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The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism
David Sears, (Orot: 2003)

By Phineas E. Leahey, B.A., Philosophy, 1997, Brooklyn College; M.A., Philosophy, 1999; J.D., 2002, Columbia University.

The Vision of Eden is the culmination of over five years of research, compilation, and distillation of the halachic and Kabbalistic sources on animal welfare, with an emphasis on vegetarianism. Sears is lucid, accessible (even to the uninitiated) and thorough (he seems to have integrated every conceivable Jewish source pertaining to animal welfare). Paradoxically, he is, at the same time, encyclopedic and succinct (340 pages of text). His book is a valuable reference of Jewish sources on animal welfare, with a comprehensive table of contents and index.

To his credit, Sears does not omit or misconstrue sources that are contrary to current religious or political agendas. Nor does he gloss over the "marked ambivalence" of the Jewish tradition toward vegetarianism. On occasion, he does editorialize, at least with respect to inhumane conditions in modern agriculture. After describing routine practices in the poultry industry, for example, he states: "The Jewish community must not implicitly condone such practices by taking advantage of them without protest, rationalizing that we have not directly violated tza'ar baalei chayim." By the standards of Jewish animal welfare activists, such as myself, however, he will appear dispassionate
and restrained.

Following a presentation of relevant Biblical, Talmudic, Midrashic, Kabbalistic, Chassidic, Mussar, and other Jewish sources, Sears identifies two opposing currents in halachic thought on the proper use of animals for human need.

The first current permits modern experimental or agricultural processes, without concerns about tza'ar baalei chayim, if the animals' pain serves any "legitimate human need." Thus, for example, R. Yechezkel Landau permitted fur because animals are "subordinated . . . to human needs" and the Chasam Sofer permitted animal experimentation even where there is only a remote possibility of human benefit as well as pate fois gras, a delicacy that involves force-feeding ducks.(Sears concedes in a footnote that the Chasam Sofer was "lenient" because at that time "the birds [were] fed gently" as opposed to forcefully with the pneumatic pumps used today.) These authorities lived in the Eighteenth century.

The second, more modern, current holds that if we have alternative means to fulfill the same human need, causing undue pain to animals ceases to be halachically justifiable. Sears cites a plethora of contemporary responsa that specifically declare veal, pate, animal experimentation for cosmetics and luxury items, and fur to be forbidden. Furthermore, recent authorities have intimated more generally that current violations of animal welfare render consumption of factory-farm animal products halachically questionable. (This book is endorsed by Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Rav Shear-Yashuv Cohen, a strict vegetarian even on Shabbat and Yom Tov, who has noted the divergence of factory-farm animal conditions from the mandate against tza'ar baalei chayim.)

Although Sears maintains a relatively objective tone, his discussion suggests a decline in the first current. Indeed, Vision of Eden appears at an auspicious time, as the second current continues to become the norm. Accordingly, Sears respectfully encourages the Gedolei Yisrael to resolve the halachic challenges posed by factory-farm conditions -- not only tza'ar baalei chayim, but also "kashrut problems" that result from "an increase in sickness among animals" and the "inevitably higher margin of error in mass production" of meat, as well as the health and ecological harm caused by animal-based diets.

Despite this review's focus on current halachic issues -- the primary interest of activists -- Sears will be distinguished primarily for the Kabbalistic framework through which he examines the proper use of animals for legitimate human need. Not all vegetarians will be pleased with his Kabbalistic view that, under certain conditions, such as humane standards for farm animals and kavvanah to serve G-d on the part of slaughterers and consumers, carnivorous diets can achieve positive benefits, i.e., elevating "holy sparks" concealed in the animal kingdom. In his defense, however, Sears also acknowledges the legitimacy of Rav Kook and other authorities holding that permission to consume animals is a concession to human desire. Vision of Eden contains all the sources that readers need to decide for themselves which view to adopt.