Is Compassion Kosher? – By Kari Weil

Kari Weil on Gross’s Question of the Animal and Religion

Aaron S. Gross, The Question of the Animal and Religion: Theoretical Stakes, Practical Implications, Columbia University Press, 2014, 304pp., $30 (paper), $90 (cloth)
Aaron S. Gross, The Question of the Animal and Religion: Theoretical Stakes, Practical Implications, Columbia University Press, 2014, 304pp., $30 (paper), $90 (cloth)
Shop Indie Bookstores

For most Americans, animals are ubiquitous in our lives. There are the so-called pests that crawl or fly into cupboards or nest under houses and the companion animals who often sleep in our beds or accompany us on walks. And for the majority of Americans, animals are encountered on a daily basis as steaks and chops and fillets. We barely recognize these dead animals as animals. Rather their lives, short as they are, are absent presences (or what Carol Adams early on called “absent referents”) once they appear on our plates. The plastic wraps in the supermarket, like our culinary vocabulary, would have us forget the once breathing cow in the filet mignon. Is there an event that might remind us of their former lives? That they had lives? For Aaron S. Gross, one such event was the viewing of horrifically violent practices at AgriProcessors, a meat processing plant whose “kill floor” was made visible by a hidden video camera (graphic content) planted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Among other actions revealed on the tape, were the cutting and removal of esophagi and tracheas from cows who were still conscious and were walking around with these and other body parts hanging from their insides. Gross suggests that the video turned these cows into actors in events where they had previously, and purposefully, been invisible. And as actors, they elicited anger for the abuse they endured and a need to respond to their suffering on the part of their audience.

Gross uses the term “actor” to attribute agency to the cows and acknowledge their status as living subjects, but it is especially his status as witness that is a driving force in the book. “Who are we who do this to them?” he asked himself in the aftermath, experiencing the shame of inclusion in this “we” who are human, but also, specifically, of a “we” who are Jewish. Significantly, witnessing in this instance incurred a questioning of faith because AgriProcessors was a Kosher abattoir, one that thus exposed the lie in a revered, religious practice. As a member of the reform movememt within Judaism, Gross expected that one of the purposes of Kosher dietary laws (Kashrut) was to embody “a benign human dominion over a good creation” and not to provide cover for “egregious” animal abuse. The event thus raised a troubling set of questions regarding the presumed ethics behind kosher slaughter in particular, but also, more generally, about religious slaughter in the age of the factory farm.

As the title suggests, this book brings together Religious Studies and the quickly growing field of Animal Studies in order to bear witness to the AgriProcessor event, but also to think more widely about the status of non-human animals within religion. Indeed, just as the video brought the life, death, and suffering of cows into the foreground of food management, so does Gross’s book bring non-human animals into the foreground of religious practice, reminding us not only of their centrality as objects of ritual and sacrifice, but more fundamentally, how a so-called religious person is constructed against or in transcendence of a notion of animality. This construction and transcendence is only achieved, moreover, “on the backs” of other animals, those who are integral not only as symbols, but also as living creatures who are consumed or killed for the sake of humans. These forgotten animals “haunt” the categories used to organize the study of religion, Gross argues, and his book constitutes an effort both to remember them and to understand the work they and their “disavowal” do within the theoretical study of religion.

The book opens with an examination of the violations at AgriProcessors and the varied responses to the charges within the Jewish community. What the 2004 and a later 2006 video revealed was a systematic abuse of “vulnerable” populations, including animals, but also workers at the plant (undocumented immigrants, women, and children). Not surprisingly, Gross suggests, it was the human abuse that brought the problem fully into view, and as it took priority it also underscored a tension between human-animal likeness and the assertion of human difference that informs much of “the question of the animal” within Judaism, if not religion more generally. The Jewish imagining of the human as “suspended between animal and divine” is interpreted quite differently by Orthodox and Reform Jews, as is their understanding of the responsibility of the human to either pole. As Gross outlines, the initial Orthodox response to the events was largely to deny wrongdoing at the plant, claiming rather anti-Semitism as the reason for the accusations. In their story, Jews were being attacked for upholding the laws of Kashrut and were the true victims. The response from the liberal Jewish community, including conservative and reform Jews, was one of disbelief and protest: disbelief that such laws could allow for such pain on the part of an animal and subsequent protest against the absence of ethical consideration for animals at the plant specifically and in Jewish law more broadly. In other words, for the Reform movement, our likeness to animals as suffering beings is said to entail some responsibility to them, a responsibility that should be reflected in dietary laws. From the Orthodox point of view, however, Law comes from God before whom we are like animals in that we cannot expect to understand His reasoning. We must simply obey. This conflict between Law and Ethics, between unreasoned duty to God and reasoned responsibility to animals thus divided the Jewish response to the AgriProcessor scandal, as Gross explains, as it also led to movements for “religious ethical certification” within Reform movements.

Conflict over the meaning and purpose of Halakha or Jewish law, is nothing-new debate, and conflicting interpretations are inherent to the prolific commentaries that accompany Jewish scripture. But what Gross insightfully traces is a tension between interpretations that emphasize the importance of human transcendence and those that prioritize humane behavior and the prevention of suffering. For example, in Deuteronomy it is written that “If you happen to come upon a bird’s nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young” (Deut. 22:6). According to one interpretation, this law is meant to relieve the mother bird from suffering, and thus to teach compassion for her. But a different interpretation sees the law as prohibiting a “disposition of cruelty.” While only a slight difference, it nevertheless shifts the focus from the animal to the human, such that the bird is a means for teaching a Jew how to be disciplined, on the assumption evident, for instance, in Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae 1a.2ae.102.6-8) that cruelty to animals is not wrong in its own right, but only because it will lead to cruelty to humans. This shift is significant, and what we see is that the divide between Orthodox and Liberal and between Law and Ethics might also be characterized by the prioritization of the human over and against the humane. Such is the tension he points out in Genesis, where humans are marked by their “dominion” or “ascendency” over animals “of the sea, sky, and land,” but also restrained by commandments compelling acts of kindness and care towards animals, if not by explicit vegetarian commands. God says, “I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food,” (1:29-30) and God joins humans and animals with the command to “be fertile and increase” (1:28). Only after the deluge, seemingly as a divine concession to human violence, does God says that “every creature that lives shall be yours to eat” (9:3).

Dairy Cow, Central Malawi. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Dairy Cow, Central Malawi. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

As Gross turns from the original AgriProcessors event and towards the question of the animal in religion more generally, he shows how this tension between human and humane operates in the writings of some the most important scholars of religion, including Emile Durkheim, Ernst Cassirer, Mircea Eliade, and Jonathan Z. Smith. These are secular scholars almost by necessity, because the academic study of religion, we learn, only became possible when its laws became accessible to reason, hence, when religion moved away from the “divine side” thought to be beyond human comprehension. As theorists of religion made the divine accessible to the human, however, so did they affirm a wider separation between human and animal and insist on human “ascendancy” over the animal. Thus we find in Durkheim that the function of religion is to produce the human out of “the fodder of animality” in which he originates. For Cassirer, the human is defined against the animal by ‘his’ exclusive capacity for symbolic language. For Eliade, the human is animal plus the sacred. Such thinking reveals the way that religion participates in what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “the anthropological machine,” the historical and ongoing political process by which the human is produced through and out of what comes to be regarded as animal or animality — what thus can be discarded or eaten or killed with impunity. As J. Z. Smith also argues, however, this dividing the world into human and nonhuman threatens to become a means for dividing between the fully human “we” and a more primitive “them,” a division that has been and continues to be made around racial, ethnic, or cultural markers.

Smith thus reveals a dangerous slippage from speciesism (a term popularized by Peter Singer in 1975) to racism and ethnocentrism, which leads Gross to ask whether there might be some way of conceiving religion without the human/animal binary, if not of regarding non-human animals as religious subjects in ways that are not simply anthropomorphic. With a brief nod to earlier feminist arguments concerning the ways the human/animal binary often echoes and supports a gender binary, Gross insists upon the dangers of an anthropocentric acknowledgement that (some) animals can be “like us” where the “us” reifies Western, educated Man as the normative human. The point is not to simply include animals (like women or primitives) into the category of the fully human, but to understand how they may challenge our understanding of the religious subject (or the “subject of rights” within a legal discourse) and the capacities for reason or symbolic thought that are said to be integral to it. Gross turns to the anthropologist, Tim Ingold and to his study of the Cree—a hunter-gatherer society in Canada who are said to operate without concepts of human or animal, each being equally alive in a “field of relations, which, as it unfolds, actively and ceaselessly brings forms into being” in a process of ongoing “generation.” Such thinking about multiple religious actors might sound pantheistic, but it also bears resemblance to the vibrant players in “new materialisms” and actor network theory (ANT), which brings us to rethink the ways in which subjectivity always emerges through a process of relating to and interacting with human and nonhuman others and worlds. In such views, there is no autonomy to the human, either as individual or as species. To claim a religious foundation to this intra-activity (much like the sensual cosmologies advanced by the philosopher David Abrams, whom Gross does not mention), would indeed expand our understanding of religion, though how it might change our eating practices is not exactly clear. Where religious and animal studies scholars might concede the ways in which animals make the hunter and vice versa, Ingold’s arguments that “the hunter does not seek…control over animals; he seeks revelation,” or that if the hunters are successful, it is because “the animal has given itself to them,” imply a necessary disengagement with ethics in the acceptance of the divine (if not might makes right) that may be troubling for some scholars. The important point for Ingold and Gross is that animal and hunter are in an equal game of trust and chance in which both are subjects and neither can be sacrificed on account of a prior status or identity. But the example nevertheless suggests that the move away from normative definitions of subjective reason and towards “pathos” is also a move away from ethics and towards what might appear to be a more divinely inspired anthropocentrism.

If Ingold allows Gross to believe that we can and should extend the notion of “religious subjects” to non-human animals, Jacques Derrida might make us wonder whether “religious subject” is a term we want to hold onto at all, and if it would be better to do without it. Derrida has been crucial for showing how our very notions of subjectivity, of thought and of language are dependent upon a falsely derived category of “the animal” against which we define ourselves. At the same time, he shows how philosophy, like religion, has been complicit in hiding animals from us, hiding us from their own capacities for a (different) kind of thinking — or for making us question how we define what thinking is, if not why we reserve the capacity to humans alone. Above all, Derrida says that philosophy — like religion — hides us from seeing the animal who looks at us and has a point of view. If Ingold helps us conceive of a religious actor who is not strictly human, Derrida asks us to confront the blindness of our so-called humanity and the consequent violence of the religious subject that humanism endorses — a subject who is produced and authorized by the sacrificial structure that governs our relations with animals and authorizes the subjection of the nonhuman world. “We humans are the subjectivity that subjects.” Derrida calls it a “war” against all those whom we claim to be different, all those we include in the word “animal” (eliding any differences between animals). This war, which in the context of the factory farm Derrida even calls a genocide, is founded moreover on what he calls a “disavowal.” No rational calculation can draw a single dividing line between them and us, between the animal they are and the animal we are. And yet, it is such a line that authorizes, indeed requires the violability of the animal for our food, our science, our sport and, it would appear, our religious status. As Gross reads Derrida, we are brought to ask if the religious subject is then necessarily an inhumane subject. Who indeed are we if we can do this to them? And in whose or what name?

These are urgent questions for Gross that bring him back to the Torah. Refusing to accept that the practices exposed at AgriProcessors could be acceptable within the laws of Kashrut, Gross takes his reader through a number of canonical Jewish texts to show the weight given to kindness (as compassion and kinship) and to the construction of what he calls a humane subject (or alternatively, being a mensch) within the Talmud. Exemplary in this regard is the story of Judah ha-Nasi, a Rabbi who is punished with suffering for thirteen years for his indifference to the calf he leads to slaughter. On the way, the calf is said to have turned to the Rabbi and have wept in his garment receiving only the response, “Go, for this you were created.” Admitting, on the one hand, widespread discomfort with resistance on the part of a sacrificial animal (or, we could imagine any “food” animal), Gross nevertheless reads this as a story that frames animal vulnerability and the importance of showing compassion for another who merely wants to live. Indeed, it is only when Judah frees some young animals (perhaps rodents) about to be swept away from his floor that his sufferings are brought to an end.

As Gross ponders the meanings of these stories, he grapples with the religion he has studied and which he wants to reclaim in good conscience. The book is meant to be a reminder that “reverence for life” has always been a part of the Jewish tradition, and a plea that it should once again be the foundation of its laws. And it is a request to religious scholars more generally to see the role that animals have played in religion. We should not refuse the look of the animal, or like Judah Ha-Nasi be indifferent to it. Rather, we should acknowledge that she or he has a point of view, as Derrida would say (or has a face in the terms of Emmanuel Levinas), one which we must attempt, however imperfectly, to understand and to respond to with compassion. The problem for Gross is that the animal’s face is no longer visible in an age of factory farming; its invisibility is increasingly protected by so-called Ag gag laws. How then can one respond and keep kosher? What would it look like? These are questions, we can assume, which brought Gross to found “Farm Forward,” a nonprofit organization directed specifically against the methods of factory farming. Gross does not discuss this organization in the book, but its mission to reduce animal suffering and promote conscientious food choices by “bringing together the best in traditional husbandry and animal welfare science” is one activist’s response to the tension traced in the book between human and humane practices. Does this mean that the best way to respond with compassion is to kill more humanely? To kill with kindness?

At one point in the book, Gross comments on the power of the myth that one can be humane “precisely when we eat meat,” but it is ambiguous whether it is only a myth because of the inhumane practices in factory farming that pass as humane or because meat eating itself can never be humane. He does acknowledge that behind the plea for compassion and pathos, there lurks a troubling question: “We would do well to ask,” he writes, “if a structure of subjectivity that makes it acceptable to kill animals while understanding oneself as kind to them may also enable men to dominate women and Jews to demean non-Jews while understanding themselves as equally kind.” Here, in particular, is where a more extended engagement with the (largely feminist) work that has been done on the intersections of speciesism, sexism, and racism (from Carol Adams to Donna Haraway) would have been helpful. What Gross is referring to, I presume, is the way that kindness can mask a deeper and threatening paternalism, a sense of superiority as human that allows one to take pity on those who are understood to be lesser humans, or less than human.

Gross has done an excellent job of showing the ambiguous status of animals within religious and particularly kosher law. Their symbolic primacy cannot be denied insofar as being observant and accepting of divine law is understood to be a means for growing out of or transcending one’s animality. But dietary laws must deal with animals as more than symbols, or so Gross, like many others, rightly wants to believe. These laws should also deal with the animals as creatures who have their own lives, subjects who also feel pain. Having witnessed their pain, we as humans, should do what we can to prevent it. This, he argues, must also be reflected in the law, and he has shown that many interpretations of the Torah would concur. And yet, should we not also ask whether acknowledgment of suffering is enough? If we can be kind while killing is kindness enough? Is it enough that slaughterhouses are redesigned by the renowned Temple Grandin and so receive the mark of “humane?” If not, must we not, “sacrifice sacrifice” as Derrida asks, and regard slaughter itself as criminal? Gross does not offer any simple answers to these questions, insisting only that they are and should be religious questions. That means that we should attend to the reasons we do or do not eat animals, as much as to what kind of animals we eat (if we do), for these reasons are imbedded in the stories we tell about who we are and who we want to be as the animals who call ourselves human. It is with such stories, this book reminds us, that we negotiate the larger questions of being born into an unjust world, one in which we have the option of seeing or hiding from the fact that the lives of other animals matter to us, and to them.