This difference in ideology has led to strained relations between Jewish groups and many in the animal-rights movement, said Rabbi Mordechai Becher, senior lecturer of the Gateways Organization, a Jewish educational and outreach group based in Monsey, N.Y.
Speaking to about 40 people at the law offices of Berger and Montague last week in Center City, the rabbi showed an ad from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals depicting a starving, naked Holocaust victim juxtaposed with a malnourished cow. The text of the 2003 ad claimed that 12 million people died in the Holocaust, and that the same number of cows are being slaughtered every four hours in the United States for food.
"If someone does not think the human is distinct from the animal kingdom, they would see this as making sense," said Becher in his thick Australian accent, "but from the perspective of Judaism and the perspective of Christianity, this would be considered very offensive."
The program, titled "Shechitah vs. PETA," was sponsored by the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies. The lecture served as a way for lawyers to earn Continuing Legal Education credit.
Becher said that, regardless of the Jewish perspective that animals and humans are not on the same continuum, Jews have an "understanding and sensitivity" toward animals.
"In practice, Judaism agrees a lot with many of the animal-rights advocates," said Becher. "That is to say that, in practice, it is the obligation of a person to alleviate pain in an animal."
In the Media
One of the most apparent aspects in Jewish law that deals with animal suffering is shechitah, the ritual killing of animals according to Jewish dietary laws. With provisions such as making sure that cuts are made in a continuous motion so as to kill a cow with one quick stroke, he explained, Jews are very cognizant of trying to minimize pain and suffering.
The topic of how to humanely and halachically slaughter animals came to the forefront in December 2004, when PETA released a videotape of cows being slaughtered at a kosher meat-processing plant in Postville, Iowa. The videos showed staggering cows bellowing long after their throats were cut.
The media blitz that followed disclosed the misunderstanding and bad feelings that existed between Jews and the animal-rights community, he said.
"There were certainly rabbis who agreed with the animal-rights groups that not all appropriate laws were being kept" in Postville, acknowledged Becher in an interview after the event.
Yet "most rabbis," he continued, "felt that most laws were being kept, and disputed the facts that were claimed and [their] physiological implications."
To further demonstrate that Jewish tradition is sensitive toward animals, Becher reminded people that there is no obligation to eat animals in Jewish tradition. He even hesitated to call shechitah "ritual slaughter" because it "implies that we're somehow obligated to slaughter animals."
He also cited the traditional Jewish saying whenever someone buys clothing — "get a new one" — a blessing meaning that one should live long enough to wear the garment out and then get a new one. Jews do not use that saying for shoes, he noted, because they are traditionally made from leather. In his view, that would constitute "praying that another animal gets killed."
Noam Mohr, a farm-animal researcher for PETA who attended the lecture, said afterward that he agreed that Judaism has a "strong tradition of compassion for animals," but added that Jewish leaders should also be teaching about the vegetarian diet.
"There are many rabbis that believe that the Jewish ideal is to do what Adam and Eve were required to do, which is not eat meat at all," he said. "That's an ideal that all Jews should aspire to, particularly today when the factory farms that produce the meat — kosher and nonkosher alike — are treating animals atrociously."