Circuses are not Jewish

Circuses are not Jewish

When I saw the announcement in the Jewish Standard that the Kelly Miller Circus would be performing at a Bergen County Jewish institution, I went online to find out more about this circus. If, like me, you do a Google search for Kelly Miller Circus, you’ll find several articles and YouTube links that claim Kelly Miller to be one of the leaders in circus animal abuse. One article referred to the “unending torture of animals” and described children witnessing “frightening mayhem and saddening abuse while attending this circus.” The article cited one young boy witnessing a worker beating a female elephant in the face with a bull hook. The article asked, “This is wholesome family fun?”

I have no personal experience of having witnessed this abuse, and Kelly Miller has refuted all charges, but I do know that circuses around the world are under scrutiny for the way they treat animals. I also know that tigers leaping through fire and elephants dancing are not forms of entertainment that Judaism sanctions. Judaism places great stress on proper treatment of animals. Tza’ar ba’alei chayim, cruelty to animals, is strictly forbidden, and in many cases, animals are accorded the same sensitivity as human beings.

So, why would a Jewish organization sponsor a circus? Why would a Jewish family attend a circus? Is it because we are so assimilated that we can’t see an American pastime for what it truly is?

The modern circus traces its history to the Roman Circus Maximus, an arena constructed between two of Rome’s seven hills, where Romans attended wild-animal displays. Although the events staged in the Circus Maximus began as benign entertainment, they became increasingly violent spectacles. The audience paid little attention to the slaves and animals injured or killed during these events because they were “nonpersons” in Roman law.

That is the antecedent of the modern circus. It was not a harmless entertainment in the past, and it is not a harmless entertainment in the present. Unlike the human performers who choose to work in circuses, wild animals are forced to take part in the show. They are involuntary actors in an insensitive spectacle. Born Free, an organization committed to keeping wildlife in the wild, campaigns to end the exploitation of performing animals by educating both the public and decision-makers about how animals suffer in circuses. You can read about their work at

Judaism always has recognized the link between the way a person treats animals and the way a person treats human beings. If we Jews really believed that, perhaps the circus would not be performing on the grounds of a Bergen County Jewish institution.