In the 10 Commandments in Parshat Va’etchanan we’re told to keep the Shabbat “you and your son and your daughter and your servant and your ox and your donkey and all your livestock and the stranger within your midst so that your servant can rest as you do. And you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt and G-d took you out with an outstretched hand and therefore G-d commanded you to keep the Shabbat.”
When we remember that we were saved from slavery we should first focus on our obligations to other people. But G-d ties this in to an obligation to provide our animals rest too.
There are two extremes in discussions of animal welfare. Both ultimately reject human exceptionalism. One insists that animals are humans’ equals, if not their betters. The other insists that humans have no moral restrictions regarding causing animals pain.
One of the core lessons of Passover is that we must always remember that we were strangers in Egypt and must now be kind to the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. In many places it’s clear that this kindness must extend to animals as well.
The Bible insists that we not plow with an ox and a donkey together, as this causes pain to both animals. It forbids us from muzzling an ox while it is working. Judaism has a strong prohibition against causing suffering to animals.
On the other hand, the Bible allows us to eat animals. The Pessach story and ancient (and perhaps future) celebration includes sacrificing and eating a lamb.
At Eden we lived in an idyllic vegan and egalitarian system, straight out of a John Lennon song. No possessions. No hierarchies. Few prohibitions. As any conservative could have predicted, this had disastrous results.
After the flood we had a new covenant that included fear, hierarchy, and requirements to maintain legal systems that included punishing murderers. It also included permission to eat animals under certain conditions. Millenia later, Jews in the desert protested their vegan conditions. They were given meat, and then hit by a plague because of their blood lust. The term lust (Hebrew: Taava) is repeatedly used regarding a desire for meat. Jews are permitted meat in a strange verse that says “And you will say ‘I will eat meat,’ because your soul lusts to eat meat, according to all the lust of your soul you may eat meat.”
The permission to eat meat seems a concession to human lust. It may be a necessary concession, at least for some of us. It’s a concession the Bible chooses to make, and the Eden story is a warning that those who demand that we live to ideals that deny human nature bring ruin to us all. And some of those who are extremists regarding animal rights turn out to be quite cruel to other humans.
My wife is a friendly vegan. Especially given the factory farming procedures under which dairy, eggs, and meat are produced, my wife tries to help those trying to cut down on animal products. She (shameless plug) has just released her $4.99 Vegan Passover Cookbook for Kindle or eBook. I am not (yet) a vegan, but I do wish to support her efforts for reducing animal suffering. Proceeds go to a noble cause (me).