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My grandfather was an egg farmer. He spent his days mixing food for the hens, while my mother collected the eggs. The chickens were raised in battery cages away from the house; the family never became attached to them, and felt no remorse selling them off to butcher shops when they outgrew their usefulness.
One year my grandparents bought a calf for the holiday meal. They raised it for several months in their back yard, by the house. My grandmother would feed it, and my mother and her siblings would play with it.
Then came the holiday, and the butcher was called. If this were a movie plot, the family would rush in at the last minute to stop the butcher; cue emotional music and a sequence of happy family photos with the young bull.
In reality, the calf was slain and eaten. But to this day, my mother remembers the family eating while crying for the slain calf.
I was reminded of this story while reading about a much more recent incident. But to provide context to those unfamiliar with Jewish history, we first have to take a short trip 3000 years to the past.
Ancient Israelites had made Jerusalem their capital, and built a Temple which was said to house the spirit of God. In the year 586 B.C., Babylonians invaded the city and tore down the Temple. It was re-constructed on the same spot, but destroyed again in the year 70 A.D. by the Roman Empire, which then went on to exile the Jewish people from Israel.
The destruction of the Temple is mourned to this day. Its only remnant is one of the supporting walls of the exterior complex, now called the Wailing Wall or Western Wall. It is considered the most sacred place of worship for modern-age Jews… except for Temple Mount, where the Temple itself once stood.
There, two Islamic monuments were erected: Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque. This congregation of holy sites makes Temple Mount one of the most highly-disputed territories in the world, and a key issue in the the Jewish-Arab Conflict. The last time an Israeli prime minister visited this location, a 5-year war ensued.
What does this have to do with slaying calves? Back in the days of the Temple, on specific holidays, Jews from all parts of Israel would make the journey to Jerusalem to worship God, and priests would sacrifice animals. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, animal sacrifice has not been a widespread practice in Judaism.
The majority of modern-day Jews have no interest in a Temple, much less so in animal sacrifice. However, there exists a minority that calls for the rebuilding of the Temple and return to old religious practices. They are considered extremists not only for their fascination with archaic customs, but also because any interference with Temple Mount is bound to start another war with the Muslim world.
Two weeks ago, when Israel and world Jewry were celebrating Passover, one such family posted a picture on Facebook that showed one of their children holding a sign that says: “Passover sacrifice is an essential need”. They were calling upon the Israeli government to allow animal sacrifice on Temple Mount, which they claim would hasten the reconstruction of a Third Temple. The picture also featured another type of kid: the baby goat destined for sacrifice.
If hunting is a common practice in your region, you may not see what the big deal is. But in Israel, unauthorised animal slaughter is forbidden, and most Israelis consider slaying animals in your back yard as barbaric. The picture of a child petting an animal meant for slaughter makes it even worse.
The post gained the attention of animal rights activists, who reported it to police and veterinary services. The goat was confiscated and transferred to a place called Freedom Farm Sanctuary, which cares for animals rescued from slaughter. It was named Roni.
Meanwhile the family received some very harsh comments on Facebook: They were called animal abusers, murderers, psychopaths, and horrible parents. They decided to have a phone conversation with the Freedom Farm, and came back with a pleasant message which opened with the following lines:
“It was nice talking to people who, despite holding opposite opinions to yours, still communicate respectfully. We were delighted to hear that our goat was put in good hands. We found out that we actually agree on a lot of things, and that conversation allows discovering more points in common than points of disagreement.”
The post went on to criticise the hypocrisy of allowing barbecues while forbidding animal sacrifice, explaining that sacrificed animals are also eaten, and that caring for them in private yards gives them better lives compared to industrial meat farms. The family believes that it is more educational and humane to raise your own meat than buy it at a supermarket while turning a blind eye to its origins.
If we strip away the religious symbolism and risk of starting a war on Temple Mount, the family raises some very valid points about the morals of animal husbandry.
Even vegans can probably agree that the worst part about consumption of animal products is not the act of slaying, but the cruel living conditions in pens and cages. Small private farms could certainly improve living conditions for livestock, and might even reduce overall animal slaughter, as raising animals takes more effort than buying neatly sliced meat.
The same principle can be applied to other food products, and other industries altogether. If every household raised its own fruit and vegetables, built its own furniture, sewed its own clothing – it would save a lot of waste, not to mention the pollution caused by shipping.
Which brings us to the main question of this story: Do industrialisation and modernity make us inherently less moral?
In many ways the answer is a resounding “Yes”. The comfortable modern lifestyle is wasteful and unsustainable; it involves the enslaving of farm animals and the destruction of natural habitats which puts other species at risk of extinction; it pollutes the planet and promotes global warming.
But I wish to theorise that modernity does have one moral benefit.
The more spoiled we become, the more shocked we feel when witnessing cruelty. You see, suffering has a desensitising effect. If we still had to slay our own meat, I doubt we would develop the collective conscience which allows us to even doubt the morality of consuming animal products.
By distancing ourselves from causing harm with our own hands, we develop a sense of moral superiority. Sure, it is based on self-delusion and hypocrisy: We cause just as much suffering by consuming supermarket meat (except for vegans, and even they need to repress other damages caused by their modern lifestyle). Still, this false sense of moral superiority has the potential of turning us into better people.
We have outlawed animal cruelty, slavery, rape, discrimination, and other immoral practices which used to be socially accepted until not long ago. We have implemented government programs to help the poor and the sick. We restore endangered species to nature, and actively strive to reduce our ecological footprint through recycling and the use of green energy. And we try to reduce the suffering of farm animals, while researching ways to create meat in labs.
Perhaps most significantly, modern technology allows us to overcome distance and language barriers, and connect with people from all over the world. This unity gives us strength to not only reverse the harmful effect of industrialisation, but also rise above regional conflicts and work together towards a better future for all.
As for Temple Mount? It will remain disputed for many years to come. But meanwhile, just 500 metres away, Jews and Muslims have gathered together to create this beautiful and heart-warming message of love:
Modernity has its drawbacks, but it is the only way towards a cruelty-free future, for people and animals alike.