to being selective in his Bible reading.  Norm Phelps makes this point quite well in his book, The Dominion of Love.

How might the verse be understood as an admonition against eating baby animals?  First, the Hebrew words that translate to "cooking a kid in his mother's milk" might mean "cooking a kid who is still drinking his mother's milk."  The words "in his mother's milk" could thus be read to modify "kid" rather than "cook."  It would then be accurate to consider a nursing baby to be defined as falling within the stage of life when he is still nourished on his mother's milk.  The modern Hebrew word for a baby, for example, is Tinok or Tinoket, which literally means one who is nursed.  A second reading, in which "in his mother's milk" modifies "cook" would hold that a baby who is nursing is necessarily filled with his mother's milk and will therefore be cooked in that milk if he is slaughtered and killed at all. 

To understand the prohibition in one of these two ways is to find some moral sense in it -- prohibiting the slaughter of baby animals who are still in the process of nursing with their mothers reflects a level of compassion for the baby and for the relationship between the baby and his mother.  For many people, there is something distinctively disturbing about the slaughter of babies, which may account in part for the special status that veal (baby calves who are slaughtered for their flesh) has among those who think in ethical terms about the infliction of death and suffering on animals.  If the prohibition were simply one concerning health or purity, it would be odd to mention the relationship between the "kid" and his mother at all; that the verse does so (in three separate places) suggests that the moral concern is not simply about what we cook together but about whom we slaughter and consume.  And killing babies, whether goats, lambs, chickens, or turkeys, necessarily deprives a mother of her baby and a baby of his or her mother.  As anyone familiar with animal behavior (and not committed to apologizing for the animal industry) will acknowledge, this deprivation is real and profound.

If one reads this phrase as I do (and as I have for many years, even before I became a vegan), some important implications follow.  Almost all animals currently slaughtered for consumption are babies.  Chickens are generally slaughtered when they are six weeks old, though male chicks from egg-laying hens are considered economically worthless and are ground to death (conscious) or suffocated in a garbage bag at one day old (so egg farmers can produce their product); turkeys are slaughtered when they are between 12 and 26 weeks old; pigs are slaughtered when they are between 3 and 6 months old; "beef" cows are killed when they are between 1 and 2 years old; baby "veal" calves (that is, almost every  male and many female offspring of "dairy cows" who are not bred for "beef" and are therefore disposable byproducts of dairy) are typically killed at some point between being newborns and being 6 months old; sheep are killed as lambs, between three and six months old; rabbits are killed when they are between 6 and 8 weeks old.  The female animals who are exploited for their reproductive processes (including egg-laying hens and "dairy" cows) are slaughtered later (after much horrible suffering), once they are "spent."  To prohibit the slaughter of babies would therefore be to prohibit most of the slaughter that currently produces the flesh and animal products that people currently consume.

Understanding the Biblical prohibition to apply to the consumption of baby animals, one could, then, take the next and obvious step and not consume them at all, just as Adam and Eve did not consume them in the Garden of Eden, the model for nonviolence before Cain killed Abel and introduced murder into the Biblical world.

Like religious people do with respect to the welfarist orientation that the Bible has toward slavery and the treatment of slaves, one could take the logic of avoiding unnecessary animal suffering to its logical end and say that the deep message of the Bible, despite its literally condoning both human slavery and animal slaughter, is the abolition of both.  I will here close with a quotation from Norm Phelps's book (followed by a quotation from Isaac Bashevis Singer, referenced by Phelps):

In Leviticus 25:44-46, we are told that God specifically authorized slavery.  "As for your male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you . . . You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves."  Exodus, Leviticus, and other books of the Hebrew Scriptures establish rules for the treatment of slaves.  Often these rules are intended to mitigate the suffering of slaves, but they carry no hint that human slavery is wrong on principle and ought to be abolished.  In this respect, the Bible's position on slavery has much in common with the animal protection philosophy known as 'animal welfarism,' which holds that we may exploit animals for our own purposes, but that we should do so 'humanely,' and try to mitigate their suffering as much as is consistent with the purpose for which we are using them.  Likewise, the Bible teaches a slave protection policy that we may call 'slave welfarism':  we may keep slaves in bondage and use them for our own purposes, but we should treat them as kindly as possible.  No Jew or Christian today would regard slave welfarism as an adequate response to the moral challenge of human slavery, even though it is undeniably what the Bible teaches.  Why, then, should we regard animal welfarism as an adequate response to the moral challenge of Isaac Singer's "eternal Treblinka?"*

*The reference to Isaac Bashevis Singer's "eternal Treblinka" is to this quotation from Singer, who lost his own mother and a brother to the death camps and barely escaped himself:  "all those scholars, all those philosophers, all the leaders of the world...have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation.  All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated.  In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.  And yet man demands compassion from heaven."  

In the interest of full disclosure, I note that all of my grandparents and six of my seven aunts and uncles perished in the Holocaust as well.  My father, Benzion Kalb, helped organize and run a rescue (Hatzalah) operation during the Holocaust that smuggled children from Poland (where they were doomed) into Hungary, where they could be placed in Christian homes with false identification papers so they could escape the Final Solution.  Several hundred children survived the war because of him.


Bob Hockett said...

Thanks, Sherry, this is truly wonderful. And as it happens, it comes at a particularly auspicious time at my end, for two reasons.

The first reason is that I attended a vegan Shabat dinner last week that I experienced as surprisingly revelatory. It was an absolute joy for its ambience of simultaneous worshipfulness and respect for our fellow creatures. Many prayers and many songs, most of us playing violins, violas (in my case), guitars and all other manner of delightful instrument - even a banjo in one case. (I know, sort of hippy sounding, but wonderful, truly wonderful.) I suspect that many adherents to many venerable faith traditions, who might feel some misgivings about some of the more conspicuous failings, historically, of many past and present practitioners of some of those traditions, might experience a great sense of joyful liberation were they too to experience firsthand some of the ways in which one can be true both to the old ways and to a fuller respect for our home and our fellow creatures. Indeed I cannot help but think such reconciliation yields purer renditions of our traditions themselves.

The second reason I'm especially grateful for your post now is that I'm currently writing up a little piece highlighting the linguistic parallels between the Genesis story's account of the creation and designated roles of nonhuman animals on the one hand, human animals on the other. It is striking that we're all said to be of the same stuff - made from the earth - and that prelapsarian humanity is instructed to nourish itself, not on our fellow creatures, but on fruits and grains. It also is striking that we are assigned a role akin to that of trustee or steward of or for the earth and our fellow creatures, not exploiters thereof. No instrumental use of nonhuman animals at all seems to be suggested until after the Fall, whereupon animal skins are taken for clothing (I like to think from already deceased critters, not that this would be optimal).

Let me note also in passing how moving your family story is. Belated prayers from this end, and a salute to your wonderful father.

Shalom, thanks again, and all best,

Danny said...

I agree, this was a joy to read. I recently hosted my first vegan seder, and I found myself wondering how I ever celebrated the gift of freedom any other way...

Jesse London said...

I am equally, though perhaps much more awed, than Professor Hockett about this wonderful post. I have also thought many times on the nature of the "mother's milk rule" and tried to explain this to others, who see as merely anachronism. Although, I have understood it not from such a learned place, given my limited opportunities and insight. In a modern context, I can explain this to others as a part of "Eco-Kashrut", but I personally understand this as being, fundamentally, a respect for the sanctity of the continuity of life in general. However, I would link it much more with youth, than with animals in general.

I believe that the prohibition on veal, or rather that an animal must see all four seasons before death, relates directly to time and the roles of the parent / child, or old/young. I want to tie this to our shared-knowledge of slavery and hierarchy also. Even that hierarchy / shepherding that still seems justified.

It has always astonished me that while there is significant study of non-human animal rights, there is so little on that of the human youth. I don't mean negative rights or protectionism, but positive rights. The parallels between the protectionist policy, and its justification, for 'slave welfarism' of non-human animals, and young humans are so striking similar, yet hidden in our shared culture. No Jew or Christian today would likely regard slave welfarism as an adequate response to the moral challenge of ADULT human slavery, yet how easily they would defend that same pater/maternalism with respect to young humans.

At its worst, the patriarchal evolution might go like this: Animals are for our own purposes, we train them because they are lost / wild without us, but we treat them as kindly as possible. Young people, especially infants, are like animals, so they warrant similar treatment. Women are like children... effeminate men are like women.. and so on. With each stage in the analogy built upon the last. Likewise, within our social / legal traditions, each civil rights movement built upon the backs of the last. But, strangely, that last civil rights movement for young people is still left to be fought?

I am touched by the bravery of your father. Of course, we all hope that we would not go quietly. But, so few actually stand and fight when the time comes.

In the spirit of disclosure, I have been vegetarian for 12 years, and have never eaten pork or shellfish, but haven't made the leap to veganism ;) Also, I was pretty young for 18 years :-) My grandparents, but not all of the great-aunts and cousins decided to get over just after WWI. Time and place are so important.

Our stories are of utmost importance. Those that stand the test of time have a kernel of wisdom about eventual freedom. We have to keep telling them, and re-understanding them to make that happen. (Yep, that sounds hippy too)

Kera said...

Posts such as this one remind me of how lucky I am to have been one of your students . . . and make me regret not finding you my 1L year (as opposed to 2d semester, 3L year)! Hope all is well. Sad day re US v. Stevens. I worked on the HSUS amicus brief. Pretty down right now.

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Sherry,

I really like your reading of the phrase, so I asked a friend at UCSD, Bill Propp, the Harriet and Louis Bookheim Professor of Biblical Hebrew and Related Languages, what he thought. He wrote me back the following. I hope you find it useful.

"The idea that what the Torah forbids is cooking a suckling kid is not absolutely impossible, I think, but nearly so.
First, we have parallel references, with the same wording, to animals being boiled in fluid (e.g., Exod 12:9), as was common for sacrificial meat (e.g., Lev 6:21; Num 6:19; Deut 16:7, etc.).
Second, meat seethed in sour milk is a common Middle Eastern dish.
Third, why is there no comparable taboo on suckling lambs or calves?
Fourth, Exod 22:29 suggests that an 8-day-old animal was eligible for sacrifice (though there is admittedly ambiguity).
Fifth, no one in the continuous stream of Jewish interpretation has taken the passage this way. True, it has been understood as an implicit ban on all milk and meat meals, but that is an inference from the plain sense.
Sixth, I would compare boiling a kid in its own mother's milk to the Assyrian ritual curse of putting dead, fetal lambs in the mouth's of ewes, and also 2 Kgs 6:26-30, where two women conspire to boil and eat their own offspring. In other words, there is the "yuck factor." Howard Eilberg-Schwartz has compared the law to the taboo on incest."

Sherry F. Colb said...

Hello Sam. Your friend seems to be operating under the common misconception that the entirety of the Torah/Bible/Old Testament may be reconciled. It, of course, cannot. One need not look far to find that an injunction saying "Thou Shalt Not Kill" is not easily made consistent with narratives of mandatory killing for conquest and subsequent divine punishment and condemnation for sparing helpless members of an enemy nation.

If one is looking to find in the Torah the ingredients of a more moral way to live, however, there is much to recommend my reading of the verse. As to the "yuck" factor, the discipline of psychology has long understood that disgust can reflect moral intuitions, and that it may expand or contract when informed by moral reflection. I, for example, have come to find nauseating the thought (and smell) of the burning corpses and reproductive secretions of my fellow sentient beings.

Sherry F. Colb said...

Kera, thank you for your very kind words and for staying in touch!

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Sherry,

I don't think that Bill is interested in "reconciling" passages from the Torah. What he is providing is "evidence" that the most likely reading of the relevant phrase, given both clearly probative contextual and cultural clues, is not the one you were suggesting. This is not to say that, for purposes that have nothing to do with divining original meaning, it would be undesirable to read the phrase in the way you suggest. Quite the contrary, as I said in my comment. But I don't think you can simply dismiss the evidence he provides. This is to brush an interesting question of interpretation under the rug.

"Thou shalt not kill" is also an interesting case. Some suggest that it means, "though shalt not murder". Others suggest that it couldn't possibly have meant "thou shalt not kill under any and all circumstances". And the latter is not unreasonable. Consider, for example, the injunction that congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. Does this mean that congress is not permitted to ban ANY form of speech? Surely not.

Of course I am not suggesting that there are no inconsistencies in the Torah. Different portions were likely written by different folks, with different preconceptions. So I take the point about why it would be a mistake to attempt reconciliation of barefaced contradictions in the text. (And I also agree with your point about how moral reflection can affect our sense of disgust.) But, as I say, this does not touch the point at issue, which concerns the proper interpretation of the phrase "seething a kid in its mother's milk".

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