Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Foie Gras

Rabbi Daniel Lapin

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Joe Moore is an alderman of the City of Chicago. He is a liberal Democrat. A very liberal Democrat. You know that I agree with liberal Democrats about as often as a vegetarian agrees with a cannibal but today I agree with Alderman Moore. Alderman Moore said:

Our laws are a reflection of our culture and our culture does not condone cruelty and torture ... Laws define our values and mores ... .They define what's right and wrong.

He used these words about a new ban in Chicago forbidding the selling of foie gras. For the non-epicureans among my readers, I understand that this unpronounceable French term is a delicacy made from the liver of overfed geese.

Personally, I have never eaten foie gras and have gone merrily though life without even thinking about the stuff. But this is not on account of any particularly warm, fuzzy feelings about geese. Foie Gras is just something to which I have not given much thought. However I have thought long and hard about Chicago's blow to gastronomes, the foie gras ban.

What could Alderman Moore have meant when he banned foie gras by saying "our laws were a reflection of our culture?" I'll tell you what he meant. He was saying that he wants to force his values down my throat (or in this case use his values to keep something from being forced down the throats of geese).

Of course when Comrade Joe says "our culture," he implies universal agreement with his ideas. Yet he knows that speaking of "our culture" in America today is ludicrous. The Democratic Party, of which he is such a staunch supporter, believes in multiculturalism which is just another way of proclaiming that there is no such thing as "our culture." Imagine Alderman Joe's indignation if he heard me saying that "our culture" opposes cruelty to unborn children. He might even accuse me of forcing my values down his throat.

Yet I strongly agree with Chicago's tummy tyrant when he maintains that our laws reflect our values and mores. He is paraphrasing my regular radio credo that politics is nothing more than the practical application of our most deeply held values. Alderman Joe and Rabbi Daniel agree that all laws reflect underlying values. The canyon cutting through our culture today is about deciding whose values should be used to determine those laws.

What do my values say about goose liver? Without any doubt Judaism prohibits inflicting gratuitous pain on any living creature. (Part of the reason for this prohibition is to advance human refinement--when a person torments an animal, it hurts the animal but it also damages the soul of the person) However Judaism equally certainly allows the eating of meat.

The sticking point is how we define gratuitous pain. Does it mean slowly drowning a kitten or does it include eating meat? PETA, the group whose video influenced Chicago lawmakers, believes that eating any animal is cruel and immoral. In the words of one president of PETA, "A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."

Does PETA think all slaughter of animals is cruelty and torture? The Bible does not agree. A critical Biblical belief, underpinning the first few chapters of Genesis, is that people and animals are two totally different categories. Unlike the children's game where one classifies everything as animal, vegetable or mineral, the Bible adds a fourth category -- human. Humans are permitted to use animals for labor, clothing, and food even though this takes animal life. One important proviso is that the human eating the animal must elevate himself above the moral level of animal by discipline and self-restraint. Otherwise the animal's sacrifice has been meaningless in the overall context of God's universe.

Joe Moore has concluded that preparing foie gras involves cruelty and torture and is thus against his morals and values. Others, including many veterinarians do not agree with that assessment. Most people, like me, haven't thought much about it. However the question for all Americans now is which of the following three choices Joe should make.

  • Joe could simply renounce foie gras himself as an expression of his personal morality.
  • oe could try to persuade others of his moral view and urge them not to patronize establishments that serve it.
  • Joe could use the cudgel of government to force us all to live by his morals and values.

We all know that Alderman Moore made choice number 3 though we have no idea of the source for his morals and values. Perhaps they are his family traditions. Maybe they stem from deep and serious thought or they might emanate from a Magic 8 Ball. Had he attributed his beliefs to God and the Bible there would have been an outcry. Though in banning foie gras he invoked God a little differently:

We as a society believe all God's creatures should be treated humanely.

Personally I think his statement of belief might also apply to partial-birth-abortion, but maybe he sees things differently from me.

Personally I think his statement of belief might also apply to partial-birth-abortion, but maybe he sees things differently from me. You see, that is the difficulty with beliefs. Again, the question is why should his be self-evidently true while mine are disqualified because they are Biblical in origin?

Moore is entitled to his view and his right to try and influence others. I don't think his mention of God invalidates his view. Maybe he would support Toward Tradition's effort to teach that in America values are valid even if they radiate from traditional Biblical belief.

I would welcome the support of a liberal Democrat. Especially one comfortable with the phrase "our culture." He could explain that in opposing abortion, Rabbi Daniel is not forcing his morals and values down people's throats anymore than in opposing goose-liver, Alderman Joe is forcing his morals and values on people. I am grateful to Alderman Moore for exposing the hypocrisy behind those who attack religious conservatives for trying to influence the culture in the direction of their beliefs. As he insisted, we all have our value systems and want to live in a society that as much as possible parallels that system.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin. Read the entire article on the Toward Tradtion website (new window will open). Reprinting allowed with attribution.

Posted: 13-May-06

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