A Response to “It’s Not Your Meat”: Dr. John Fischer

In the interest of complete disclosure, and for the sake of transparency, I have to admit at the very outset of this response paper that I am deeply troubled about Paul Saal’s paper. I have a serious difficulty with it and with its argument, and because of this I am uncertain as to how to respond and what I can say. I am in a real quandary over this. I have carefully read through my friend’s paper, and I have been asked to present a paper in response to what he has written. What can one say honestly in a situation such as this? Here is my predicament: I find myself in agreement with what he has presented; I am unsure what I can add to it. However, I did accept this responsibility so I have searched intently and intensively to find something about which to quibble a bit while reviewing this articulate paper. I hope I have succeeded.

Furthermore, I need to admit to a personal bias. I really like animals; I am likely to pet any that cross my path. My wife Patrice often points out to others that I will go up to a strange dog on the street, pet it, and allow it to “kiss” me. As far as I am concerned, petting zoos are not just for kids; they are for me. This is consistent with my motto: “growing old is inevitable; growing up is optional.”

I also have a problem with quite how to refer to my friend Paul Saal. If I refer to him as Paul, someone may well think I am referencing the Apostle. On the other hand, if I call him Rabbi Saal, I encounter the same difficulty. So for the sake of clarity in this paper, he will be Paul, and the author of Scripture I will call Rav Shaul. Now that I have dealt with the problems inherent in my paper, I will proceed with my response.

Having very recently conducted a memorial service, I am very much attuned to Paul reminding us that kindness to animals is inherently an essential part of one of the pillars of gemilut hasadim (acts of genuine kindness). The truly great acts of genuine kindness are those in which the recipient cannot possibly reward the participant. This clearly applies to the care and protection of animals. We live in a time in which greed, acquiring and accumulating all kinds of “stuff,” extravagant consumption and rampant consumerism, and satisfying ourselves appear to be among the paramount objectives of modern (or post-modern) life. Kindness to animals can provide very little by way of tangible reward in this kind of context. On the other hand, I am not sure I would describe Messianic Judaism in the same way Paul does, as existing in a “self-induced coma of individual and communal narcissism.” Winds of both individual and communal narcissism do waft through our movement more regularly than many of us might wish. However, Paul’s description, though properly passionate, seems a bit too excessive.

Paul also rightly reminds us of the point of several pertinent Scripture texts. Deuteronomy 25:4 (not muzzling the ox used in harvesting grain) and its use in 1 Corinthians 9:7-9 are among the biblical passages that prominently leap into many of our minds. While Rav Shaul clearly points out God’s concern for his servants, he does just as clearly build his argument for this on God’s care for animals (kal va’homer) as Paul points out. In light of this hermeneutical connection, our concern for the “animal kingdom” may well then be quite indicative of how we tend to care for the human family. It is a perspective well worth keeping in mind. Deuteronomy 22:6 provides us additional insight on animals from God’s perspective. He instructs us to chase away the mother bird when removing her eggs from the nest. This implies that God regards the maternal “feelings” of the mother bird (as per Maimonides, Wesley, Telushkin, and Paul). To this we may aptly add the words of Yeshua: “Look at the birds in the air… . [Y]our heavenly Father feeds them.” (See Matt 6:26, leading into another kal va’homer argument regarding God’s greater care for us). Then, of course, God expresses his care for animals in his rebuke to Jonah: “Ninevah has…many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:11) Strikingly, this is how the book concludes. God also cares about cattle. In fact, God cares so much for cattle – and for his other creatures – that he instructed us to make sure that they get to observe Shabbat as we observe Shabbat
(Ex 23:12), a rather radical idea.

Furthermore, thank you Paul, for citing the words of the Catholic Church catechism:

Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness.  …The Creator, however, entrusted animals to the stewardship of those he created in his image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food or clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals, if it remains within reasonable limits, is a morally acceptable practice since it contributes to caring for or saving human lives… . It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.

The guidelines found in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics, which Paul rightly includes are also right on point regarding how humans should treat animals. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch provides some additional insight to this discussion as he succinctly articulates the Jewish perspective on our relationship to animals:

Here you are faced with God’s teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours.1

One might also recall that the great Judah HaNasi endured kidney stones and other painful ailments due to his insensitivity to the “feelings” of a calf which was about to be slaughtered. He was later healed when he demonstrated kindness to animals (Baba Metzia 85a).

Given God’s concern for animals, Paul raises a relevant question. Why do we hear so relatively little publicly from believers in Yeshua about this subject? Why the apathy and, in frequent cases, hostility? And to this I might add, why the avid interest in – and overly passionate defense of – hunting for the sake of pure sport among these same circles? Here, I concur with his assessment. Real concern for animals might just require some self-limitation, self-discipline, and self-sacrifice. The antagonism towards a genuine caring approach and response may well be part of an almost knee-jerk reaction to feared government encroachment on individual rights and its perceived impingement of unfettered choices. A concerted program taking into account so-called animal “rights” may smack of a suggestion of limits on “our precious freedoms.” A society too often stamped by self-gratification would suspect and resent such “restrictions.” I suspect that these same impulses may well be in play in the rather frequent theological reactions to Torah and tradition as “legalism.”

Also to be appreciated is Paul’s response to those who would flippantly raise the issue that the relief of human misery always trumps any money spent on animal care. Judaism has clear and concrete guidelines – such as those referenced above – that inform the prioritizing and balancing of the values of relief of human misery and concern for animals. They also guard against the “commercial distortion” of these very values. Additionally, he deftly exposes the soft underbelly of the foundation of Peter Singer’s (and similar others such as PETA’s) thinking and its undue emphasis on the inviolability of animal rights. The human is not just another animal; there are clear differences between the two. Therefore, the eating of meat cannot blithely be equated with genocide. Paul rightly observes that a better approach to concern for animals would emphasize human responsibility to act kindly rather than stress animal rights.

Unfortunately, political lines and religious boundaries have imposed themselves on this discussion, as Paul notes. Kindness to animals should not be a combatant in – nor should it be a casualty of – the so-called battle for faith or the culture wars. To assume that what is good for animals is bad for humans – or bad for this country – betrays a false dichotomy. And, one might just suspect that commercial interests have tried to help frame the discussion in ways more sympathetic to themselves.

In his discussion of the sacrifice system and its relationship to animal welfare, Paul points out both the similarities and differences between the practices of ancient Israel and those of the surrounding cultures. In doing so, he effectively stresses how profoundly and uniquely the character of God and the nature of the covenant relationship shape Israel’s understanding of, and participation in, the sacrifices. And, as Paul so nicely put it:

The community of faith put incredible energy and attentiveness into these offerings as material gestures, which defined the importance of God for the life of the community. The various sacrificial practices prescribed for Israel were vehicles designed to celebrate, affirm, enhance, or repair the defining relationship between them and God.

Furthermore, the very specific nature of the sacrificial guidelines proved more limiting and more humane when compared with the practices of their neighbors, as he argues. Moreover, since an animal can be offered as a ransom for a human, clearly the animal’s life is to be highly valued. It is much more valuable than mere property. The sacrifice system intended that Israel be “brought face to face with the horror of animal death,” the extreme cost of atonement. This could not effectively take place if the life of the animal was not of great value. The issue of borrowing and/or sharing of practices among neighboring cultures can be quite complex. G.E. Wright’s, The Old Testament Against Its Environment and J.H. Walton’s, Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context clarify the uniqueness of Israel’s practices in contrast to those of surrounding nations.

The brief discussion of human sacrifice in the Bible, from my perspective, was not essential to the argument. I also found it – and the references cited – a bit distracting. (I did commit to a bit of quibbling.) In the Jeremiah 19:5 text the practice is clearly condemned. Disapproval of the actions of Jephthah appears to be implied in Judges 11:29-40. The language of Micah 6:6-8 related to human sacrifice comes across as purely rhetorical, a poetic literary device not intended to imply the appropriateness of human sacrifice in any way. And, 2 Kings 3:26-27 is a reference to Moabite, not Israelite, practice. The topic seems irrelevant here.

I admit to being troubled by the statement that “Romans and Hebrews both seem to agree that Yeshua as a sacrifice to God has replaced the ‘well worn’ system of the Hebrew Scriptures, replete with animal sacrifices.” In light of the continued apostolic sacrifices found in Acts, the texts in Romans and Hebrews can be understood differently: Yeshua’s sacrifice builds on, and comes within, the framework of the sacrifice system, thereby effecting ultimate atonement. Regardless, Paul’s statement remains intact and on target: “Without taking seriously the efficacious material gesture, as well as the pure brutality of animal sacrifices, the Apostolic Witness claims simply do not work.” And this is predicated on the importance of animal life. In light of this, I fully sympathize with Paul’s uncertainty about whether eating meat in proximity to celebrating Hazikaron “makes poignant or banal the sacrificial work of Yeshua.”

I thoroughly appreciated Paul connecting Yeshua’s statement to the thief (Luke 23:43) to both the rabbinic concept of Gan Eden and the functioning of the Mishkan. Yeshua sacrificed himself to repair the “relational disharmony” effected by our actions. This severed relationship with God impacted not only us but the entirety of creation as well, as Scripture (and Paul) notes. So Yeshua’s repairing of the disharmony repairs not only our relationship with God but potentially the created order as well, as Paul’s citation of Isaiah 11:6-7 reminds us. The time will come when “the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid… .” Rav Shaul also looks forward to this time when all of creation eagerly longs for, when “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage and brought into glorious freedom… .” (Rom 8:19ff.)

Paul effectively interconnected the two divine assignments to humans (Gen 1:28 and 2:15). We do “image God” both as kings and as servants. This shapes our understanding of our God-given tasks. Shaped by this perspective, “dominion” does not license unrestricted freedom nor allow for exploitation and misuse of animals. God serves as our model here. As he cares for animal well-being, so should we. As he “serves” creation as its compassionate and generous ruler, so should we, especially in light of our ultimate paradigm, Yeshua, “who came to serve, not to be served.” (Mark 10:45). Paul rightly concludes: “It would appear from the narratives of Genesis 1-2 and from the messianic expectation of Isaiah 11, that animals were originally [and even ultimately] intended for a more intimate relationship with humanity than a mere food source.” And we might well add: or for our entertainment and use.

Many have cited Yeshua’s instruction to love our enemies (Matt 5:43) as an example of the radical nature and newness of his teaching. As a result I appreciated Paul referencing Exodus 23:5 as a prior example of loving our enemies. We show love to our enemy by caring for his/her lost or hurt animals. The lost and hurt animal is important to God and to our enemy. Our concern demonstrates God’s concern to our enemy and may well win him/her to God. As Paul reminded us: “The rabbinic tradition for keeping Torah can surprisingly [or perhaps not so surprisingly] help facilitate living out the moral vision of the Besorah as well, if the two are understood in a comprehensive narrative scheme where the latter does not abrogate the former.”

I can think of no better way to conclude my response than by quoting Paul’s conclusion.

Still, any efforts we can make to place limitations upon ourselves can only prove to be helpful, not only in decreasing the suffering of the animal population, but also by training us to be better stewards of the Earth’s resources which are not ours but Adonai’s.
(Lev 25:23)

After all, this was the first assignment God gave us.


1       Cited in “Frequently Asked Questions About Judaism and Animal Issues,”http://jewishveg.com/schwartz/faq_animals.html. This is a very good summary of information pertinent to this and related issues. Other helpful sites are: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/animals.html; and http://www.jewfaq.org/animals.html