This piece is excerpted from Rabbi Mosbacher’s chapter in “A Sacred Table” (CCAR Press).
[T]his past year I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals.” … Little that I read in Foer’s work surprised me, until I came to the section on fish. Those four pages … have challenged me, as a Jew and as a human being, to question the ethics of eating fish….
Foer disturbed and agitated me when he wrote, “Although one can realistically expect that at least some percentage of cows and pigs are slaughtered with speed and care, no fish gets a good death. Not a single one. You never have to wonder if the fish on your plate had to suffer. It did.” This was a stunning statement – one that Foer backs up by explaining the realities of both wild-caught and farm-raised fish….
The realities of aquaculture must make us cringe as Jews, we who are commanded not to cause undue suffering to animals. Farm-raised fish live in water that is so fouled and crowded that it makes it hard for them to breathe, and they cannibalize one another at a high rate. They have nutritional deficiencies that weaken their immune systems, and they are slaughtered in horrible, inhumane ways. Fish raised through aquaculture live in terrible suffering and die the same way. To combat the illnesses – parasitic bacteria, rickettsia, lesions – that farm-raised fish contract, producers introduce chemicals and medications. Millions of other fish destined for sale in the United States are raised with chemicals and drugs not approved for use in this country…. When we purchase most farm-raised fish, we are violating the values of both bal tashchit and tzaar baalei chayim by supporting an industry in which large-scale death rates and animal suffering are inherent in nearly all methods of aquaculture. The first value is drawn from a commandment given to us in Deuteronomy 20 not to wantonly destroy God’s creation, and the second value is rooted in the commandment from Exodus 23 to prevent suffering to animals.
Sadly, wild-caught fish are hardly a more humane alternative. While they live freely before they are caught, unfettered by cramped and filthy conditions, the methods of catching the sea animals we crave – trawling, longline fishing, purse seines – also kill millions of sharks, marlins, sea turtles, albatross, dolphins, and whales each year. This kind of “scorched-earth style of ‘harvesting’ sea animals,” where 80 to 90 percent of what fisheries catch – so-called by-catch – are thrown back, dead, into the ocean, goes against the value of bal tashchit in a way that we can no longer ignore as people of faith. This knowing wastefulness is akin to Maimonides’s teaching with regard to cutting down fruit trees:
“We do not cut down fruit trees outside the [besieged] city, nor do we take away from them the water channel so that they may dry up, as it says, ‘Do not destroy its trees’ [Deut. 20:19], and anyone who cuts down [such a tree] gets lashes. And [this rule is] not only during a siege, but at all places; anyone who cuts down a fruit tree in a manner of destruction is lashed.”
We cannot ignore the parallel between the cutting down of fruit trees in pursuit of a city and the cutting down of innumerable species in pursuit of the one or two most desirable ones. Maimonides makes this extrapolation explicit when he teaches further, “And it is not only trees, but anyone who breaks vessels, tears clothing, tears down a building, plugs a spring, or wastes food in a manner of destruction, transgresses ‘Do not destroy.'” When we consume wild-caught salmon or tuna, we are, at the same time, participants in a system that is wantonly destroying the diversity and vibrancy of God’s creation….
We can make knowledgeable and righteous consumer choices, using the power of the mighty dollar to help drive consumer demand for better, healthier, more humane options. And we can share what we know with others, inviting them to join us in striving to improve the system, using the power of people and faith to demand change from those with the power to make change.