This week I received the following e-mail from a reader of The Fly Fishing Rabbi:
Dear Rabbi Eisenkramer,
I recently converted (Conservative) to Judaism, but have moved and I'm in-between synagogues. I am a avid fly fisherman, practice catch and release, and by profession, am a buyer (including fly fishing gear) for a chain of specialty outdoor stores in the Washington, D.C. metro area. I enjoy fly fishing, more for the appreciation of the outdoors I gain when I'm out on a river than pursuing the largest brownie or rainbow. However, while "synagogue shopping," more than one congregant told me that recreational, or sport fishing isn't kosher -- it's not humane treatment of animals, or tzaar baalai chayim. When I fish, I feel much in tune with the magnificence and intricacies of nature, of G*d's creation. I'm unsure of how to interpret or balance these seemingly opposing concepts. Ethically, I want to do the right thing. Any insight you could share with me would be much appreciated.
Thank you for your thoughtful and important e-mail. You speak of two Jewish values which are both relevant to fly-fishing: humane treatment of animals, called in Hebrew tzaar baalai chayim, and appreciation of nature and God’s creation.
For Jews, the ethical treatment of all living things is central to our religion. The laws of keeping kosher which regulate what Jews can and cannot eat, are designed with the welfare of animals in mind. For example, the knife you use to slaughter a cow must be extremely sharp as to not cause the animal any excess pain. The concern for all living things also applies to plants and trees. In the book of Deuteronomy, we read that when going to war, the Israelites are not to chop down trees in a besieged city for “are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you?” (Deut. 20:19)
Along with a concern for all life, Judaism also values nature’s beauty. As you describe, one of the wonderful things about fly-fishing is being out in nature. I relish the time I spend in the river. Feeling the chill of the water, hearing the sounds of the insects, watching the river flow by ever so slowly. When I am fishing, I cannot help but think of God. Contemplation of nature is one powerful route to faith. For only God could create such magical and beautiful places.
To get to the crux of the issue, it appears that fly-fishing can pose an ethical conflict. One can appreciate nature and feel God’s presence in the outdoors without engaging in an activity that is harmful to other living creatures. Would it not make more sense to go hiking in nature, rather than fly-fishing? Is fly-fishing an inhumane act? There are ways that I try to justify my love of fly-fishing even though it sometimes feels cruel. Catch-and-release fishing, where all the fish are returned to the stream, feels more ethical than killing all the fish you catch. When I am fishing, I actually do keep the larger fish. Then I feel that I am fishing for a purpose, for food.
In Judaism, fishing for sustenance is surely acceptable. In the Garden of Eden, human beings were vegetarian. Then after the story of Noah’s ark and the flood, God permits the eating of living creatures, including meat and fish. Many people see this progression as a concession to humanity. Ideally we would be vegetarian, since it is more humane. Yet God understood that we desire to eat meat and allowed it. When fly-fishing for food, I feel a bit more on solid ethical ground.
However, even with the justifications (rationalizations?) described above, I still sometimes feel guilty when fly-fishing. And I am not sure there is any way around it. In fact, I would say that feeling a bit guilty about fly fishing is probably a good thing, if that guilt motivates us to be as humane as possible with the fish.
To answer your question, I believe that one can be a Jewish fly-fisherman or woman. I am. Fly-fishing is a beautiful and wonderful activity that can lead us to feel close to God. And it can also be ethically challenging. As Jews, our task is to make fly-fishing, and all activities in our lives, as ethical and upright as possible.