REVIEW: Vegetarianism, Ecology, and Business Ethics

Yedidya Sinclair Tradition Online | May 5, 2024

Daniel Sperber, Vegetarianism. Ecology, and Business Ethics: Three Essays of Judaic Insights into Contemporary Concerns (Urim Publications, 2024), 239 pages

When I was a campus rabbi, my weekly lunch and learn classes were sometimes entitled, “What does Judaism say about…”—fill in the blank with a subject of interest to my students: vegetarianism, ecology, business ethics, the internet (a new-fangled invention at the time), etc.

I was uneasily aware then, and became more so later, that the little word “say” in those titles was more fraught than I acknowledged. How does Judaism, an expansive 3,000 year-old religious tradition, “say” things about subjects of contemporary concern? Was Judaism saying something to my students through the half a dozen or so Jewish sources that I taught over bagels? Or were my own preconceptions speaking, supported by a few texts selected from among the many hundreds of relevant, classical sources?

I later learned to recognize inadequate ways of having Judaism “say” things about contemporary issues. One was to claim, often with slender textual support, that Judaism endorsed views that were similar if not identical to certain contemporary political-economic positions, whether socialist, capitalist, or environmentalist. The coincidence between the currency of the views expressed and the paucity of Jewish support led one to suspect that the speaker’s own views had been clothed in Torah sources as an asmakhta (as I sometimes suspected myself of doing).

A better approach, more rigorous and respectable than the first, has been to derive halakhic, or quasi-halakhic norms that should guide an observant Jew’s response to novel contemporary challenges. This approach is conspicuously successful in the sphere of medical ethics, where the greatest poskim of recent times have ruled on issues such as abortion, transplantation, and end-of-life care, based on a rich body of relevant halakhic sources. It is partially successful in the area of business ethics where the laws of Hoshen Mishpat provide a vast trove of case-law, although thinkers such as Moshe Pava have argued that pesak halakha is not a fitting tool for addressing many contemporary business dilemmas. But the approach has not so far been fruitful in other areas of contemporary concern, notably ecology and environmentalism, the main subjects of Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber’s remarkable new book. It is far from clear that halakhic norms regarding globalized problems of pollution can be extrapolated from the laws of ba’al tashit (wasteful destruction) or hilkhot shekhenim (the laws governing neighborly relations). Equally important, few observant Jews are asking halakhic questions about these areas and so answers given by recognized authorities relating to these subjects are almost non-existent.

This brief typology serves to sharpen the originality of Sperber’s Vegetarianism, Ecology, and Business Ethics: Three Essays of Judaic Insights into Contemporary Concerns. These essays present, to my mind, the most sophisticated model yet for discussing “what does Judaism say about…” They enact an encounter on the page between the entire body of classic Jewish sources, an acute and scientifically informed understanding of most of the contemporary problems he discusses. Moreover, this meeting is mediated by the author’s sensitive, spiritual nature, which has been meditating on some of these questions since childhood.

R. Sperber, is a posek, dayyan, and Israel Prize-winning historian of halakha and minhag, with academic degrees covering Jewish Studies, Latin, Greek, Art History, and Ancient Philosophy. He has been a vegetarian for the past 75 years, a community Rav in Jerusalem for almost 50 years, and an environmental activist for the past 25. He is therefore well-qualified to address these issues.

The range of sources and references he cites is astounding. For example, Sperber’s extended discussion of whether and to what extent animals should be considered sentient and intelligent cites, among others, Bereisiht Rabba, Tanhuma, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, the Midrash Pirkei Shira, Yerushalmi Hagiga, Josephus, R. Saadia Gaon, responsa of Havvat Yair and Radbaz, obscure collections of midrashim, Aristotle, Plato, the Neo-Platonists Plotinus and Porphyry of Tyre, Indian Upanisad writings, the Sanskrit epics Maharata and Ramayaha, an early 20th century travelogue of Tibet, and contemporary philosophers of mind. This is not mere name-checking; most of the sources are incisively analyzed. Sperber also makes liberal use of personal anecdotes and reminiscences. The effect is of the entire range of Torah sources (and far beyond) brought into a lively and probing conversation with a rich, reflective religious mind. It makes for a rigorous and satisfying exemplar of Judaism “saying” things to and about contemporary challenges.

The book comprises three substantial essays, dealing respectively with vegetarianism, ecology, and business ethics and ethical investment. The first two pieces are brilliant and original. The third, much shorter essay, gives a lucid survey of major themes and sources in Jewish business ethics, but little analysis, and barely touches on the issue of ethical investment. For reasons of space, I will confine detailed discussion to the first essay.

“Vegetarianism: Moral and Halachic Aspects,” is a sober but devastating reflection on the justifiability of eating kosher-certified meat produced in the industrial farming conditions that prevail in Western countries. Sperber argues that it is extremely hard to justify, citing a “combination of problems, both technical-halachic as regards the validity of the shehitah, and ethical-halachic as to inflicting pain on a live animal” (18).  A notable feature of this case is his understanding of the depth to which ethical considerations inform many of the halakhic sources. For example, he points out that industrially-produced chickens are artificially hatched from eggs in electrically heated incubators and rarely live a full year. For this reason, Maharsham and the author of the responsa Yad Hanokh ruled that such chickens may well be tereifa and forbidden for consumption. Breeding animals that are barely alive throughout their short existences raises halakhic problems that are intertwined with the suffering of those creatures. For example, cramped mass transportation of animals and fowl from farm to slaughterhouse is not just cruel but also gives rise to serious halakhic concerns. He cites Da’at Kedoshim by R. Avraham David Warman (1871) who wrote:

The conveyance of geese from villages to town, with their legs and wings bound, and their heads bent downwards, that bring them to the city completely exhausted and of they were slaughtered and there was no jerking around [pirkhus; indicating the animals were dangerously unwell at the time of slaughter] they are forbidden because they have already been dead or almost dead in which case they are classified as mesukanot, in a dangerous state, close to death (Da’at Kedoshim 17:5).

Sperber argues that transportation conditions in contemporary industrial farming are bad enough to justify the fear that some animals are mesukanot when they arrive at the abattoir, raising doubts about their kashrut. He notes poskim such as the Simlah Hadasha by R. Alexander Schor of Muncacz who held that since there is no clear definition of mesukenet in a fowl, one must rule stringently if one sees a sign of sickness, for example, it doesn’t walk healthily, if given the opportunity to do so. Sperber points out that such discernment is virtually impossible in rapid, conveyor-belt type shehita.

He addresses the obvious counter-argument that, whatever the potential halakhic or ethical problems caused by the cruelty involved in industrial farming, the meat arrives on our supermarket shelves with valid kashrut certifications from respected rabbinic authorities and is, therefore, de facto kosher. He draws on his experience in kosher abattoirs in Argentina and Uruguay where the sheer volume of throughput and the speed at which the shohtim worked precluded thorough supervision. Sperber concludes, “I’m not asserting…that all the meat that comes into our shops is not kosher. But I do think that a good percentage is not necessarily kosher and that we should be clearly aware of this situation. The fact that you have a sticker on a wrapped up item in a supermarket does not necessarily mean that it has undergone the supervision and control that is halachically required”  (44-45). When meat was produced on a small scale one could take their chicken to the butcher, known to the townspeople personally, and watch the shehita. In industrial conditions, Sperber believes, the amount of supervision required to guarantee kashrut would be so great as to make the cost of eating meat regularly prohibitive for many consumers.

Turning from these “technical-halakhic” problems with industrial meat consumption, to “ethical-halakhic” concerns, Sperber gives an unsparing account of the suffering that marks the life and death of industrially raised, kosher slaughtered animals. He questions whether this level of tza’ar ba’alei hayyim can be justified by our enjoyment in consuming them, when there is no strict necessity for us to eat meat. He argues, against those who hold that there is a positive obligation to eat meat, at least on Yom tov, that holiday joy derived from eating meat and drinking wine is in commemoration of the Temple service and not a normative halakha. Sperber points out that the Talmud does not mention meat in the context of foods to be eaten for the sake of Oneg Shabbat (Shabbat 118a). Sperber acknowledges those who disagree with him, including R. Joseph Albo, but argues that if such rabbis of former days were alive now and aware of the industrial farming conditions they might well have a different opinion.  To “students in the yeshiva world, where there is this bravado about eating a lot of meat” (67-68), Sperber bluntly recommends that they visit an abattoir. He acknowledges that this is not an all or nothing choice, and that reducing meat consumption, or confining it to Shabbat and Yom Tov would be ethically and halakhically positive.

Whether or not one adopts Sperber’s practical conclusions, the essay has the power to shift our understanding of the reasons for kashrut. In a recent thought-provoking article, Prof. Chaim Saiman argues that contemporary “food-related [technology] questions force us to ask: what is the purpose of kashrut?” He finds that there is no consensus about this and that “kashrut has been understood within Orthodoxy more as a series of rules rather than as a system that conveys a particular ethos.”  Sperber’s essay powerfully revives Rav Kook’s approach, which sees ethics as a, if not the central motivating thrust of kashrut.

One limitation of the book is that Sperber pays virtually no attention to actual or possible technological solutions to the problems he raises. He does not mention the artificial meat revolution, which is producing lab-manufactured meat that is indistinguishable from the real thing, nor the current halakhic debates about the status of such products. A couple of other issues might bother some readers but did not excessively disturb this reviewer. A more aggressive editor might have reined in some of Sperber’s exuberant range of scholarly and personal references, for example, the anecdotes about the intelligence of his pet cat of 75 years ago, or quoting four pages from a story by the Indian writer Rabindrath Tagore. I found even these illuminating, and Sperber always brings the argument back on track after such diversions.

More controversially, Sperber quotes approvingly ecological teachings from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, which some authorities have held to be Avoda Zara. In this, he joins contemporary thinkers such as Alan Brill and Alon Goshen-Gottstein who have engaged deeply with these Eastern religions and do not find them to be idolatrous. If a halakhic figure of R. Sperber’s stature, who served as rabbi in Delhi for a number of years in the 1960s, thinks that these spiritual traditions are not beyond the pale, then I am interested in his arguments. One hopes he will develop them in the coming memoir of his time in India, promised in one of this book’s voluminous footnotes. I look forward to hearing from such a credible source what Judaism might have to “say” about Eastern religions.

Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair lives in Jerusalem, where he works in hi-tech. His most recent book is The Sabbath of the Land: Selections from Rav Kook’s Shabbat HaAretz and Contemporary Reflections on Renewing Shemitta (Hazon & Maggid Books).

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