Reconstructionist Judaism, the small, progressive religious movement in which I was raised, is built around a deceptively simple mantra: “The past has a vote, not a veto.” That nugget of wisdom — attributed to the movement’s founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan —encapsulates much of what I appreciate about Reconstructionism. I have long found it difficult to value Jewish teachings, some of which date back literally millennia, that contradict my most deeply held beliefs.
Old laws, whether religious or secular, must be tested regularly to ensure they still make sense in a contemporary context. When that doesn’t happen, we end up with antiquated regulations, still embarrassingly on the books, that say donkeys aren’t allowed to sleep in bathtubs. Yet my largely newfangled worldview and some tenets of traditional Judaism do overlap on occasion.
Such was the case when I looked into a comment someone made in the Facebook group God Save us from Your Opinion: A Place For Serious Discussion of Judaism. The commenter stated that hunting for sport is not allowed in Judaism because it violates the commandment of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the prohibition against unnecessary cruelty to animals, about which I’ve written before. It turns out that the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, whose interpretation of Judaism isn’t generally progressive, does come down on what I’d consider the enlightened side of the animal rights issue.
In an essay for Chabad.org titled “The Jewish View on Hunting for Sport,” Baruch Davidson notes, correctly, that nowhere in the Ten Commandments do we read: “Thou shall not hunt for sport.” Still, he writes, a line of reasoning that runs from Psalms 1:1 through the Talmud to the legendary commentator Rashi makes hunting seem like “not a good sport for a nice Jewish boy or girl.”
That verse from Psalms goes like this: “The praises of a man are that he did not follow the counsel of the wicked, neither did he stand in the way of sinners nor sit in the company of scorners.” The Talmud clarifies that “ ‘neither did he stand in the way of sinners’ refers to one who does not attend kenigyon.” And what, you ask, is kenigyon? According to Rashi, the word refers to “hunting animals, using dogs, and their entire intent is for play and fun.”
The upshot of Davidson’s article, and the interpretation of Judaism he invokes, is that Jews are not to treat living things in a frivolous way. He observes that Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, aka the sixth Chabad Rebbe, “was rebuked by his father when he mindlessly tore a leaf off a tree.” This degree of concern for even plant life brings to mind Buddhism as much as Judaism, yet Jewish theology clearly prioritizes life and decries the needless infliction of pain, to say nothing of unnecessary killing. As both a vegetarian and an admirer of Buddhist thought and spiritual practice, I appreciate this instance of common ground between Chabad’s perspective and mine.
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