Elephants, tigers, bears and other animals are used for entertainment in circuses. Extravagant animal acts at the circus seem like an age-old tradition that has been part of the fabric of society for eons. The circus is a rite of passage of childhood. But are they Kosher?
I hadn’t considered too much the moral or Halachic implications of the circus until a recent conversation with animal conservationist Ady Gil.
Ady is a world-famous activist who brings a unique person-to-person approach to environmental activism. He believes that the best way to get people to change is through education, to engage them in conversations, show them films, and discuss alternatives with them. From rare eagles in Israel, to whales in the South Pacific, and puppies in North America, Ady is a protector of those without a voice.
Ady wasn’t always a prominent, full-time activist. Ady, Israeli by birth, created a very successful niche production company that works on virtually every major awards show on television including The Grammy Awards and The Emmys, as well as talk shows including The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Dr. Phil and Jimmy Kimmel Live. However, production is not as close to his heart as the animals and so Ady sold most of his business, retiring from the world of show biz, to devote his time and resources to his passion - protecting animals.
The bad news about animal use in circuses, Adi explained, is that the animals are frequently subjected to abuse and neglect as they are trained, housed, and transported. If this is the case, the question of whether the circus is “kosher,” or not is not simply academic. Circuses may be transgressing the Jewish edict of tzaar ba’alei chaim, the commandment to avoid inflicting gratuitous pain on animals.
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 32-33) indicates that tzaar ba’alei chaim is prohibited by the Torah explicitly. According to Rabbi Howard Jachter, the Torah expresses its concern for tzaar ba’alei chaim many times. For example, “the Mitzva to unload a donkey from its heavy load, the prohibition to muzzle an animal while it is threshing, the prohibition to plow with two different types of animals…are a few examples of expressions in the Torah that we not harm an animal needlessly.” The same laws form the basis of the prohibition on recreational hunting,
If circuses are not “kosher” what can be done?
Adi believes that one of the ways we can do something about the fate of these animals is simply to not support circuses that have animal acts. While this may sound like a bummer, most kids would be upset if they learned that animals can be mistreated as part of the training and performance regimen. The use of animals for the circus is certainly unnecessary to create a marvelous experience. Consider that the most popular circus company in the world, CIrque Du Soleil, creates memorable, incredible circus performances without the use of live animals.
Why is this issue pressing now for Adi? The main purveyor of these acts today, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, are performing now at the Honda Center in Anaheim and then in Ontario and Bakersfield, over the next weeks. If you think that these circuses are not “kosher” you may want to consider another family activity. Adi’s points out that without an audience, animal-centered circuses will not be profitable, and they will forgo these acts or fold altogether. In addition, there are animal groups that adopt unwanted circus animals.
And keep your eyes open — Adi has purchased billboards and even driven mobile advertising trucks he created in order to educate the public about the circus.
Yonah Bookstein, a leading voice of the next generation of American Jewry, is an internationally recognized expert in Jewish innovation, founder of the Jewlicious Festival, and executive rabbi at JConnectLA. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiYonah
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