Another passage I liked from my recent re-reading of Isaac Bashevis Singer is from his story, “The Slaughterer.” In it, Yoineh Meir was to become the town’s rabbi, but he is instead compelled to become their ritual slaughterer, their butcher. His work eventually drives him insane, much to the oblivious astonishment of his wife, his daughters, indeed the whole town:
Since Yoineh Meir had begun to slaughter, his thoughts were obsessed with living creatures. He grappled with all sorts of questions. Where did flies come from? Were they born out of their mother’s womb, or did they hatch from eggs? If all the flies dies out in winter, where did the new ones come from in summer? And the owl that nested under the synagogue roof – what did it do when the frosts came? Did it remain there? Did it fly away to warm countries? And how could anything live in the burning frost, when it was scarcely possible to keep warm under the quilt?
An unfamiliar love welled up in Yoineh Meir for all that crawls and flies, breeds and swarms. Even the mice – was it their fault that they were mice? What wrong does a mouse do? All it wants is a crumb of bread or a bit of cheese. Then why is the cat such an enemy to it?
Yoineh Meir rocked back and forth in the dark. The rabbi may be right. Man cannot and must not have more compassion than the Master of the universe. Yet he, Yoineh Meir, was sick with pity. How could one pray for life for the coming year, or for a favorable writ in Heaven, when one was robbing others of the breath of life?
Yoineh Meir thought that the Messiah Himself could not redeem the world as long as injustice was done to beasts. By rights, everything should rise from the dead: every calf, fish, gnat, butterfly. Even in the worm that crawls in the earth there glows a divine spark. When you slaughter a creature, you slaughter God…