Repairing Our Relationship with Animals Is an Act of Teshuvah

(Pexels)
(Pexels)

The yearning for return is real this year. Return to good health, return to in-person, return to normalcy. That universal desire grips us in a moment when our Jewish communities engage in a process of teshuvah, or spiritual return, leading up to the high holidays. And while many of us simply want things to go “back to the way they were,” we’re keenly aware of the ways a global pandemic lays bare the exploitation and abuse we’ve neglected to uproot for decades. Certain patterns need breaking. Certain problems require teshuvah — a personal and collective accounting of our actions that leads to growth and balance in the world — not just an aspiration to restore the status quo. Our first port of call if we’re serious about that deep, transformative work this year is our food system, and specifically: our relationship with animals. 

As I’ll explain, that transformation is already under way: in how we celebrate the new year, in the ways our institutions serve food, even in the way US legislators are crafting agricultural policy. Why all of this transformation? On so many levels? Because the problems with animals run so deep. When I say animals, I mean the 56 billion that we slaughter annually, the 10 billion we slaughter in this country, and the trillions not included in that figure harvested from aquafarms and our oceans. The animals whose exploitative industries contribute between 14.5% (according to the FAO, 2006) and 51% (according to 2009 data that includes factors like deforestation) of greenhouse gas emissions causing our climate crisis. The animals in vertically integrated agricultural systems that forcibly absorb smaller farms and line the pockets of a tiny number of corporate giants—which then control those farmers. The animals whose waste poisons the water and air of low-income communities, indigenous communities, and communities of color. The animals who are most likely to incubate the virus that unleashes the next global pandemic.

Like the bellowing of a shofar, COVID-19 is a wake-up call. We’re waking up to the big problems that have been festering within animal agriculture for decades before this outbreak. Factory farms—which house the vast majority of animals raised for food in the US, including those destined for kosher slaughter—have crammed animals, especially poultry, into tighter cages and barns, creating a perfect breeding ground for pathogens. Kosher slaughter methods don’t preclude kosher chickens, which suffer from the same hybrid genetics and are raised in identical extreme confinement to conventional birds, from posing the same public health threat. Underpaid employees already endure one of the most dangerous workplaces in America, according to the National Employment Law Project. President Trump’s recent invocation of the Defense Production Act further entrenches a long and depraved practice of exploiting meatpacking workers, treating so-called “essential” employees as disposable. Black and Latinx people have been sickened and die at much higher rates from COVID-19—a double blow to the communities who suffer disproportionately from the policies that bolster industrial meat and dairy. We must amplify—and act upon—this call and repair our relationship with animals if we want to stem the tide of antibiotic resistance and future pandemics, if we want to spare the lives of the people most vulnerable to illness and death, and if we want to build an equitable food system that prioritizes people over profit.

We can start this work now on the federal level, on the communal level, and on a personal level (and none of them involve Zoom). For the first time in industrial animal agriculture’s 70-year existence, calls for a factory farming moratorium went mainstream with the introduction of the Farm System Reform Act (FSRA), first authored by Senator Cory Booker and introduced in the House by Representative Ro Khanna. So far, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have co-sponsored the Senate bill, and 10 representatives have followed suit with the House’s companion. If passed, the FSRA would overhaul the fundamental structure of our food system: it would halt construction or expansion of large factory farms, and phase them out by 2040. Of the animals raised for food, more would be kept in higher welfare conditions; the country would invest in the expansion of plant-based foods; the government would support farmers in their transition to pasture-based systems and plant-based agriculture. Never before has such a bold vision been introduced in the national policy arena. Never has a plan come this close to dismantling our unjust food system. And despite its common sense proposition, never before has agricultural policy resonated this strongly with our core Jewish values of social justice, sustainability, and compassion. We can support this historic legislation by sharing about it to raise public awareness, by writing letters to the editor, and by contacting our Senators and Representatives urging them to cosponsor the FSRA. 

That’s the federal level. On the personal level, we can transform our relationship with animals by accounting for the ways in which animals touch and impact our lives, and vice versa. Rosh Hashanah La’Behema, one of the four Jewish new years noted in the Mishna, falls on Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the month) of Elul, and has been revived in recent years as an opportunity to reflect on and commit to healing our relationship with all creatures. Aharon Varady from the Open Siddur Project aptly describes how this would parallel our transformation of another Rosh Hashanah, Tu biShvat: 

“In the millenia after the Temple’s destruction, Tu biShvat was re-established by Jewish mystics as a special day of tikkun [repair] — a day to reflect on and pray for healing our relationship with trees and by extension, the whole of life-nurturing Earth. Similarly, Rosh Ḥodesh Elul begins in earnest a month-long process of teshuvah — an intense tikkun of all of our living relationships, culminating with the New Year’s Day for the Maasei Bereshit (the works of Creation). What a better way to begin a month dedicated to humbling ourselves and repairing our relationships than by reflecting first on our relationship with behemah — the domesticated animals which depend on us for their care and sustenance. If we can imagine, empathize, and understand the dependency of behemah in our care, how much better can we realize our relationship with blessed Holy One, and the infinite chain of inter-dependencies uniting all living relationships in reflection of this Oneness” [retrieved from Sefaria.org]. 

You can find a ritual guide for celebrating Rosh Hashanah La’Behemah here.

We can transform our communal relationship with animals by embracing them as members of our community, understanding the ways in which their welfare is inextricably linked to ours and that of all humans. We can do this first and foremost by implementing more sustainable communal food practices and illuminating connections between issues like worker justice, environmental racism, and pandemic risk, all of which intersect with industrialized animal agriculture. Within our institutions, we can retell the Jewish stories and uncover discussions about animals which historically inspired vibrant religious debate. We can build an ethical framework for engaging in one of the greatest communal acts of teshuvah of our time: eliminating the factory farm. 

On the morning of Yom Kippur, a reading from Isaiah reminds us that ritual is meaningless without ethical conduct, that fasting is nothing if not accompanied by the pursuit of justice: 

“Is such the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies…?  No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke; To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke” Isaiah 58:5-6.

The haftarah is also a reminder that our teshuvah process extends beyond the period of Elul, or the High Holidays, or this pandemic: it’s our life’s work, and the opportunities to engage it are here and now.  

As we enter the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe), may the awe of all creation inspire us to do better by animals, and by extension, ourselves. 

About the Author
Melissa directs the Jewish Initiative for Animals (JIFA), a leading Jewish sustainable food and animal welfare initiative. In her role, she consults with Jewish organizations and communities across the country to develop ethical food practices, as well as curriculum and programs that foster compassion for all living beings through the lens of Jewish values.
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