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Review of David Sears’ Book "The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism"

David Sears. The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism, Spring Valley, NY: Orot, 2003

Reviewed by Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.


Currently most Jews eat meat and other animal products and relatively few Jews seem concerned about the cruel mistreatment of animals on factory farms and in other areas. However, David Sears landmark book, with its many examples of Jewish teachings about compassion for animals, has the potential to change all of this.

The Vision of Eden is a compilation of translations from various sources, ranging from the classic texts of Judaism to contemporary rulings in Jewish law, much of which has never before been translated to English. It also includes a number of essays by Sears that serve as prefaces to the translations and provide general overviews that discuss and analyze the source material. It is a companion volume to the author’s book, "Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition: A Source Book," which was published by Jason Aronson, Inc., in 1998.

This book has great potential to start a respectful dialogue on vegetarianism, the proper treatment of animals, and related issues in the Jewish community. Here are some reasons:

1. Rabbi Sears has the background, wisdom, sensitivity, compassion, and commitment to effectively to effectively raise the consciousness of the Jewish community concerning Jewish teachings on animals. As a Breslav Chassid, his commitment to Jewish law and tradition cannot be challenged. No one can claim that he is just one more animal welfare advocate who doesn’t care about Judaism and is not concerned about human problems.

2. The author's knowledge of Hebrew and Kabbalistic, Chassidic, and other Jewish sources has enabled him to find teachings that are not commonly known. His book will enable religious communities to discover the rich treasures of material about compassion to animals that will challenge them to live up to the highest ideals of Judaism.

3. His book goes beyond those of other Jewish scholars who have written about Jewish teachings on animals because he combines his extensive knowledge of Judaism with an awareness of how far realities related to how society treats animals differ from the demands of Jewish teachings, and he is committed to making others aware of the need to end these discrepancies.

4. Because of its scholarly merits and firm grounding in Torah and rabbinic tradition, The Vision of Eden will be a respectful but powerful message to the Jewish community that it will not be able to easily ignore. Because of the authenticity and authority of his sources, no intellectually honest person who reads his book would be able to say, "Animals, animals -- why don’t you worry about people first?" While not a polemic (in working for completeness and objectivity, Sears discusses some passages that favor meat-eating), his book shows that the vast majority of Jews, including those who take Jewish law se riously, are negligent with regard to important Torah teachings related to animals. Many in the Jewish community will be interested in the book because of the uniqueness of a Chassid writing about Jewish teachings on animal welfare. Hence, it has the potential to raise the consciousness of the Jewish community with regard to animal-based diets, wearing fur coats, animal experimentation and other animal-related issues, and to get these issues onto the agenda of the Jewish community.

David Sears’ book also has great potential to eventually influence other religious communities and the general public.

As Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen, Chief Rabbi of Haifa, stated in an approbation in the book, "Every reader of this unique and holy book will benefit extensively from it. Indeed, this book, The Vision of Eden, makes one feel that he has been handed a key to open the closed gates of the Garden of Eden that were shut to us ever since Adam was expelled …"

It is essential that rabbis, Jewish teachers, and other influential members of the Jewish community and other communities become aware of the teachings in Sears’ book and put them into practice. The revitalization of Judaism and the sustainability of our imperiled planet depend on it.

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Rabbi Yonassan Gershom’s Review of "The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism"

This book fills a very important niche in the ongoing discussion about Judaism and animal welfare. Although some excellent works have been written from the standpoints of Jewish law and ethics, the mystical aspects have generally been neglected. "The Vision of Eden" fills this gap with an excellent presentation based on classical texts from Torah, Talmud, midrash, kabbalah, and Hasidic traditions.

The result is a valuable sourcebook for Jews of all backgrounds. (Non-Jews will find it useful, too, because it shatters many misconceptions about how Orthodox Judaism views animals and the creation.)

Non-Orthodox Jews (and other readers as well) will probably be surprised at how many of these very positive animal welfare quotes come from the Hasidic tradition. Although the majority of Hasidim today are urban people who have little or no contact with animals, it wasn't always so. The Hasidic movement began in the rural villages of Eastern Europe, where horses, cows, goats, sheep, and poultry were a part of daily life. The Ba'al Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism in the 1700s, understood the "language of animals," and there are many stories about him communicating with birds and beasts (see, for example, the story about the frog on page 298). Although The Ba'al Shem Tov was not a vegetarian, he had true compassion for all living things. When he traveled, he always fed and stabled his own horses -- an activity that was considered beneath the dignity of a rabbi in those days. But he followed the dictum of "the wise man knows the soul of his animal" and wanted to personally make sure his horses were properly cared for. Nor was this unique to him; the chapter on "Respect for all Creatures" cites many Jewish laws and teachings regarding the proper treatment of animals. Among other things, it is forbidden to eat in the morning until you have first fed any animals that depend on you for their food. (Talmud, Brachos 40a)

There are plenty of practical teachings about the treatment of animals in this book, many of which have also appeared in other Jewish animal rights works. But, to me, the heart of this book -- and its most original contribution -- is the excellent section on "Creation and the Holy Sparks" and "Animals and Reincarnation." The doctrine of "Holy Sparks" is so central to Hasidic thought, that no discussion of meat-eating and vegetarianism among Hasidim can proceed without understanding it thoroughly. And yet, most non-Hasidic vegetarians either have no knowledge of this concept, or else they write it off as mere superstition. As far as I know, the only previous vegetarian work to explore "Holy Sparks" with any seriousness is Dr. Richard Schwartz's classic, "Judaism and Vegetarianism" -- and then only as an overview in the Q&A section. (Not to fault Dr. Schwartz for this. The format of his book simply did not lend itself to an in-depth discussion.) Now Rabbi Sears has provided a clear, accessible explanation from an authentic Hasidic POV, complete with translations of the most important source texts.

Briefly summarized: The "holy sparks" are fallen refractions of the Original Light of Creation, which have descended into lower levels of the material world, and need to be spiritually elevated back to their proper place in the universe. This process is part of what kabbalists call "tikkun olam," or "repairing the universe." Eating kosher food is a sacred act that facilitates this process, provided that the proper blessings are said with the right focus and intention. Based on this teaching, many Hasidim and other Orthodox Jews see meat-eating as an essential part of planetary healing.

But is it a perpetual process? Maybe not. The Elder Rav Kook, first chief Ashkenzic rabbi of Palestine (died 1935), was of the opinion that, in the messianic age, when all the "sparks" have been "raised," the world will become vegetarian. Nor is this type of spiritual repair work for just any carnivorous glutton. In "Vision of Eden," Rabbi Sears cites many teachers and commentators who warned of the serious ramifications of "raising sparks," as well as the spiritual dangers of eating meat without the proper inner preparation. "Raising Sparks" in meat is not a task for the gourmet who merely wants to satisfy his own taste buds. The Talmud states that "one ignorant of Torah is forbidden to eat meat" (Pesachim 49B). In past ages, even Torah scholars limited their meat intake. In past centuries, most Jews only ate meat on Sabbath and holy days, or formal celebrations like circumcisions and weddings.

Therefore: Although Judaism permits meat-eating, it also places strong restrictions on what, when, and how meat is eaten. To begin with, there are the dietary laws, which severely limit which animal species can be eaten, how they must be slaughtered, how they are to be prepared, etc. Exodus 16:8 speaks of God giving "meat to eat in the evening and in the morning, bread..." and from this the Talmud derived that meat should only be eaten at the evening meal (if at all). The Talmud (Sanhedrin 94B) compares over-indulgence in meat eating with wickedness. Eating meat at every meal of every day -- or at secular fast-food restaurants while "on the go" -- was unheard of until this century.

Many Jewish commentators were of the opinion that the ideal Jewish diet is vegetarian, and meat was only permitted after the Flood because of human greed and gluttony. In section III of this book, Rabbi Sears presents a good case for Jewish vegetarianism and, because he is himself a Hasidic rabbi (Breslov group) with impeccable yeshiva credentials, his book cannot be dismissed as "mere modernism" by fellow Hasidim. His thesis here -- to reconcile the "Holy Sparks" teachings with vegetarianism -- is 100% authentic and most convincing. Hasidim who read this with an open mind will be challenged to re-think their assumptions about eating meat. Non-Hasidic vegetarians, on the other hand, will gain a greater understanding -- and hopefully have more respect for -- the Orthodox/Hasidic worldview.

The last 100-plus pages of "Vision of Eden" are devoted to notes and "Additional Source Texts," where you will find teachings and biographical anecdotes about many great Jewish sages who were kind to animals and/or vegetarians. All in all, this book is destined to be a classic reference work, and should be in every vegetarian library.

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"Man and Beast: Torah Perspectives And Laws Concerning Man's Relationship With The Animal Kingdom"

Forwarded message from Rabbi Natan Slifkin:

The following essay is extracted and adapted from my forthcoming book, "Man and Beast: Torah Perspectives And Laws Concerning Man's Relationship With The Animal Kingdom." This book is being prepared for release within the next few months. If you would be able to assist with the publication of this book, dedication opportunities are available. Please write to me at zoorabbi@zootorah.com for details. Thank you!
- Rabbi Natan Slifkin

- The Religion of Conservation, Part IIV.
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The Extent of Respect From a secular perspective, the reasons for conservation (utilitarian value of various creatures and the importance of the ecosystem to perpetuating it) do not apply on a small scale. There is no reason not to gratuitously stamp on an ant or pull a branch off a tree. But from a Torah perspective, on the other hand, even such small abuses of the natural world are prohibited. "Even the least of creatures should be extremely important in his eyes and he should pay attention to it… One's mercy should extend over all creatures, not to treat them disrespectfully or destroy them. For the Higher Wisdom is spread upon all creations, inanimate matter, plants, live creatures and people. And for this reason, we are warned against treating food disrespectfully. Along these lines, it is befitting that just as the Higher Wisdom does not disdain any creature, and causes everything, as it is written, "You made them all with wisdom" (Psalms 104:24), so should man's mercy be upon all God's works… Along these lines, a person should not treat anything disrespectfully, for all were made with wisdom. He should not uproot a plant except where necessary and he should not cause the death of a living creature except where necessary, in which case he should ensure them an appropriate death, with a checked knife, to be as merciful as possible." – (Tomer Devorah 2,3) A disciple of the Arizal writes: "My master was careful never to kill any insect, even the smallest and least of them, such as fleas, lice and flies – even if they were causing him pain." - Rabbi Chaim Vital, Shaar HaMitzvos, Noach Rabbi Aryeh Levine tells a wonderful story:
"I recall the early days from 1905 onward, when it was granted me by the grace of Hashem, the Blessed One, to go up to the Holy Land, and I came to Jaffa. There I first went to visit our great master Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook who received me with good cheer, as it was his hallowed custom to receive everyone. We chatted together on themes of Torah study. After an early minhah (afternoon prayer service) he went out, as his hallowed custom was, to stroll a bit in the fields and gather his thoughts; and I went along. On the way I plucked some branch or flower. Our great master was taken aback; and he told me gently, 'Believe me: In all my days I have taken care never to pluck a blade of grass or flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teachings of the Sages that there is not a single blade of grass below, here on earth, which does not have a heavenly force above telling it, Grow! Every sprout and leaf of grass says something, conveys some meaning. Every stone whispers some hidden message in the silence. Every creation utters its songs.' Those words, spoken from a pure and holy heart, engraved themselves deeply on my heart. From that time on I began to feel a strong sense of compassion for everything." – (Simcha Raz, A Tzaddik in our Time)

V. Conceptual Conservation

From a technical point of view, many Torah opinions state that animals only have identity in terms of the species, not the individual, and therefore Divine providence only concerns itself with whether the species is surviving, not if any given individual is surviving. However, the mitzvos relating to conservation involve everyone in the ideology behind this by asking them to show respect for the concept of the perpetuation of a species. There are two commandments that convey this message: "If you happen across a bird's nest... Do not take the mother bird together with the children." - Deuteronomy 22:6 "You shall not slaughter [an animal] and its young on the same day." Leviticus 22:28 Ramban explains: "If you happen across a bird's nest…" – this commandment is alsoclearly similar to "It and its young (you shall not slaughter on the same day). For the reason with both of them is that we should not have a cruel heart that does not have compassion. Alternately, Scripture does not permit us to engage in destruction, to uproot a species, even though it did allow the slaughter of animals of that species. And if one kills a mother and young on one day, or takes them both together when they could have flown away, it is as though he is exterminating that species. (Ramban, Deuteronomy 22:6; also Rabbeinu Bechaya ad loc.)

In showing concern for the survival of the species, we are paying tribute to God's own care for them:

"One must send the mother from the nest before taking the young, as it says, "You shall send away the mother, and take the young for yourself" (Deuteronomy 22:7). Among the roots of this commandment is that we should internalize that God's providence is upon all of His creatures; amongst the human race, with individuals… and with other types of animals, with the type as a whole. That is to say, the desire of God is for the survival of the type…" (Sefer HaChinnuch, mitzvah 545)

Thus, conservation is not only relevant to, say, the president of Venezuela deciding whether a particular rainforest should be razed or saved, but even to a person who comes across the nest of a pigeon and is tempted to take both mother and young for his dinner. Or, to put it another way: while the conventional viewpoint in the world is that conservation is only relevant with creatures such as condors, Judaism sees it as relevant even with chickens.

VI. The Religion of Conservation

If one believes in the importance of conservation, then religion should be meaningful; if one believes in the importance of religion, then conservation should be meaningful. If one feels that animals have a right to exist, then it is God Who granted that right. If one feels that animals have a purpose, then it is God Who bestowed that purpose. If one feels that animals were "meant to be," then it is God Who means them to be.

In a collection of essays published by the Humane Society of the United States, this point is also brought out:

"Study of the history of ethical systems will quickly show how closely such systems are bound up with fundamental religious belief… When sensitive people contemplate the finality of loss involved in the destruction of a species, do they sense the wrongness of this destruction? If the answer is yes, their recognition of the evil of the loss goes beyond practical considerations. They sense an intrinsic impoverishment of the planet… "The point of view from which the destruction of a species is regarded as a significant loss is primarily aesthetic. A rich variety, harmoniously related, is an aesthetic value… But from what perspective is this variety of value? From the perspective of the experience of individual animals its value is negligible. From the perspective of human experience there is some loss, since some humans do enjoy either actually seeing a multiplicity of animals or knowing that they could be seen. But this still does not account for the concern generated in sensitive persons by the contemplation of the wholesale destruction of a species. The impoverishment they sense is of the biosphere as a whole. They believe the world in its entirety is objectively impoverished whether any individual experience is harmed or not. Such a conviction makes sense only if there is a perspective for which the world exists as a whole and for which the variety of species is experientially real. The loss of conscious and explicit belief in God weakens our ability to assert holistic judgments of value, but the sense that there is a perspective more inclusive than one's own is not entirely eradicated. [This sense is based on] an implicit belief in God that would be strengthened and made more explicit if that belief could be made explicit." (John B. Cobb Jr., "Beyond Anthropocentrism in Ethics and Religion," in On The Fifth Day: Animal Rights & Human Ethics pp. 148-149)

Let us end with the words of the Midrash: "Look at the work of God, for who can rectify that which he has damaged" (Eccelesiastes 7:13) – At the time when God created Adam, He took him around the trees of the Garden of Eden, and He said to him, "Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are!

Everything that I created, I created for you; take care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it afterwards!" (Midrash Koheles Rabbah 7:19)

Zoo Torah is a non-profit educational enterprise that offers a series of books, programs for both adults and children, zoo tours, and South African safaris, all on the theme of Judaism and the animal kingdom. For more details and a taste of the experience, see www.zootorah.com . This essay is produced by Zoo Torah in collaboration with Ohr Somayach Institutions (www.ohr.edu). For details of the books from which these essays are extracted, see www.targum.com/store/Slifkin.html .

(c) Copyright by Rabbi Natan Slifkin 2005, zoorabbi@zootorah.com. All rights reserved.