In the Jewish belief system, perhaps no value is more universally recognized than tikkun olam — literally, repair the world.
Perhaps because we have encountered tremendous tragedy and adversity ourselves, and because of the extent of suffering in the world, Tikkun Olam has emerged as a kind of master value for Jews. There are few Jewish households in which giving back and helping others is not frequently talked about as of primary importance. As the Talmud says “the world depends on your one good deed.”
But an ethical code can raise as many questions as it answers. How did Tikkun Olam emerge as a central tenet of Judaic values? How can we balance prioritizing our own needs versus those of others? Should Jews help our kind first, or is everyone equally deserving of charity?
What about the well-being of the animals we share this planet with and the ecosystems we depend on? I have wondered if the Jews’ conception of their directive to repair the world is cast too narrowly, ignoring suffering that is not exclusive to humans.
Today, Jews and non-Jews alike practice tikkun olam primarily by directing their efforts toward human needs. By some estimates, 97% of charitable donations go to our fellow humans — causes that aren’t animal or environmental-related — with religious donations making up more than a quarter of all money donated. In an evolutionary sense, this is understandable; we relate and identify most closely with our species and feel a duty to ease human suffering.
Perhaps we should find a Jewish responsibility beyond our fellow Homo Sapiens? Suppose we all embraced the scientific finding that most animals have the same capacity to feel as humans do? In that case, we might be forced to acknowledge that there is still much suffering for society to repair — suffering that we are creating.
I imagine many readers may think that before we tackle any animal-related suffering, we should ensure that no humans suffer anywhere, period. In response, I might argue that these two issues are not mutually exclusive — we can end unimaginable animal suffering, while simultaneously working toward a day where no human suffers. In fact, reducing animal suffering may in many ways lead to less human suffering, like in the live wildlife markets in China believed to be the origin of COVID-19.
In the U.S. alone, more than 9 billion animals are killed for human consumption annually. It’s not just that these animals are killed — the suffering they endure in their short, confined lives is unimaginable. There are many negative consequences for humans due to the factory farming system we have created, in which 99% of animals in our country are trapped.
This extends beyond the species we consume to those we live with and love. Last year, more than 500,000 domesticated animals were euthanized in shelters — despite the substantial increase in adoptions during the pandemic. Thousands upon thousands of feeling, breathing, emoting animals are tragically cut down early, based largely on the caprices of humans.
In shelters and animal control facilities, they experience observable fear and anxiety, commonly crammed into cages on concrete floors. Not every facility has these conditions, but our local Detroit Animal Care and Control and virtually every other city shelter do.
Like Joyce Tischler, founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and many others, I believe that as Jews, our obligation to reduce the suffering in the world extends to our animal counterparts. If the world depends on your one good deed, then surely the lovely, wonderful animal you meet at your local animal shelter or on Petfinder, waiting for their home, their fate uncertain, often languishing, and distressed depend on it acutely.
I admit that I have not always perfectly adhered to the values I now preach. For example, when my father and I decided to add a dog to our family for the first time, in 2011, I had no idea about the harsh economy of pets. We chose, as many families do, to purchase a yellow labrador from a breeder. At the same time, I ate hamburgers, chicken finger pitas, and everything else under the sun.
Since then, though, I have become aware of the conception that this food on my plate is not just food — that it was once a living, breathing, feeling being — I could no longer ignore the contradiction of this choice with my Jewish values. In the past decade, I have become a committed vegetarian. Adopting two dogs and fostering others has been the most rewarding choice of my life.
If we expand our conception of tikkun olam, then we might gradually, one choice at a time, transform our cruel and wasteful agriculture system into a compassionate, sustainable one. In the process, we will not only do ourselves tremendous good — and perhaps prevent the next pandemic — but we can wind down the greatest source of suffering on our planet today.
Our revised conception of tikkun olam might also carry us to our local shelter to volunteer or to give a dog or cat — that has experienced separation, abandonment, hunger or worse and yet has so much love to give — a home.
We are all God’s creatures. If humans are the ones created in God’s image, we have that much more responsibility to our fellow living things:
… And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.