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.