By Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
Besides the ostentatious political troubles happening all over the world, there are more dynamic and underserved causes that need our attention.
Foremost in my mind is the broken culture that promotes the prolonged suffering and mistreatment of innocent creatures. From coast to coast, from America to Europe to South Africa, tasteless advertisements for the latest innovations in fast-food meat blaze across the land. Their ubiquity is heartbreaking. These seemingly innocent adverts present to us a genuine juxtaposition: that for however lovingly portrayed that food is to the consumer, hidden from public view is the dark truth of pain and suffering that created the moment. In this public space, we celebrate the remorseless cycle of pain for profit.
How do we deepen our spiritual roots to make our commitments more meaningful and more sustainable? For a growing number of Jews and other people around the world (including myself), developing veganism as a spiritual practice will not only benefit us personally, but will also strengthen us to make a greater difference in the world. If you’re like me, no doubt this past year has been filled with opportunities and challenges; it’s in the latter where we typically achieve the most growth. As a meta-observation, this auspicious time of year also allows us to take stock of what is happening in our culture and that which we have participated in. Have we been passive observers or active participants? And with Rosh Hashanah on the horizon, we are afforded the wonderful and unique opportunity to reflect on the year that has passed and how we’ve grown in our spiritual capacities.
Indeed, the mass suffering of animals in factory farming is one of the greatest ills of our time. And when we look closer at our own Jewish community, an ethos persists that meat consumption is not only a religious fulfillment but a cultural necessity. Often, it is looked down upon to avoid meat consumption as a “holier than thou” attitude. Indeed, as religious Jews have become more politically reactionary in recent years, this ideological outlook thwarts larger efforts for meat reduction in the broader community. Some seem to think that going beyond the norm of meat at every occasion is a violation of the institutions of Judaism itself.
While it is difficult, certainly, to understand another’s trauma and impossible to grasp the extent of another’s suffering, taking the time to attempt to understand is a radical — and badly needed — form of empathy. One may even call it radical empathy in the way that it destroys the false construct that animal suffering is less than that of humans. What is beautiful about humanity, however, is that we have the ability to create spaces to listen, to nurture empathy, and to respond to the needs of all vulnerable creatures. As Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, one of the twentieth century’s most prolific mussar teachers, says, “We see ourselves in the other, as if every person we encounter is simply a mirror in which we see ourselves! That is to say: we have not yet freed ourselves from the self-centered perspective to see that the other is not identified with us. The other is precisely other, different from us in essence, and it is incumbent upon us to focus on the way the other differ from us and see that which the other needs, not that which we need!” (Alei Shur 2:6)”
Approaching the High Holidays means that we are afforded the opportunity to rethink our orientation towards meat consumption. This is not meant as a guilt trip. Rather, it is yet another chance to practice mussar (character development) in our everyday lives.
• Humility — Most importantly we allow ourselves to step back and focus on the grander meaning of the universe. Acting and speaking self-righteously with those who don’t arrive at the same conclusion immediately is immature and irrational. As I have come to learn, work performed in humility is far more likely to win the day. And such humility, when practiced with authenticity, is one of the greatest means to enact meaningful change. We do not deserve to make all of God’s creations tools for our pleasure.
• Gratitude — Create a deep appreciation of our own existence and that our lives are inextricably interconnected with each other’s. The focus of gratitude shifts away from the self and toward the other, and it leads us to take responsibility and care for other humans, for animals, and for our fragile earth.
• Discipline — It is not always easy to eat healthfully and ethically when the prevailing culture amplifies bad choices and quotidian cruelty; we are tempted every day. But there is also something simple in the act of committing one’s self to a lofty ideal. In doing so, we transcend our base selves and become beings of compassion.
I’d like to depart this piece with a thought from one of my spiritual heroes. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains, “Compassion is the feeling of empathy which the pain of one being of itself awakens in another; and the higher and more human the beings are, the more keenly attuned are they to re-echo the note of suffering which, like a voice from heaven, penetrates the heart (Horeb 17:125).”
Indeed, deepening spiritual integrity by reflecting upon and eliminating any vestiges of inconsistency between what we believe and how we live is a wonderful practice for growing individually and building community. As we mark this most auspicious of days on the Jewish calendar, let us take that precious time to reflect the people we were last year and the people we hope to be in the coming year. There is no better time to change our outlook, open our soul, and produce more kind-heartedness in a world that so desperately needs it. And together, we are not only able to enrich ourselves spiritually in this pursuit, but one another as well.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Founder and President of YATOM, and the author of thirteen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.