God Squad: Moral diet doesn't guarantee a moral life

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God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday. ...

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I believe in the nonviolent teachings of Jainism (an Indian religion that predates both Hinduism and Buddhism). We teach this song to young Jain children. It expresses the belief in "ahimsa," which means the unconditional compassion for both animals and humans, and is the primary principle of the Jain religion of India:

"I will never hurt anyone.

Not with my words,

Not with a gun.

Not with my actions,

Not for fun.

I believe in ahimsa,

I will never hurt anyone."

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By contrast, young children of the Judeo/Christian tradition are taught this verse from Genesis 9:2-3:

"The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything."

What was the shooter in Newtown, Conn., taught that turned him into a mass murderer? When religion teaches that it's appropriate to kill defenseless, harmless chickens, cows, pigs and other animals, the list can easily be extended by troubled, alienated young adults to include children. It's impossible to plead for mercy when we don't have it for others. The result is sorrow.

Why are there no vigils for the 59 billion animals killed every year to satiate the appetites of those who claim the right to kill in the name of religion?

-- R., via email

@Newsday

Thank you for your defense of absolute nonviolence. However, while I deeply admire your respect for life, I deeply disagree with your profound moral and spiritual stance in our violent and broken world.

The first time I learned that Jains often cover their faces to avoid accidentally inhaling an innocent insect, or sweep the path before them as they walk to avoid stepping on one, I realized that Jains were profoundly serious about ahimsa/nonviolence. Jains also teach a profound humility called anekantaveda, which I'm sorry to say may not be totally present in your question, particularly in your jarring connection between eating meat and slaughtering little children.

Do you really believe that the sick shooter set out on his rampage because he ate hamburgers? This reminds me of signs I've seen at vegetarian rallies trumpeting the slogan, "Meat is Murder!" I am truly open to the moral claims of vegetarianism, but such moral overreaching stretches a profound moral critique to the breaking point.

Hitler was supposedly a vegetarian. A moral diet is no guarantee of a moral life. Furthermore, the Jain teaching of anekantaveda also requires you in humility to respectfully consider opposing beliefs and remember that any philosophy or religion, including Jainism, which dogmatically asserts its beliefs, is committing a grave spiritual error, which requires all of us to consider our views of morality and human existence to be limited and flawed.

So let me try to help you become a better Jain, as you have helped me become a better Jew. There is reason to believe that living beings occupy different levels of moral significance. Eating a chicken may be morally wrong, but it's clearly not the same moral transgression as eating a person. The passage you cited from Genesis actually conveys the profound moral sophistication you say you're seeking. At first, God only allowed Adam to eat vegetables and fruit in the Garden of Eden. God only gave people permission to eat meat after the flood as a clear concession to human weakness, not as a clear moral good.

The killing of disease-bearing pests or infestations of crop-killing insects is not a mere moral concession; it's a moral requirement for feeding the world -- even if you only want to feed the world vegetables. The killing of invaders who want to enslave people or commit genocide is a moral requirement for freedom and for life, even if it causes the death of enemy combatants. The Jain tradition, as I learned it, in fact agrees with this exception to ahimsa and defends killing in national defense during wartime.

The largest point I would make to you is that life here on earth requires many compromises with pure morality. Ethics is, after all, the resolution of conflicts between two different and often opposing moral goods.

To imagine that we can live our lives with our faces covered is beautiful on one level and deeply naive on another level. I might, in fact, come closer to agreement with you . . . were it not for the mice in my cupboard. Peace.

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