Once upon a time, many families in this country ate meat by taking a chicken from the coop and slaughtering it themselves. Their eggs came from the same hens out back and their clothes were sewn by a family member or someone in town. By the 1960s, after a century of urbanization and industrialization, most people no longer knew from where their food or clothing came. The meaty chicken breasts and eggs in Styrofoam and plastic packaging miraculously appeared every week in the supermarket refrigerator in a similar way that the low-priced shirts appeared on the department store clothing racks. Industrial meat and egg production delivered low-cost, abundant chicken, beef and pork to the market while consumers remained blissfully ignorant of work conditions and poor treatment of animals that made these prices possible.
The era of blissful ignorance is over. Thanks to communication technology, animal welfare activism, and increased desire among consumers to understand where their food comes from, we have a clear picture about how animals are treated on most industrial farms. The picture is not pretty. For example, the vast majority of pigs, calves, and chickens are confined to cages where they cannot walk an inch or turn around. These animals cannot lie down properly or engage in any kind of behavior that would be considered normal. Animal welfare experts claim that these conditions create terrible stress and discomfort. This is just one example among many in which animals are subject to cruel treatment on factory farms.
Judaism seeks to create ethically sensitive human beings by instructing us to steward the earth and not misuse our power, including our power over animals. The Torah teaches of a moral imperative the forbids human beings from causing unnecessary suffering to animals. Known in Hebrew as tza’ar ba’alei chayim, it has been the subject of study and thought among rabbinical scholars for generations, many of whom have surmised that the way we treat animals is a reflection of the way we treat one another.
Throughout Jewish text and tradition, cruelty toward animals is explicitly forbidden. In Genesis, we are instructed not to sever the limb of a live animal and eat it. In Deuteronomy, we are instructed to allow our animals to rest on Shabbat and relieve the suffering of an animal. In Leviticus we are prohibited from slaughtering a cow and her calf on the same day. The Torah allows us to slaughter and eat animals, and use animals as beasts of burden, but within certain limitations to prevent unnecessary cruelty.
We have the opportunity to uphold the spirit of these laws using our ballots on November 8th — as one important example, voters in New England can add Massachusetts to the growing list of states with limitations on extreme farm animal confinement. If passed, Question 3 would ban the use of battery cages for laying hens, gestation crates for pigs, veal crates for calves, and would ban the sale of products from any of these confinement systems. These changes would ensure that animals can lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs, and turn around freely. A similar law passed in California in 2008. A Yes vote on Question 3 is a vote in favor of the basic and fundamental humanity our faith tradition teaches us is a mitzvah to extend to all of God’s creation.
As significant as these reforms can be to the animals who are suffering (and the public whose health is put at risk from the unsanitary conditions in which they are kept), from a policy standpoint, the actions are quite modest, as are the effect they will have on corporations’ bottom line. Companies like McDonald’s and Walmart are already taking action — secure in the knowledge they can still make a robust profit, while sourcing from farms that give animals more room to move around. As demand increases for cage-free eggs and humane meat production prices will also stay low.
If you’re not in Massachusetts, you may be voting on other measures that impact animal welfare, like initiatives to keep California’s ban on plastic bags (Prop 67) and prohibit the import and sale of endangered species parts and products in Oregon (Measure 100). In Oklahoma, State Question 777, if passed, could encourage inhumane farming and slaughter practices in the state.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, one of the great Mussar masters of the 20th century, teaches about the Choice Point. The Choice Point is that place where we are caught between what we know is true and the right thing to do and a strong pull towards self-deception because of habit or desire. We grow spiritually and ethically by choosing towards the truth as we know it.
Awareness of the inhumane treatment of industrial farm animals, and all animals, puts all of us as voters in a choice point: compassion vs. business as usual. Voting for compassion, like with Yes on Question 3, aligns our behavior with our values and sends a clear message to our government and to large corporate interests that our community demands ethical treatment of all creatures.
Rabbi David Jaffe is the founder of the Kirva Institute and author of Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change (Trumpeter: 2016). He lives in Sharon, MA. He can be reached at rabbidavidjaffe.com.
Yes on 3 is endorsed by Rabbi David Jaffe and the Jewish Initiative for Animals.