Douglas Aronin

The Elephants and the Torah question: thoughts on the end of a circus

With so much happening in the world, it would have been easy to miss the announcement entirely.  It wasn’t a complete shock, but it’s taken a while for it to really sink in.  After 146 years, Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus — the self-styled “Greatest Show on Earth”– will close up shop after final appearances scheduled for Providence, Rhode Island and the Nassau Coliseum in May.  I guess the thought of competing with the clowns of the Trump administration  was too much, even for the experienced showmen of the world’s best known three-ring circus.

OK, sorry. I couldn’t resist.  Feld Entertainment, the owner of Ringling Brothers, announced the closing of the circus, explaining that the combination of escalating operating costs and plummeting ticket sales made the circus financially unsustainable.   Last spring, under sustained pressure from animal rights activists,  the circus had ended the use of elephants in its shows.  The elephants  had long been the circus’s most popular attraction, but the resulting decline in ticket sales was significantly greater than the owners had anticipated, and that decline sealed the circus’s fate.

The radical animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (commonly known as PETA) was quick to claim credit for the closure. The circus owners,  understandably reluctant to concede the organization a victory lap, attributed the closure to a wider range of factors.  “The competitor in many ways is time,”  said Kenneth Feld, the CEO of Feld Entertainment.. “It’s a different model that we can’t see how it works in today’s world to justify and maintain an affordable ticket price”.
Ringling Brothers without question was a remnant of an era long gone.  It  traced its roots back to several smaller traveling circuses which opened in the 1870’s — when Ulysses S. Grant was President and the nation was still recovering from the ravages of the Civil War. Entertainment options, to put it mildly, were more limited then than they are today.  In our day of instantaneous communications, the notion of a traveling circus in and of itself seems quaint.
Yet the fact remains that the Ringling Brothers circus, for all its struggles, had managed to keep on going, until PETA through a combination of litigation and public pressure, forced the circus to give up the elephants.  The owners apparently didn’t realize the extent to which the elephants, in the public mind, had become the essence of the circus.  To many,  the circus without elephants was like a concert without musicians. It was the one circus act that, for all the wonders of modern technology,  could not be readily duplicated in any other format.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who is feeling a somewhat wistful nostalgia at the approaching end of the Ringling Brothers circus.  There aren’t too many institutions in this country that go back that far.  Except for circus employees, however, Ringling Brothers didn’t loom large in anybody’s life.  Even for its most faithful customers — and I certainly wasn’t in that category — the circus was at most an enjoyable once-a-year diversion.
For all the nostalgia, the closing of the circus will not do serious harm to our society, but  the resulting  public relations success for PETA is a different story.  It’s important to recognize PETA for what it is. Its mission is not, like that of traditional animal welfare organizations, to prevent unnecessary animal suffering .  No halakhic Jew can endorse activities that cause unnecessary animal suffering. Hunting has never been a Jewish pastime.
PETA’s mission is not to end gratuitous animal suffering, but  rather  to promote a radical ideology that considers  animal life and human life to be of equal value .  To PETA, human beings and animals are morally equivalent, and those who disagree with this bizarre notion are guilty of “speciesism”,i.e.,  giving preference to human beings over other animal species. PETA’s  failure to place greater value on human life than on animal life –places it fundamentally at odds with Jewish tradition.
Since PETA, like most non-profits, uses its website ( both to introduce potential supporters to the organization and to motivate supporters to donate, one might expect that web site to contain a somewhat sanitized version of the organization’s goals and activities.  If read carefully, however,  PTA’s website contains more than enough information to make the extremism of its agenda clear.  PETA opposes virtually any use of animals for any purpose, whether for food, clothing (including even wool) or household pets.  Its basic ideology is set forth prominently at the very beginning of the website:
Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way.
Lest you miss the significance of that slogan, PETA’s, web site goes on to explain:
 “When it comes to pain, love, joy, loneliness, and fear, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. Each one values his or her life and fights the knife.”
PETA is also not shy about its opposition to any use of animals for scientific experimentation. It emphasizes opposition to experiments that appear to be frivolous or redundant, hoping that its less extreme supporters will overlook PETA’s uncompromising fanaticism would preclude the use of animals for  experiments to develop life-saving treatments for serious diseases. Again, a careful reading makes it clear:

There are some medical problems that can probably only be cured by testing on unwilling people, but we don’t do it because we recognize that it would be wrong. We need to extend this same concern to other living, feeling beings, regardless of what species they may be.
The Torah takes a different view:  After telling us that God created human beings, both male and female, in His image, the Biblical text continues:
God blessed them and God said to them: “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it [Heb., kivshuha]; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sea and all the living things that creep on earth.”
From the Torah’s  perspective,  human mastery of all the earth’s resources is inherent in the plan of Creation, a viewpoint.  diametrically opposed to the ideology of PETA.  Contrary to PETA’s view, the various animal species  are precisely given to us to eat, wear and otherwise make us of.  Of course there are limits, both specific and general.  The specific limits come in the form of mitzvot that bar specific practices, such as the prohibition of muzzling an ox while it is treading out g5ain (Deut. 25:4) or plowing with two different size animals yoked together(22:10).
The more general limitation is encompassed in the concept of tsar baalei chaim, which prohibits gratuitous cruelty, as well as in the broader notion of stewardship.  The earth is God’s after all, and human beings are charged with protecting it. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, as human knowledge expands, so does  both our understanding of the needs of the earth and the animal species that populate it and our ability to intervene in the natural processes in a manner to designed to conserve the earth’s resources for the benefit of  future generations.
  PETA also uses its  website to hawk  Peter Singer’s book  Animal Liberation.  If you haven’t heard of Singer, who is a professor of bioethics at Princeton, then just imagine the exact opposite of the Torah’s view of the sanctity of human life.  In addition his controversial views of animal rights, he is best known for his advocacy of infanticide Singer has advocated allowing infanticide — he has wiremen that “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.” would permit parents to terminate the life of a handicapped infant for thirty days after birth and would euthanize the disabled.
Singer’s philosophy makes explicit what PETA’s only implies – that while the notion of animal rights may seem at first to be an upgrade of  the status of animals, it inevitably leads to a downgrade of the status of human beings  The Torah commands us not to cause unnecessary suffering to animals, and places on us the responsibility of using wisely all the resources of His Creation. It also makes clear, however, that only human beings are created in God’s image.  We forget that lesson at our peril.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.