Friday, May 20, 2011

Do animals have souls (part II)

In a previous post  (go to part 1) I discussed the question of whether or not animals have souls according to Jewish theology, and then defined five different Hebrew words that are commonly translated "soul." In this essay, I will explore the question of why Western society became so callous towards animals, and attempt to show that this is not due to Judaism!

There is a disturbing tendency in the animal rights and ecology movements to blame everything negative on "monotheism" or "The Patriarchy" or "the Jews" without really understanding what Judaism actually teaches. Very often, the popular conception of what is "Jewish" is about as accurate as the Hollywood Wild West portrayal of what is "Indian." So we need to take a second look at some basic Jewish teachings before we can understand how modern society got off track.

Consider the story of the Garden of Eden, a teaching story that is originally Jewish and comes from the Torah (which is the same text as the first five books of the Bible.) The story of Noah and the Ark also comes from the Torah. So right away, we can see that Judaism gave us two of the most basic images about caring for the environment -- images that are frequently cited by modern environmental movements, both religious and secular. These stories are also basic as to how Jews are supposed to relate to animals.

Adam and Eve lived in harmony with animals in the Garden, and were told to care for the Garden. So their role was to be stewardship, not conquest.   Adam also names the animals. Now, usually this is interpreted as naming the species, but there is another, deeper way to look at this. When you name an animal, you take responsibility for it, and you also develop a connection to it. There is an old adage among farmers to "never name something you are going to eat" -- and there are many stories of farm children who did name a cow or goat and were then unable to eat it.  Naming an animal personalizes it and makes it into an individual. So clearly, Adam and Eve did not see animals as mere "things."

The Garden of Eden is also the Jewish metaphor for the afterlife.  Considering the fact that Eden has animals in it, this implies that animals must have some form of afterlife also.  Otherwise, how could the lion lie down with the lamb, as foretold by Isaiah?

Noah was instructed to build the Ark to save all the animal species from an impending catastrophe. Whether you take the story literally or symbolically, the message is clear: God values every living species on earth, and expects us to take care of them.

The Midrash (an ancient set of Jewish commentaries) tells us that Noah and his family provided each species with the specific food it needed, caring for the diurnal species during the day and the nocturnal species during the night.  [The predators, it is said in the traditional Jewish commentaries, reverted to drinking milk on the Ark -- perhaps not very scientific, but a good way of explaining why they didn't eat the other animals. Even in modern times, there are cases where artificial nutrient mixes (such as KMR kitten formula) are used to feed and/or rehabilitate animals in the absence of their natural food.]

The Ark was, in a sense, a return to the harmony of Eden for the duration of the Flood.   After the Flood, humans were permitted to eat meat, but only after humanely slaughtering them.   Judaism later went further, permitting only domesticated species as food.  Eating exotic species was forbidden, as was hunting for sport.  In later years, the rabbis would also forbid their followers from attending the "games" at the Roman arena.  To this day, Jews do not, as a rule, attend or participate in blood sports.

There were no factory farms in those days.  Herds and flocks grazed freely in the open, as it was meant to be.   Nor was meat eaten every day.  It was something served on special occasions, such as the Sabbath, or when Abraham told Sarah to prepare food for the three visitors when he was camped under the trees at Mamre.

Both of these stories, Eden and the Ark,  treat animals as living, feeling beings.  So do many lines in the Psalms and other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, as I discussed in Part I of this series.  That being the case, why has Western society -- which claims to be based on the Bible -- become so callous about the treatment of animals on factory farms in recent times?

The answer, I believe, lies in the rise of secularism, and most particularly with a 17th-century French philosopher named Rene Descartes (pronounced day-CART.)   Known as "the father of modern philosophy," Descartes is best known for his famous saying: "I think, therefore I am." But what is not as well-known is this:  He believed that only humans have the ability to think and feel.  To Descartes, animals not only did not have souls, they were incapable of feeling emotions or pain. Animals were mere things, unthinking automatons with no consciousness whatsoever. The cries of an animal in pain, to Descartes, were nothing more that the squeaking of a poorly-maintained machine. To prove his point, he once nailed his own dog to the door and ignored its cries of anguish.

Descartes was not Jewish, and his ideas about animals are not in line with Jewish teachings. Nor are they in line with Christianity.  The Roman Catholic Church condemned his books and forbade reading them.  Nor did they have much influence on Jews -- at first. When Descartes was teaching, Jews in Europe were ghettoized and not accepted at the universities where he lectured.  But ideas will spread across all barriers, so that, by the time you get to the late 1700s, Cartesianism was starting to filter into the Jewish community along with the secular "Enlightenment" movement.

This explains why Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (d. 1810), the Breslover Hasidic Rebbe, told his followers not to study philosophy.  I had always been puzzled over this, this, because Maimonides was a philosopher, Nachmanides was a philosopher, so were Ibn Ezra and Luzatto  and a lot of other classical commentators -- and we study them, right?  But after reading about Descartes, I realized that what Rebbe Nachman was talking about was secular philosophy.  He must have realized that this type of thinking would lead us away from respecting God and the creation.  As indeed it has.

Cartesianism opened the way to factory farms and other abuses of animals we see today.  Jews, in turn, are now mostly urban people, who are cut off from the land, farming, and the process by which their food is produced.   (For more this, and on re-connecting Judaism with nature, see my video, "Earth and Torah")  Most Jews are unaware that the only difference between kosher meat and non-kosher meat is the method of slaughter.  The animals themselves come from the same industrialized factory farm and feedlot system as non-kosher meat.  The days of our ancestors raising their own chickens and personally taking them to the shochet (kosher slaughterer) are long gone.

It is for this reason that I believe that vegetarianism is the highest form of kosher diet today.  I do not fault my ancestors for eating meat.  There were times in Jewish history, when we lived in harsh desert or northern climates, where vegetarianism would have been next to impossible.  God knew this would happen, and so did not outrightly forbid eating meat.   But nowadays it is easier to be a vegetarian, and with modern nutritional science, it is possible to do it with a balanced diet and and remain healthy.  Many would now argue that vegetarianism is more healthy, given all the diseases we now know are associated with meat consumption. But the bottom line, for me, is this:  Animals do have feelings, and should not be raised as if they were nothing but food-producing machines.   That is not the Jewish way.

(See also my 15-minute video, "Raising Holy Sparks,"  about the kabbalistic "energy" of eating, and how it relates to the souls of animals.)


Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi Yonassan -- Just came across your site thru the Nature Blog Network, which I just joined.
Sorry to hear of your being blind-sided by Blogger! I hope you'll be able to reconstruct what you lost and hang in there with what looks like a nice site with interesting content.
What you're doing with fellow Jews in terms of "Nature Deficit Disorder," I'm trying to do with a broader audience. I think the disorder is affecting nearly everyone in a culture where we all seem to spend more and more time "on" something.
Keep up the good work!

Yonassan Gershom said...

Thank you fir visiting my blog. I finally got around to re-constructing this post wihch Blogspot lost. Not exactly word-for-word, but the ideas are there.

RFE my target audience, of course I am concerned with more than just the Jewish community, and anybody is free to read my blog. But since I am a rabbi and Judaism is my area of expertise, I have cohsen to focus my energy in that direction. Plus, a lot of Jews (sadly) see nature study as something alien and a waste of time, so by writing from a specifically Jewish POV, I hope to help change that attitude.

Peter said...

I totally agree with your assessment of Descartes and his philosophy. Animals are sentient creatures deserving our protection, not "things" to be used for food. You are quite right about vegetarianism (or veganism)being better for health than a meat diet - just think about the cholesterol and fat levels of many western people!

Anonymous said...

A few years back I had our pet dog put down and after witnessing her struggle to live after the injection took hold I wondered at the righteousness of this action. Particularly as the end was very near anyway. Then I read your words against pet euthanasia and something resonated.

Now the cat lies dying from kidney failure. I do not see the pain I am told he would be in, even though he has no energy at all simply breathing is all he can do. (I can tell you he was happy to come home from the vet.)

I cannot help but feel even the last gasps of life are important, even for animals.


Yonassan Gershom said...

I'm not 100% against all pet euthansia, there are times when an animal is so badly injured or in such obvious pain that it is more merciful. But as I said in the other article, I do not just automatically have pets euthanized when the end is near. I do believe it is best for their spirits to pass over naturally if possible. I had a cat die of kidney disease a few years ago and she just slipped into a coma and died peacefully in her cat bed.

Right now I'm doing hospice for another old cat named Coolio, who is on his way to the Next World. (If it seems like I'm losing a lot of cats lately, it's because we have lived here for 16 years and some of these cats -- including Coolio -- were here when we moved in. Others we brought with us from the other house. So the colony population here is getting old in general.)

Coolio spends more and more time sleeping, he does not eat much and then only in small amounts (which
I offer him several times a day). He is getting very thin now, but he drinks water, his kidneys are working and he is not dehydrated, and is otherwise alert and responsive to being held, petted, and taken outside in the sun (where I watch him, since he is slow and weak and vulnerable to predators.) If he were a wild animal, he would have gone off to die somewhere by now but, since he is bonded with me, he prefers to sleep on my bed, away from the hubbub of the household but still in contact with familiar surroundings.

Each case is different, so I do not tell others what to do, but, having worked in hospice for humans, I do not see much difference in the dying process. Both seem to know when the end is coming.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Coolio Cat passed away peacefully on September 22. You can read his memorial and see photos of him on this blog at