ENCINO, Calif., Nov. 9 (JTA) – Judaism commands us to be kind to animals.
Thus I don’t eat them and I don’t keep them as pets. But this Thanksgiving, I’ve gone a step further. I’ve rescued one.
“Oh great, you adopted some foul fowl,” my husband, Larry, says.
“Not any old fowl,” I answer, “but Pumpkin, a 40-pound domestic white turkey who was found abandoned at a hatchery loading dock. I saved her life.”
Indeed, Pumpkin will be served a scrumptious Thanksgiving feast instead of being served as one.
She will dine on cranberries, grapes, lettuce, popcorn and pumpkin pie with her fellow feathered friends at a farm sanctuary in upstate New York.
“But you can’t have Thanksgiving without the turkey,” my three omnivorous sons, aged 16, 13 and 11, protest. “It’s tradition.”
Even the 9-year-old vegetarian, who won’t share a tube of toothpaste with his meat-eating brothers, chimes in. “It’s tradition. Like when you make latkes for Chanukah, you have to kill some potatoes.”
But, ironically, turkey, by most accounts, was conspicuously absent from the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621.
The feast, most likely a customary fall harvest festival for both cultures, consisted of foods such as cornmeal mush, nuts, fruits, popcorn and breadstuffs. Meat, if there was any, was probably some deer meat and game birds. Or perhaps some fish.
Turkeys came later. As did the actual holiday, which was not officially proclaimed and uniformly celebrated until Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, designated the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.
And 11 years later, the first Thanksgiving Day football game was played, introducing yet another tradition popular in my testosterone-heavy household.
But, for me, Thanksgiving has become less about calorie consumption and combat and more about compassion.
For it was 10 years ago, while preparing one of Pumpkin’s predecessors, that I became acutely aware that the poor bird, never mind that it could drown itself if it looked up during a rainstorm, was once a living creature. On the spot, I became a vegetarian.
But it was thousands of years ago that the Torah taught us the mitzvah of “tza’ar ba’alei chayim,” which literally means “not causing pain to animals.” Maimonides, the medieval sage, traces this command back to Numbers 22:32, where the angel of the Lord says to Balaam, “Why have you beaten your ass these three times?”
Other biblical laws involving compassion toward animals abound. Deuteronomy 11:15, “I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle – and thus you shall eat your fill,” has been interpreted by the Talmudic rabbis to mean that a person should not eat or drink before providing for his animals. And Deuteronomy 22:10 states, “You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together.”
Judaism, however, clearly differentiates human life from animal life, always stressing the unique value of humans. But the two are not unrelated. As Maimonides says, “If the law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be not to cause grief to our fellow man.”
Plus, it’s not by chance that some of America’s most notorious mass murderers, including Albert DeSalvo, the “Boston Strangler,” and Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibalistic murderer, tortured and killed small animals as children.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of a Nobel Prize in literature and dedicated vegetarian, once said, “How can we pray to God for mercy if we ourselves have no mercy?” He added, “I personally believe that as long as human begins will go on shedding the blood of animals, there will never be any peace.”
But life is full of compromises. After the flood, for example, during a period of declining moral standards, of men eating limbs torn from living animals, God concedes to man the right to eat meat. He stipulates in Genesis 9:4, however, that “flesh with its life, which is its blood, you shall not eat,” meaning that the animal must be killed and the blood, synonymous with life, removed.
And I’ve conceded to my family the right to eat turkey at our Thanksgiving feast. Though this year, in an acknowledgment of what she calls my “increased evangelicalism,” my mother has willingly agreed to cook a free-range turkey, one not genetically engineered nor inhumanely raised under “factory farm” conditions. “Besides,” she says, “It tastes better.”
For my part, I will be bringing the traditional carrot pudding and the increasingly traditional vegetarian nut loaf. I will also be bringing, with the hope of inaugurating a new Thanksgiving custom and instilling an increased awareness of the sanctity of all life, a framed photograph of my adopted turkey, Pumpkin.
(Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.)