One of the reasons my wife and I have such a good marriage is that we allow each other small indulgences. These take the edge off the daily grind of stinky diapers and dirty dishes. Jessica appreciates it when I keep our little sons occupied so she can paste family photos in her scrapbook. My special treat is being allowed to watch the evening news in peace.
Yet on a sweltering day in August, as my then-pregnant wife finished preparing dinner in our sixth-floor Bronx apartment, I made a request that I knew would test her saintly tolerance: I strode into the kitchen and announced that I would like to begin keeping kosher.
Jessica looked at the meal she had spent the last hour making—roast beef, baked potato with melted butter and a fresh salad with bacon bits. After an uncomfortable silence, she rolled her eyes and said, “If you insist on starting this interreligious dietary experiment tonight, you’ll be sleeping on the couch!”
The question of Christians observing biblical dietary laws was addressed in the earliest days of the church. According to Acts 15, Peter, Paul, James and John agreed that Gentile converts would not have to follow Jewish laws, specifically circumcision and dietary regulations, in order to become Christians. But considering the relationship we modern Christians have with the animals we eat, biblical dietary laws might again have a place in our religious observance.
Much of the meat we consume is raised, slaughtered and prepared in the confines of factory farms. The treatment of animal life in these places is torturous, cruel, abusive and inhumane. A cursory search of the Internet will uncover gruesome videos of defenseless chicks having their little beaks clipped with hot scissors, turkeys living in cramped, sweltering, dark coops and cows having their tracheas removed while still conscious.
Our impersonal and often cruel treatment of animals contradicts the responsibility we are given as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, a special status that explicitly obligates us to look after the well-being of other creatures. The Jewish tradition in which our faith is rooted has long interpreted the keeping of dietary restrictions as a reminder of God’s command to exercise “dominion” over the earth and all other living creatures.
The first chapter of the Book of Genesis (1:26) links the affirmation that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (a concept often referred to as the imago Dei) with our stewardship of animal life:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
Many theologians have interpreted the imago Dei as referring to attributes unique to the human person: the immortal soul, the intellect and our ability to love. Recent biblical scholarship, however, has recovered an additional meaning: a relational dimension. This interpretation underscores that we are able to relate to the Creator in a way not conferred upon other creatures and also that we are to act as God’s viceroys vis-à-vis the nonhuman world.
Genesis 1 stresses the special nature of the relationship between human and animal, strongly suggesting that animals, at least in the mind of the author of this account, are the subjects of our kingly stewardship of creation. In illustrating the singularity of this relationship, many scholars hold that the order of creation in Genesis 1 can be characterized as concentric circles that represent increasing levels of intimacy with God. Humans and animals share the same circle, thus the same level of closeness with the Creator. The two also share the same table: The Creator explicitly tells both that they “have been given every green plant for food” (Gn 1:30). The verse suggests that it is God’s intention that the relationship between humanity and animals not be marked by bloodshed or violence.
Not until Gn 9:3 is the prohibition against eating animal flesh relaxed, though it includes restrictions: One is not to eat the blood of any animal. Blood, in the religious imagination of the ancient Israelites, symbolized the life force they believed belonged solely to God.
The Old Testament adds further boundaries to our use of animals for food by prohibiting their abuse and mandating that we accord them respect and dignity. The Book of Deuteronomy, for instance, forbids the taking of a mother bird along with her young or the boiling of a young goat in its mother’s milk. Leviticus commands that no animal be castrated or mutilated. Rabbinical regulations build on these texts by mandating that an animal be slaughtered in a manner that causes it no anxiety or pain. Each precept is grounded in the belief that animals can suffer emotional trauma.
The New Testament also views animals in the context of a relationship with humans that carries ethical imperatives. The theologian Joshua M. Moritz, in his essay “Animals and the Image of God in the Bible and Beyond,” notes several instances in which Jesus shows compassion for animals. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus goes to “be with the wild animals” (Mk 1:13). Moritz argues that the Greek construction of this phrase strongly conveys a positive sense of friendship and companionship.
Other Gospel stories record Jesus teaching that mercy should be extended to animals much as one would to a person. Perhaps the most familiar stories touching on this subject portray Jesus in debates about Sabbath observance: “If one of you has a small animal or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” (Lk 14:5). Such passages suggest that Jesus looked upon animals with gentleness and care, much in keeping with tenets of his ancient biblical faith.
Contemporary Church Teaching
The modern church has also spoken to the issue of animal welfare. A growing body of theological reflection has concluded that ethical treatment of nonhuman creatures is an issue of justice and mercy. Pope Benedict XVI, when serving as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stated, “A sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible” (God and the World: A Conversation With Peter Seewald).
While the Bible describes the relationship between humans and animals as one to be governed by ethical norms, and contemporary theologians explore the moral implications of our use of animal life, little in Catholic piety reminds the faithful of our foundational command to exercise custodianship over other creatures. Judaism, by contrast, has maintained its dietary restrictions, which call to mind this responsibility whenever a Jew sits down to eat.
According to Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donim, author of an exhaustive guide to Orthodox living entitled To Be a Jew, Orthodox theologians have long interpreted dietary regulations as a way of instilling in Jews an aversion to bloodshed and a sensitivity for all living creatures. But while these laws are grounded in solid biblical precepts and convey a spirit of solidarity and respect for animal life, can they play a role in Christian piety?
Granted, for the non-Jew, adherence to kosher laws would be vexing if not impossible. Nonetheless, the observance of some biblically based dietary laws by Catholics might be helpful as a reminder of the care, compassion and mercy God has commanded us to show our fellow, nonhuman creatures. A few simple restrictions—like eating the meat only of animals slaughtered in a humane fashion, abstaining from the mixing of dairy and meat products and making an effort to clean the flesh of blood—might serve to remind us of the life that has been sacrificed for our sustenance.
Christian theology has long recognized that all human beings, because we are created in the image and likeness of God, are deserving of dignity. But our commissioning as the imago Dei also calls us to a relationship of care for other creatures, a sacred task we often neglect. The dietary regulations of our ancestors in faith serve to remind God’s people of our obligations to our animal companions. The great rabbis have long held that if our relationship with the animal world could be purged of savagery and unnecessary violence, so might our relationship with our fellow human beings. Perhaps there is still a place for those observances in the life of modern-day Christians—even in a Bronx apartment.